Jay, principal of Wewahitchka High School in Gulf County, had to fill 11 of 24 instructional positions for the upcoming school year—the most he ever faced at one time. It would not be easy, and he had just a couple of months before students returned.
“We made more than 80 calls to recruit the 11 people we needed this year,” Jay says. “We went through old yearbooks to find former students who went on to college, who had shown promise when they were here, and we called them.”
It paid off. Through dozens of calls to potential recruits and putting the word out to friends and family—sometimes via thin circuitous connections and beyond state lines—Jay reached teachers who willingly relocated, sought first-time or additional certification, and stepped in wherever needed.
Jay, 55, has always needed to be creative when filling teaching positions at the high school, which locals call Wewa (pronounced wee-wah). He became principal in 2014. Before that, he taught Spanish for 23 years, and coached cross- country and track for more than 20 years.
A Family Legacy
Education, and the town itself, course through both sides of his family tree.
A self-proclaimed “Wewa kid,” Jay grew up just 4 miles from the school and graduated in 1984.
He is attuned to the needs of his students and their families.
When hiring teachers, Jay looks beyond formal studies and degrees for personal interests, past gigs, unique talents and experiences. He probes for that special something. His goal is to develop instructional teams that provide enriching experiences and a solid knowledge base to 355 students in seventh through 12th grades who live in the rural town that goes by the same pet name as the school.
A drive 25 miles north or south on State Road 71 to Blountstown or Port St. Joe, respectively, parts curtains of timberland and national forest paralleling the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers.
Seeing the remote area explains why this principal often must grow his own educators and sometimes rely on his family connections to fill openings.
Jay’s brother Eric, 52, has been at Wewa for 20 years. He is certified to teach English, physical education, chemistry, environmental science, physical science, drama and TV production, and he runs the agriculture and drone programs.
Eric was dean, assistant principal and principal for other Florida school districts and is a licensed building contractor.
Jay says having his brother back on campus is like having an extra principal.
“Where the kids are, he’s right there,” Jay says.
It could be said the Bidwell family is an education dynasty in Gulf County. The Wewa campus has a good share of family members who answered Jay’s summons for talent, help, duty—whatever one might call it—in service to Wewa students.
In addition to Eric, there are two nephews, two aunts—one a retired attorney—and one son teaching at the high school. Another son teaches at the elementary school. Jay’s wife, April, is the technology coach at the elementary school. His youngest is majoring in elementary education at the University of West Florida.
Jay has lured teachers out of retirement and sent family for additional certifications to address instructional needs when it might have been too much to ask of someone else.
His father, David, was Gulf County School District superintendent in the 1970s, and his mother, Betty, taught English at Wewa for decades.
“Grandpappy was a paper mill worker, and he came up hard,” Jay says. “He pushed education, and all 10 of his children got at least an associate degree. Some got master’s degrees, and some went to law school.”
Finding a Community Connection
Wewahitchka—from the Native American term “water eyes”—is nestled just east of two almond-shaped bodies of water, lakes Julia and Alice. It is home to 2,074 residents and the famous tupelo honey that inspired the 1997 Peter Fonda movie “Ulee’s Gold.” Tupelo is rarer every season because of threats to trees and bees.
Wewa is not a beach town, though it is not far from the shore, and the soil is sandy. It feels Southern, but not in a magnolias and mint juleps kind of way. It is outdoorsy, capable and pragmatic.
It seems most folks own a boat of some type, and students talk about fishing.
“Britches” and “grand-youngin’” float from the mouths of all ages in hallways lined with metal lockers and glass trophy cabinets.
Hurricane Michael damaged the Panhandle town. Housing inventory—low even before the Category 5 hurricane roared ashore in 2018—is even leaner now. If Gulf County schools launched a slick recruiting campaign, there would be few places for incoming teachers to live.
Jay goes low-tech, tailoring his recruiting to the dreams he has for students.
“We have the best luck when we find people connected somehow to the community,” he says.
Jay seeks staff members who believe in public education, are deeply committed to students and who fit in with the family-like environment he cultivates.
There is the young real estate agent, Cheslee Williamson—third in the Wewa class of 2015. At age 24, she was conquering the Port St. Joe market, but at the end of each day, she wondered if she was really making a difference in the world. This past year, she taught seventh grade math and English.
David Peavey, a former corrections officer from Blountstown, started volunteering at Wewa when he and his wife, a nurse, realized he needed to make a life change for his health. He went back to school, obtained his certification and now teaches history at the school.
“I love, love, love this place,” David says, eyes closed—not for emphasis, really, but seemingly with a full heart for his colleagues and his good life. “This place feels like family to me. I have more friends here in Wewa than I have from Blountstown, and I grew up there.”
Cameron Lister, a young man with plans to be a youth minister at a local church, is staying on as a coach and civics teacher.
Gene Rollins, the assistant football coach who had a heart transplant in July 2021, was back on the field in August.
Carla Ferrell—a banker-turned-media-specialist—is preparing to be a guidance counselor. Banking was a career stop that lasted longer than she had planned—maybe longer than she really wanted.
A couple from New York relocated to teach at the school. Matthew Tscheider’s stepfather went to school with Jay at Wewa and connected him with Matthew. He and his fiancée, Erin Gannon, moved last summer to Mexico Beach. This past year, both taught English and reading. Erin also taught drama.
The couple are in the middle of a move to Port St. Joe to a home near the high school there, but Erin, 26, says they won’t consider a transfer. They are happy to make the 30-minute drive inland.
“We’re sticking with Wewa,” she says. “The kids are so special, and the other teachers are so welcoming. We were brand-new teachers with no classroom supplies, and colleagues offered things from their rooms—bought us little gifts. We never felt like we were in a new state. We felt like we were part of a family right away. And, Mr. Bidwell took a leap of faith with us.”
Meeting Student Needs
Jay seems to be doing something right.
Eddie Price, the welding and carpentry instructor, says commitment to the students runs in Wewa blood. Lots of people never leave, or they come back and often wind up serving at the school. It is among the most important work in town.
“I started at a paper mill when I was 18, worked on gas line pipes, on huge equipment, in fabrication shops, and I have never been without a job,” says Eddie, 62.
He wishes the same for Wewa students. Eddie guided his students in designing and fabricating the shop where they use torches and table saws and obtain industry certifications. He sees talent and is hopeful for their futures—hopeful they can stay in Gulf County after graduation and find work that pays well enough to support a family.
“Not every kid wants to get a four-year college degree,” Eddie says. “Some are great with their hands, and the world needs people who can build and repair things. At Wewa, we all come together for these students. We are focused on them. It’s just what we do.”
Eddie’s wife, Lori, is assistant superintendent for instruction and has invested 40 years in Gulf County schools. She attended Wewahitchka High School and says it felt special even back then, when it really mattered to her younger self.
“I was an Air Force brat,” she says. “From first through sixth grades, I attended seven schools. My dad was from Wewa and wanted to retire here, so we moved. It’s the only high school I ever knew, and everyone welcomed me like family.”
For Lori, Wewa literally is family. She met Eddie in high school. They married several years after graduation, and their three sons graduated from there.
Students are close. The school is small enough students move through grades with the same group of friends.
The entire town supports the school, even if a household has no children attending, Lori says, noting Wewa parents help raise each others’ children.
A Commitment to Excellence
Despite the challenges his hometown and the small high school he leads face, Jay says he is fortunate.
While growing up, he says he didn’t feel an inferiority complex but knows many of his students do—and he is fully aware the school is everything to the community.
It is the hub of care where children will not fall through the cracks.
After Hurricane Michael—and even more recently—a few teachers stepped up to foster children who were then and are now unhoused and parentless.
“We are a small school, but these kids are equal to students in bigger schools—and they deserve the same opportunities,” Jay says. “We need to convince them they can do anything, and I want them to find excellence here. We can be great, too.”
Sometimes, greatness takes a village—one like Wewahitchka, Florida.