Category Archives: Wellington Education

Putting The Needs Of Students First

Putting The Needs Of Students First
Polo Park Middle School Principal Michael Aronson Aims To Provide A Top-Notch Educational Environment

Story by Deborah Welky | Photos by Denise Fleischman

When Polo Park Middle School opened along southern Wellington’s fast-growing Lake Worth Road corridor in August 2000, it became the community’s second middle school.

Now 22 years later, Polo Park is led by Principal Michael Aronson, who has been serving in that position for four years, since taking over in August 2018.

Aronson grew up attending Broward County public schools, where he got an extra dose of attention in his early teen years.

“My mother taught at my middle school, so any time I remotely got into anything I wasn’t supposed to, she knew about it immediately and it was corrected quickly,” Aronson recalled. “So, my path was pretty straight and narrow.”

Yet in high school, a guidance counselor told him to give up the college prep classes he had been taking and get onto a vocational track. Fortunately, his college advisor disagreed.

“She was a big influence in my life,” Aronson said. “Her name was Patti Skelton, and she told me to do what I thought was best for me. She saw a different person in me than my guidance counselor saw. She thought I was destined for good things and that college should be in my future.”

Aronson took her advice, attaining both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia Southern University before becoming a physical education and health sciences teacher at a high school in Georgia.

“I considered becoming a college soccer coach but, once I got into education, within a couple of years, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Aronson said. “Seeing the difference I could make in kids’ lives, education was where I wanted to remain.”

Aronson later returned to Florida to teach physical education at Palm Beach Lakes and Wellington high schools. It was at Wellington High School that Aronson decided to pivot into administration, cheered on by then-Principal Cheryl Alligood, who went on to serve as chief academic officer for the School District of Palm Beach County.

“She would push me to get everything I needed to get done to become an administrator,” Aronson recalled. “She saw a lot of great leadership qualities in me. I had my degree when I moved to Florida, but there was a lot of red tape I needed to push through in order to get things done.”

That will to push through stood Aronson in good stead during the pandemic. “The biggest challenge for me as a principal has been getting through the last three years and getting the kids caught up to where they need to be,” he said. “They needed to get reacclimated to being back in the building. They needed to remember how to behave in a classroom. And they needed to get the information that they didn’t necessarily get while they were home, especially in math. We have an engineering program here at Polo Park Middle School, so STEM is big for our school. We needed to get them ready for that high level math by remediating their math skills.”

Yet Aronson can take pride in the fact that his teachers continue to steer kids in the right direction despite the setbacks of the pandemic.

“We want to continue providing our students the quality education they’ve been accustomed to getting,” he said. “The teachers are just happy to not have to do hybrid teaching, to have the kids back in front of them again where they can give them the attention they need to make sure they’re successful.”

At Polo Park, the successes are many. More than 600 students make the honor roll every six weeks. The baseball team recently won the county championship. The girls volleyball team won all their divisions. And the robotics team won the state championship, then placed 36th in the world championships.

“Kids are always kids,” Aronson said. “They need structure and leadership, but in the last couple of years, social skills are something we’ve had to reteach. They’ve been home for two years with no friends around or even family. Some kids have changed their personalities permanently because of that. Sometimes the change is good, sometimes it’s bad — it depends on the kid.”

Aronson’s goals for the future are to continue to grow as a principal and leader.

“I can’t rest on my laurels,” he said. “I must continue to grow every year to make sure the school staff and kids get the best part of me. I want Polo Park to continue to be an A-rated school with top-notch academic, athletic and robotics programs. I also want to see the continued success of all the other activities that are overlooked. We have a lot of great things that go on here.”

 

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A Good Education Is The Key To Success

A Good Education Is The Key To Success Principal Dr. Eugina Smith Feaman Of Emerald Cove Middle School Comes From A Family Of Educators

Story by Deborah Welky  |  Photos by Denise Fleischman

Emerald Cove Middle School opened in 2007 as Wellington’s third middle school. Located at the intersection of State Road 7 and Stribling Way, it serves Wellington’s eastern neighborhoods, such as the large Olympia community it borders.

Since 2014, Dr. Eugina Smith Feaman has served as principal at Emerald Cove, arriving there after three years in the top position at Wellington Elementary School.

Feaman is a self-described “product of Palm Beach County schools.” When she graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Suncoast High School, she already knew she was aiming for a career in education.

“Both my parents were educators in middle school, and I always had very influential teachers,” Feaman recalled.

One in particular, her John F. Kennedy Middle School math teacher Helen Brown, was particularly inspiring.

“She was firm but fair as a teacher,” Feaman said. “In fact, her teaching style is one I started adopting when I became a teacher. She was clear and caring. Her students always knew that she cared about their success.”

Yet it was Feaman’s parents, Virginia and Ulysses Smith, who first encouraged Feaman to follow their footsteps into the field of education. It was the same for her sisters, who are also educators.

“They wanted us to help others,” Feaman said. “They wanted for us to be people who gave back to our community and to be role models, as they were. They were staunch believers in the importance of education and doing well in school, and they instilled that in us. They always talked about education being that key to success. They were our biggest supporters.”

Feaman attended Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, majoring in elementary education and English. Upon graduation, she returned to Palm Beach County and began working as a teacher at Bear Lakes Middle School, where they were looking for someone for their new intensive reading program. But Feaman continued her studies, later earning specialist and doctoral degrees in educational leadership from Argosy University in Sarasota.

As Feaman continued in her career, she was soon named an assistant principal at Bear Lakes, then promoted to principal at Cholee Lake Elementary School in Greenacres.

In 2011, Feaman became the principal at Wellington Elementary School, and in June 2014, when former Principal Dr. Nancy Lucas retired, Feaman took over as principal at Emerald Cove. “I had grown to love Wellington very much, and I have been here ever since,” she said.

Like many educators, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented her biggest challenge to date. “We had to go into a virtual setting, which was brand new, make sure students had what they needed in that time frame, and keep them safe,” Feaman said. “Now that we are back into the building, we have to make up for the gaps — academically, socially and emotionally.”

Emotional gaps are a real concern when it comes to middle schoolers, as they are typically highly social.

“Remote learning really has affected them socially and emotionally,” Feaman said. “Students had more screen time, which is both a positive and a negative thing, and not being able to interact with their peers affected their social skills. Also, in many cases, many were at home by themselves and able to do things without having structure. Kids are kids. They look for guidance from adults; they look for structure from adults. They do have other influences — phones and computers, as well as influences from within the community — and they are exposed to more things than in years past, but they are still children who are looking for love, nurturing and guidance from the adults in their lives.”

Since Feaman took the reins at Emerald Cove, the school has added its Pre-Information Technology academy, a technology-based choice program at the school, as well as becoming an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) school.

“Those are two high points, added to support our students academically,” Feaman said. “We also have very successful visual and performing arts classes. For the first time in the school’s history, our band has received a Superior rating, which was determined by a panel of judges comprised of other band directors.”

Moving forward, Feaman plans to continue her work helping her middle school students thrive.

“I hope to help as many children be academically successful as possible,” Feaman said. “I would like to grow some of our culturally aware programs to make sure we have a welcoming and inclusive environment, and I’d like to guide and support my teachers and staff members so they can do the best for their students.”

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Personalized Learning For Students

Personalized Learning For Students
Local Private Schools Provide Students With A More Individualized Educational Experience

By Mike May

When it comes to education options in Wellington, parents have many choices beyond traditional brick-and-mortar schools. In Wellington, there are several private schools that specialize in providing an individualized educational experience for parents and students looking for this type of learning environment. Among these schools are #1 Education Place, Score at the Top and the Wellington Collegiate Academy.


#1 Education Place

The driving forces behind #1 Education Place are Judy Blake and Anita Kane. Together, they started this private school more than 20 years ago. They began as tutors with clients from the equestrian world. Now, they operate a full-fledged private school with clients from all walks of life.

At #1 Education Place, located in the original Wellington Mall, the teaching model is not what you find at regular schools. “We are a Montessori school,” Blake said. “And we are open 12 months a year.”

The “big picture” focus at #1 Education Place — which teaches children in grades 1 through 12 — is to emphasize independence and executive function.

According to Blake, when students are taught executive function, they learn organizational skills, personal responsibility, how to organize their day and how to master life as an adult. They also learn all the core subjects taught in conventional schools. At #1 Education Place, there’s a major focus on core communications. “We have a big emphasis on writing, especially in high school,” Kane said. “We also focus on cursive writing, penmanship, grammar, spelling and English comprehension.”

Rather than a teacher-directed environment, like in traditional schools, #1 Education Place implements a student-directed educational atmosphere.

According to Kane, teachers at the school encourage each student to follow his or her interests and passions. The teaching environment is peaceful and filled with purpose.

“We have all open spaces, no closed doors and there’s freedom of movement for everybody,” Blake said. “Here, students are interested in doing, learning and accomplishing. There are no rewards or punishment, but plenty of positive reinforcement. In many cases, we provide a few minutes of instruction and then let the students do the work.”

At #1 Education Place, homework is not a regular occurrence. “Our students have a life outside of school,” Kane noted.

The school also offers flexible arrivals and departures for students. According to Blake, flexible schedules are important for students who have serious interests in other endeavors, such as tennis, golf and equestrian sports that require unique travel and practice time.

For the elementary school and middle school students at #1 Education Place, they do get 30 minutes of recess every day and occasionally go on field trips.

#1 Education Place is located at 12794 W. Forest Hill Blvd., Suite 23. For more info., call (561) 753-6563 or visit www.1educationplace.com.


Score Academy 

Score Academy, the private school component of Score at the Top, with a location on State Road 7 in Wellington, is also an option for families that require flexible scheduling because traditional schools don’t work for them. Score Academy teaches NCAA-approved core courses and is a SACS (Southern Association of Colleges & Schools) and SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) approved school.

“We are your pathway to academic success, virtually or locally,” said Maggie Alexander, the center director and head of school. “You don’t have to be in Wellington to attend Score Academy.”

At Score Academy, you can learn on site or remotely. According to Alexander, one of the appealing aspects of Score Academy is that many classes are one-on-one with a teacher, and no class has more than four students. Some classes feature a student connected via Zoom, who is joined by a student and teacher in one of Score’s classrooms. “Our classes are live, synchronous and face-to-face,” Alexander said.

Many of the students at Score Academy are serious equestrian competitors — hunters, jumpers or dressage riders. Many other students are tennis players, golfers, water skiers, figure skaters and dancers. Because of different and changing schedules, students who compete in equestrian pursuits are enrolled at Score Academy for classes throughout the day.

The academy accommodates a significant number of international students, as the school has the ability to provide I-20 visas for students who want to study and reside in the United States.

Besides catering to full-time students, Score at the Top also provides SAT and ACT prep workshops, as well as tutoring in all subject areas. You can also register to take a regular, honors or AP class at Score Academy, even if you attend a different school.

The emphasis at Score at the Top is to provide each student with a quality education. “99.9 percent of our students have been accepted to their top choice colleges and schools,” Alexander said.

For students looking for this type of program, Score Academy is worth the investment.

Score at the Top is located 1035 S. State Road 7, Suite 118. For more info., call (561) 333-8882 or visit www.scoreatthetop.com/wellington.


Wellington Collegiate Academy 

The students at the Wellington Collegiate Academy (WCA), located in the original Wellington Mall, currently range from kindergarten through eighth grade. However, the school will soon be educating students through 12th grade. Beginning this fall, the WCA will add one high school grade each year.

Right now, there are 90 students enrolled at the school.

“We offer traditional and innovative ways of learning,” said Juan Carlos Valdez, WCA co-owner and principal. “We try to cater to the specific needs of every student. We encourage students to progress at their own speed.”

According to Valdez, who operates the school with his wife, Jessica, the teacher-student ratio is low, which guarantees that each student gets plenty of attention.

“We have eight to 12 students per teacher,” Juan Carlos said. “There’s a great deal of relationship building between students and teachers. Our students know that they have the support of their teachers.”

At the WCA, there is a significant emphasis on the arts. The arts are the specialty area of interest for the Valdez husband-and-wife team. He’s a professional animator, while she is an opera singer.

Once a year, the WCA’s students conduct an acting or musical performance.

“This year, our students performed “The Wizard of Oz,” Juan Carlos said. “In recent years, our students presented Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. In December, we have our Christmas concert.”

When it comes to music education, that’s Jessica’s specialty.

“I oversee all the music classes,” she said. “We want them to experience all forms of music, which includes music from the 1960s, 1980s, jazz and Mozart.”

One of the biggest musical opportunities for WCA students will take place in June 2023 when a school choir will be traveling to England to perform during the London Band Week.

Every year, WCA’s musical troupe performs at Walt Disney World, and there’s a reason that they are invited to return annually. “When people hear us sing, they stop and listen,” Jessica said.

A key aspect of WCA’s approach to education is connecting the textbook with reality. For instance, the students learning marine biology are taken on a field trip to the Miami Seaquarium. The school also takes students on educational field trips to the Kennedy Space Center, St. Augustine, the Palm Beach Zoo, local farms and the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.

“It’s one thing to learn about a place from a book, and it’s another thing to see it live and in person,” Juan Carlos said.

The school also understands the importance of recess and physical activity breaks for its students during the school day. “Giving students recess breaks helps support their imagination and helps create innovation,” Juan Carlos said.

The Wellington Collegiate Academy is located at 12794 W. Forest Hill Blvd., Suite 14B. For more info., call (561) 784-1776 or (561) 701-3462, or visit www.gowca.org.

 

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Top In Science, Math And Engineering

Top In Science, Math And Engineering
American Heritage Schools Leads The Nation In STEM Education

As the world continues to advance technologically, American Heritage Schools keeps pace with the global shift by integrating a culture of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into its comprehensive and rigorous curriculum.

Founded in 1965, American Heritage Schools is a nationally ranked college preparatory school with two 40-acre campuses in South Florida for grades Pre-K3 to 12. The 4,800 students represent more than 60 different countries, and more than 70 percent of the faculty holds a post-graduate degree. The student to faculty ratio is 5 to 1.

AHS alumni are notable leaders in their fields, who are generating positive differences in the world. Dylan Cahill graduated from American Heritage Schools’ Palm Beach campus in 2014, from Dartmouth College in 2018, and he is currently a medical degree candidate at Harvard Medical School. “American Heritage prepared me for college academics,” Cahill said. “Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the study strategies I developed in challenging classes at AHS helped make my transition into the demands of college life much smoother.”

Ranked among the top private schools in Florida in STEM according to Niche, a leader in digital searches for the best K-12 schools and colleges, the students at American Heritage recently earned high honors in STEM, including No. 1 in Florida at the state science fair, No. 1 and No. 2 private school in Florida in math competition, and event champions in robotics competition.

The American Heritage Science Research Institute for select students in grades 6 to 12 enables students to conduct research on real-world problems, and in turn, they have earned international recognition for their findings.

Emilin Mathew researched digital phenotyping of the autism spectrum and earned first prize in the world at the 2021 International Intel Science & Engineering Fair.

“I’m really grateful for the support I got in pursuing my commitment to overcome healthcare inequities for people of color,” Mathew said. “Winning first place in the world was the most empowering experience that reaffirmed my aspiration to be a scientist-activist who helps underserved communities.”

She is just one of the many students at American Heritage empowered to make a big difference in the world.

The range of equipment in the science lab is unlike any other high school — fluorescent and inverted microscopes, UV/Vis plate reader (a spectrophotometer), a carbon dioxide incubator, a minus-86-degree freezer, a liquid nitrogen cryogenic tank and a scanning electron microscope, just to name a few.

“When our students graduate, they are equipped with a level of research knowledge they would not normally have without the opportunities presented in our program,” said Dr. Iris Thompson, director of science research at American Heritage Schools’ Palm Beach campus. “This sets them apart from their peers when applying to college or graduate school.”

The mathematics departments at both campuses are equally strong. Starting in Lower School, advanced courses are offered, including the Stanford University math program for accelerated math students in grades 4 through 6. This early learning enables the students to perform extremely well at math competitions. They earned the ranking of No. 1 elementary school in Florida and No. 2 private elementary school in the United States in math competition, and many of those students advance to the high school level with great success.

Both the Broward and Palm Beach math teams at AHS ranked No. 1 and No. 2 private school at the Florida Association of Mu Alpha Theta statewide math competition. The Palm Beach campus earned five first-place awards in Geometry, Matrices and Vectors, Statistics, Statistics Bowl and Computer Competition.

Justin Sun is a senior at the Palm Beach campus who has competed on the AHS Math Team since he was a freshman. His strength is in statistics with an interest in data science.

“One day I want to be the CEO of my own corporation using data to solve major issues in the world, such as climate change and the tumultuous political environment,” explained Sun, who attributed his success in high school to his teachers. “American Heritage does a great job of making sure the students are comfortable in class and understand the material, and I feel that only comes with experience of the teachers, who make sure the students have the proper tools to achieve the goals they want.”

Sun will be attending Carnegie Mellon University in the fall.

In the field of robotics and engineering, the AHS Ninjineers Robotics Team at the Broward campus qualified for the World Robotics Championship in Houston over the summer. The team also won NASA’s Regional Engineering Inspiration Award, which celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school or organization and community.

Senior Krishna Sorna was a top student in the American Heritage Pre-Engineering Program at the Palm Beach campus and will be attending Princeton in the fall.

“American Heritage has played a major role in my early acceptance to Princeton University by providing a great educational environment unlike any other high school,” Sorna said. “The Pre-Engineering Program allowed me to learn through several engineering classes, participate in internships with major engineering companies, and design and create products in the engineering and robotics lab to get real-world experience, which inspired me to choose a major in electrical and computer engineering and a career at an engineering firm.”

American Heritage Schools in Palm Beach is No. 2 in National Merit Scholars out of all schools in Florida. American Heritage Schools’ combined students from both campuses comprise 9 percent of all National Merit Scholars Semifinalists throughout the 2,227 public and private schools in Florida.

“We are very proud to have our students win prestigious honors for their various accomplishments in our STEM programs,” said Dr. Doug Laurie, president of American Heritage Schools. “These students are model ambassadors for American Heritage Schools. Each of them embodies our values of knowledge, integrity and compassion, and their hard work and dedication to their educational pursuits are admired.”

American Heritage is open all year at both campuses. It also provides an extensive summer program from June to August for children and teens ages 3 to 17 from all over the world. The offerings include traditional day camps, specialty and sports camps, the Summer Institute, available in-person and online with more than 100 courses designed for every student interest, and 1-on-1 tutoring. This comprehensive summer enrichment ensures students are prepared or ahead for the next school year and gives them a competitive advantage to succeed.

American Heritage Schools will continue to set high standards for growth and learning and prepare the next generation of global thinkers and problem solvers to succeed.

American Heritage Schools’ Palm Beach campus is located at 6200 Linton Blvd., just east of Jog Road. For more information, call (561) 495-7272 or visit www.ahschool.com.

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Fostering A Love Of Learning

Fostering A Love Of Learning
Principal Dana Pallaria Is Proud Of The Unique Dual-Language Program At New Horizons Elementary School

Story by Deborah Welky  |  Photos by Denise Fleischman

New Horizons Elementary School opened in 1988 as the second elementary school serving the fast-growing community of Wellington. Today, the school on Greenbriar Blvd. is led by Principal Dana Pallaria.

Wellington takes pride in its top-rated schools, and that includes New Horizons, which features a unique dual-language Spanish program. The school has been ranked third in the United States as a Dual Language International Spanish Academy, and Pallaria aims to take it to No. 1.

“In the three years since I have been here, I have been successful in growing our dual-language program by adding two VPK dual-language classrooms,” Pallaria said. “This has allowed me to open up the opportunity to begin a bilingual and biliterate journey for our three- and four-year-old students. Ultimately, I’d like to take the program through eighth grade. Our students have an advantage over most because my goal is to provide a program that fosters a love of learning, a love of learning about other cultures, and the opportunity to learn two or sometimes three languages. English-speaking students will continue their education learning Spanish, and Spanish-speaking students will be able to maintain their native language and enhance their English into middle and high school.”

Pallaria herself didn’t have the same opportunity growing up. In fact, elementary school was a bit of a challenge for her as her family moved through several states.

“I went to kindergarten in Glendale, California; moved to New Jersey for first and second grade; and onto Long Island, New York, for third through sixth grade,” Pallaria recalled. “I finally landed back where I was born, in New Hartford, New York, for sixth grade through high school. I struggled with learning slightly due to moving, but I always had great teachers and the support of my parents. I thank them all.”

By fifth grade, Pallaria knew she wanted to be a teacher. “I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and foster a love of learning,” she said.

Pallaria earned a degree in English with a minor in elementary education from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and began pursuing a master’s degree at the State University of New York at Oswego. In 1992, Pallaria started out teaching science at a private school in New York, then taught third grade at a public school in Syracuse.

In 1998, craving the warmth of the Sunshine State and wanting to be near her relocated family, Pallaria took a job teaching second grade at Jerry Thomas Elementary School in Jupiter. Eventually, she moved on to teaching fifth grade and becoming the ESE contact, helping students with special needs.

It was then that Pallaria realized that she wanted to make a bigger impact and earned her educational leadership degree at Florida Atlantic University and became the learning team facilitator at Berkshire Elementary School in West Palm Beach. After one year there, she went on to become the assistant principal at Grassy Waters Elementary School, remaining there for five years.

“I reached my goal of principalship in 2019 at New Horizons,” Pallaria said. “In that time, we have grown from 700 students to nearly 800. Some of New Horizons’ highlights, I believe, are the partnerships we hold with the Norton Museum of Art and the Ministry of Spain. As only one of three Dual Language International Spanish Academies in the Palm Beach County School District, we work very closely with the Ministry of Education in Spain to support our program. They recruit Spanish educators to come work in our school and share their experiences with our students, staff and the community. I believe being bilingual is very powerful and, when students learn about other cultures and learn the language at such an early age, it is so beneficial to their academic and personal success.”

As with education worldwide, the pandemic took its toll.

“Although I have had a challenging first three years, I feel the biggest success I have had has been building positive relationships and a trusting partnership with our community, staff and students. We are very close-knit,” Pallaria said. “The biggest challenge has been maintaining morale and ensuring my staff is safe with all the challenges they themselves and the students in their classrooms have faced. We principals have had to handle things that we were not schooled on how to handle. As for the students, they have gone through some life changes that students in the past haven’t gone through. I believe every student needs support from both their family and their school, but today’s students and families need more support now than ever before.”

Personally, Pallaria has always had the support she needed.

“My mom has been the biggest influence in my career,” she said. “She has always supported me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams and goals as a future woman leader. My mom answered the phone at all hours of the day and night. If I was struggling with completing work or studying for a test, she was there to provide me with extra moral support and encouragement. She often said, ‘One more test, one more month. You got this.’”

Pallaria has played that forward by providing her staff with inspirational quotes and messages daily.

“There has never been a day in my life where my parents weren’t there the minute I needed them,” she said. “I firmly believe that, to be successful in your career and in life, you have to have a support system. My family has been there through the easiest and hardest times in my life. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for my mom and dad. They taught me to have grit, be kind, be patient, set high expectations and never give up. I can’t thank them enough for their unconditional love and continued support to help me achieve my goals, even as an adult. As a leader, I work to provide my staff with the same support, passion and dedication.”

Pallaria’s own children, Isabella and Peter, are both graduating from college this year, one as an engineer and one as a doctor of physical therapy. Both attended Palm Beach County public schools.

While Pallaria loves her job at New Horizons, she is always up for new challenges.

“I love to learn and be challenged, so I hope to have the opportunity to become a leader of a middle school or high school, and then, potentially, an instructional leader coaching future leaders,” she said.

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Rising To Meet Every Challenge

Rising To Meet Every Challenge Principal Cara Hayden Helps Students And Faculty Thrive At Wellington High School 

Story by Deborah Welky  |  Photos by Denise Fleischman

Back when Wellington was a fledgling community, there was no local high school. Teenagers were bused far away to schools on the coast. That all changed in 1988 with the long-awaited opening of Wellington High School on Greenview Shores Blvd.

For nearly 35 years now, Wellington High School has been educating and graduating generations of Wolverines at a school known for its strong academics and unique special programs, burnishing the Village of Wellington’s reputation for great local schools.

Since 2018, Wellington High School has been led by Principal Cara Hayden, who took over for longtime Principal Mario Crocetti when he retired.

Hayden is someone who rises to meet every challenge, and she has been doing so since back in her own high school days, which were split between two different states — the first half in northern California, and the second half in Plantation, Florida. The one constant was her involvement in sports.

“My life was filled with athletics,” Hayden said. “I was doing varsity swimming and playing varsity water polo all four years. When I wasn’t doing sports, I was always working to take care of myself. I worked to save up enough money for college and to buy a car.”

Upon graduation, she was accepted into Florida State University, where she earned three degrees over the next nine years, including a bachelor’s degree in social work.

“I wanted to work with at-risk kids,” Hayden recalled. “I wanted to help them know that there’s something more out there than what is in their immediate social life.”

So, Hayden began her journey as a social worker.

“But then I saw that kids with disabilities weren’t getting equal access to high level courses and other services, so I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in disabilities and emotional disturbances.”

From 2000 to 2009, Hayden taught algebra and geometry to students who had trouble learning, then became a specialist on the subject. “I traveled from school to school, teaching students and showing teachers how to better teach them,” she explained.

An FSU certification in educational leadership in hand, Hayden made her biggest advance when the principal of one of the schools on her itinerary, Santaluces High School, created an assistant principal position especially for her.

“I was an assistant principal there for five years,” Hayden said. “I helped the school become an A-rated school and worked to make sure all students graduated. Then I got the call to become principal at Wellington High School.”

Hayden was excited by the opportunity to lead a school with such a stellar reputation.

“I always knew that I wanted to impact as many students as I could,” she said. “I wanted to eventually be able to run my own school and make sure all students received all the services they deserved.”

As if leading a high school with 2,700 students isn’t challenging enough, Hayden arrived at a challenging time.

“Coming to Wellington has been one of my greatest challenges. As soon as I arrived, the Stoneman Douglas incident occurred,” she recalled, referring to the deadly February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “So, I had to take a school I’d only been in one month and change most policies to ensure the safety of our students and to do the best I could to make sure something like that didn’t happen at WHS.”

Then, just two years later, COVID-19 altered the landscape once again. Being suddenly thrust into remote learning presented its own challenges.

“I would say we’ve all learned a tremendous amount, and these tragedies have brought our staff and students much closer,” Hayden said. “We’ve learned to work as a team and to collaborate better than we would have if we hadn’t had to turn the school into a virtual school.”

Despite everything, Wellington High School continues to thrive. It is home to award-winning programs, both academic and extracurricular. It is home to four highly regarded choice academies: Equine/Pre-Veterinary, Fine Arts, Fire Science and Marketing.

“Each year, we see more students graduating from WHS with the tools and training that prepare them for college and the work force,” Hayden said. “We have record numbers earning AICE diplomas, college credits and industry certifications. Our athletic teams continue to achieve athletically and academically. Each of our performing arts groups — band, chorus, dance and theater — have earned Superior ratings at interscholastic competitions. Finally, we’ve expanded our leadership offerings beyond student government to include Latinos in Action, Link Crew and the Black Leadership & Achievement Student Team (BLAST).”

Personally, Hayden is thankful for the support she got from so many people along the way, such as Deputy Superintendent Edward Tierney; Keith Oswald, currently the school district’s chief of equity and wellness; and Dreyfoos School of the Arts Principal Blake Bennett. Each helped her at key points in her career.

“I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve worked with a lot of great people. Keith Oswald was a principal when I was teaching and gave me my first opportunity to step into a leadership role,” she said. “Edward Tierney was at Boynton Beach High School when I was teaching math there. He’s a very serious guy, and he came into my class to observe, wearing a very serious face. At end of class, he told me it was the best math class he had ever seen. Since then, he has always looked out for me. As a teacher, I did work incredibly hard and did everything I was supposed to do with the best intentions for all my students. Also Blake Bennett, who was an assistant principal back then, all three of them have really helped shape my career.”

Hayden is most proud of the amazing work done by the students at Wellington High School through challenging times.

“Even though students have had to adapt to a series of abrupt changes and unusual challenges over the past two years, at their core, kids still value the same things about being part of a school as always. They’ve always been supportive of their peers; now they have more social emotional learning skills to help their friends and classmates,” she said. “Students wish to be part of meaningful clubs and organizations; now, they know how to extend those efforts beyond meetings and classrooms by using social media and digital resources. Most importantly, they want to be seen, heard and valued.”

Hayden remains as excited about her position at WHS as the first day she arrived four years ago.

“I plan to hang out here as long as they’ll have me,” she said. “I want to continue to see our students be safe, have a meaningful learning environment and continue to grow academically and socially. I want to see human kindness. I want the students leaving Wellington High School to become citizens that we are all going to be proud of.”

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A Passion For Education

A Passion For Education
Elbridge Gale Elementary School’s Principal Gail Pasterczyk Has Led The School Since It Opened

Story by Deborah Welky | Photos by Denise Fleischman

While Elbridge Gale Elementary School is located in one of Wellington’s older neighborhoods, it is actually one of the newer schools in the community. Located near the Wellington library, the school has had only had one principal since opening in 2006 — longtime local educator Gail Pasterczyk.

With her car buried deep in the snow of upstate New York, Pasterczyk, then a first-year teacher, decided to spend spring break visiting her grandparents in Florida. While here, she decided to apply for some teaching positions and was offered three.

“I went back, told my roommate that I was moving to Florida, and packed up immediately after finishing the school year,” Pasterczyk recalled. “I took a position teaching students with emotional behavior disorders at Highland Elementary School. But it was like I wasn’t even working. It was like I was always on vacation because the weather was so beautiful.”

When Highland’s program was moved to South Olive Elementary School three years later, Pasterczyk moved with it. After getting married, she moved to Wellington in 1982 and went to work at the newly opened Wellington Elementary School under its legendary Principal Buz Spooner. While there, she coordinated the school’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) programs and started its inclusion program as well.

“That’s where I got the bug for leadership,” Pasterczyk said. “Buz called me his ‘AP for ESE students and teachers.’ So, I went to Nova University and got my leadership degree in 1987.”

She next served six years as assistant principal at Manatee Elementary School, and then became principal at Indian Pines Elementary School in Lake Worth. It was then a struggling, D-rated school.

“When I got there, Indian Pines was one point away from being an F-rated school,” Pasterczyk said. “It took me two years, but I got that letter grade raised to an A and kept it there for the next four years I was at the school.”

Yet, when she heard that a new school was opening in Wellington, she had to apply. She was hired as the principal of an as-yet-unnamed elementary school then physically located in “concretables” behind Wellington Landings Middle School.

“It was hard to leave Indian Pines, but I was ready for a new challenge, and my heart was in Wellington,” Pasterczyk said. “Wellington supports its schools like no other community.”

Coming in on the ground floor, Pasterczyk was able to put her stamp on the new school. “I had weekly meetings with the construction crew, and I was able to pick the design and the colors. We had a committee comprised of myself, my staff and students, and that’s how we got the school colors. The students picked gold, the staff picked green and my favorite color has always been purple, so every piece of furniture — the chairs and the file cabinets — is purple. It makes it a fun, happy place for elementary students.”

Parents, students and others submitted potential names for the school.

“We wanted a science-based school with extensive gardens, and when we researched names, the entire committee just loved learning about Elbridge Gale, an important person in Florida history,” Pasterczyk said. “He was a school superintendent in the late 1800s, a minister and a horticulturist. He actually brought the Haden mango to South Florida, and Mangonia Park is named after that.”

Pasterczyk chose her staff members carefully.

“I was able to hire all my staff — every single person. It’s a hand-picked, superstar staff comprised of many award winners,” she said. “I have two Palm Beach County teachers of the year, a Hispanic teacher of the year and an art teacher of the year — they’re incredible.”

She opened the school with the concept of departmentalization, that teachers would teach one subject they’re passionate about. “This way, every time there’s new curriculum and new standards, they become experts in their field,” Pasterczyk said. “Happy teachers make happy students, and they like working in teams to meet the needs of each child.”

Elbridge Gale is also home to many award-winning clubs, such as its chess, academic games and Lego robotics teams. Teachers with many diverse interests have an extra opportunity to share these passions with their students.

“Twice a year, we do six weeks of one-hour club sessions three days a week,” Pasterczyk said. “Kids can try out sports, art, photography, clay, baking, science, drones, gardening, cheerleading, tie-dying or an American Girl doll club. Students in all grade levels can try a new club each day.”

Elbridge Gale is a gold level school, a model school for Positive Behavior Support, a Green School of Excellence and a five-star school. “But we also believe our students need to give back to society,” Pasterczyk said. “My school counselor, Nicole Martinez, has led our school to No. 1 in the state among schools raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”

Leading the school during the pandemic has been a challenge for Pasterczyk.

“I don’t like to see my staff struggle,” she said. “They’re an extraordinary staff, but the challenges placed on them from the beginning of the pandemic to now are unbelievable. Due to remote learning, we’re trying to catch up students who are performing farther below their grade level than we’ve ever seen before. And the mental health issue is on the forefront of everyone’s minds. We have to help students where they are now — both academically and emotionally. And we’re learning strategies and techniques for self-care for the adults too, not just the kids.”

Yet every cloud has a silver lining.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in students today is technology, and the pandemic threw us headlong into that one,” Pasterczyk said. “The students became very tech-savvy very quickly. They are able to navigate Google Classroom and all sorts of things. I couldn’t believe what kindergarteners could do.”

The students embraced this new technology far beyond what was expected.

“It has become a major learning tool,” she said. “Now, you can’t survive if you don’t have your Chromebook. Technology has opened up new horizons and opportunities for them.”

Luckily, Pasterczyk had already brought STEM to the school, infusing science, technology, engineering and math into existing programs of study.

“That led us to become a STEM-certified school,” she said. “Palm Beach County has a very rigorous certification progress. We met the criteria, and we are also the only school in the county that has nationally certified STEM teachers who have taken master’s courses in it. We are a designated STEM choice school for students within our boundaries, and big garden grants came with that, so we have aquaponic and hydroponic gardens, raised gardens with a garden bed for every grade level, and a Seminole Indian-built chickee hut for native learning involvement. We sell our produce to staff and parents, and the money we make goes back into the program.”

Pasterczyk credits her love of education to her father, Noel Shevack.

“My dad was a nuclear engineer for General Electric, and he really wanted me to be an engineer, but my passion, from a young age, was working with students with disabilities,” Pasterczyk said. “I did so at a summer camp each year, and I did respite care for 12-year-old autistic twin boys whose parents could never get a sitter, and for a baby who needed to be fed with a feeding tube. When I went to college, I had a dual major — exceptional student education and elementary education — and I did double student teaching. My dad is the one who impressed upon me the value of education.”

Many others have supported her along the way. “When I was at South Olive Elementary, Margaret Brockmiller put me on her leadership team and encouraged me to go into leadership,” Pasterczyk recalled. “When I won the William T. Dwyer Award in special education, it gave me the confidence to go into leadership.”

Pasterczyk started Elbridge Gale, and she isn’t finished yet. “In the not-too-distant future, I will retire, but not just yet,” she said. “I have my passion and my love for what I do every day. My one daughter has one child, so my grandson is now a student at Elbridge Gale, and I’d like to be here for him. I have my work family and my home family. I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my assistant principal, Chad Phillips, my husband David, and the Wellington community, which embraces schools and education.”

She particularly thanked the Village of Wellington for its Keely Spinelli grant program, which gives local public schools the funds necessary to help struggling students.

“When I move on, Elbridge Gale’s extraordinary staff will carry on the tradition of excellence,” Pasterczyk said. “This school will be in good hands.”

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Helping Students Change The World

Helping Students Change The World
Palm Beach Central High School’s Darren Edgecomb
Keeps His Eye On The Next Generation

Story by Deborah Welky  |  Photos by Denise Fleischman

Palm Beach Central High School became the second public high school serving Wellington when it opened in August 2003 on the north side of Forest Hill Blvd. at Lyons Road. For the past eight years, the principal has been Darren Edgecomb, a longtime Palm Beach County educator.

Having graduated from Belle Glade High School in the top five percent of his class and fresh from the University of Florida with a degree in business, Edgecomb took a job as assistant manager of the same grocery store that he had worked at as a teenager. Except this time, he was the one hiring teenagers — as cashiers, bagboys and stock crew. The year was 1987.

“I knew their parents and older siblings, and it was pretty cool talking to kids — who were doing the same things I used to do — about interviewing techniques and the management side of things,” Edgecomb recalled. “Then one day, Mr. Antoine Russell came into the shop. He was an educator, and he was about to become the principal of a new alternative school, School of Choice, opening up in Pahokee. He saw how I enjoyed teaching the teens, and he suggested I transition into teaching. He was my mentor.”

Although School of Choice was late in opening due to construction delays, Edgecomb was eager to begin his teaching career.

“I began subbing at Rosenwald Elementary School in South Bay, working with seven-year-olds and wondering what I had gotten myself into. But I loved it and, when School of Choice finally opened, I took a job there, teaching math to grades 6 through 12. Eight years later, I tried to spread my wings,” Edgecomb said. “I had been fortunate enough to have just been selected as Math Teacher of the Year for Secondary Education, and that made me feel as if could take more of a risk, move out of my comfort zone.”

Edgecomb was hired at Okeeheelee Middle School, then led by Chuck Shaw, who later went on to serve on the Palm Beach County School Board. “He gave me lots of leadership opportunities,” Edgecomb recalled. “He appointed me as a team leader — someone who rotates in as an assistant principal when an assistant principal is out — and I found I enjoyed working with adults at the same time I was working with kids. This was an opportunity to ‘sit in the chair,’ and the chair felt good.”

Edgecomb’s next stop was Royal Palm Beach High School. “I still enjoyed teaching, and I taught math there for another eight years — algebra to calculus. I loved every second of it. Then, the last year I was there, I had an opportunity to serve in a similar role as a team leader at the high school level. I got my master’s degree in educational leadership alongside my wife, Linda. I finished the admin program required by the County and then secured an assistant principal position at Seminole Ridge High School, just as it was opening up,” he said.

Edgecomb has a wealth of experience working in brand-new schools. School of Choice, Okeeheelee, RPBHS and SRHS were all opening their doors for the first time when Edgecomb arrived.

After working at Seminole Ridge for four years, he served as principal of Turning Point Academy, another alternative education school, for two years. Then it was back to Belle Glade as principal at Gove Elementary School.

“It was a blast,” Edgecomb said. “It was a dual language school, and it was also the school my own kids attended; where my wife was a former teacher. I knew all my co-workers.”

After spending three years at Gove, Edgecomb became principal at Palm Beach Central. His eight years there has brought him to a running total of 34 years with the School District of Palm Beach County.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “The late Antoine Russell ignited my passion, set the fuses and gave me the motivation in the community I grew up in. He talked about being a role model for young men. He made it intriguing. But my faith is definitely the biggest influence in my life. I’m an educator, and I see it almost as being in the missionary field. Educators bring hope and answers to kids who need them. I take it very seriously. We’re the greatest impact on their futures that these kids have.”

Next to his faith, Edgecomb cites his wife, Linda, as his biggest inspiration. She is the principal at Golden Grove Elementary School in The Acreage.

“I’ve been in education for 34 years and married for 34 years. We grew up together. She was my high school sweetheart. We talk every day. We’re still just as passionate about what we do, and we bounce ideas off each other,” Edgecomb said. “The greatest challenge I face is working with the kids, but that has always been the fun part, the motivating part. I also work to find the perfect mesh of how to motivate the adults. In all my experience, I’ve discovered that the way people are motivated is totally different. How can I make them each feel validated?”

At the high school level, the expectations are high, and the students are mini-adults. “It’s a delicate balance of pressure and support to get the best out of teachers for the sake of the kids, while also acknowledging that they’re the ones on the front lines, doing the heavy lifting,” he said.

The “culture” of a school is something Edgecomb studies and works to perfect. “For me, the biggest success is putting your brand on the school,” he said. “Culture translates into student success. When you have a great culture, people will run through a wall for you. That said, having been through so many places, the commonality I have found is that memories and relationships are what last. Testing, standards and classwork aside, I feel successful when I’ve achieved relationships with people. That is my greatest reward.”

Academically, Edgecomb is proud of the fact that Palm Beach Central has an A rating from the state and that graduation rates went up 2.6 percent to 97 percent despite the difficulties of the pandemic.

“I’m really thrilled about that, and the credit goes to our amazing teachers and staff members. The greatest thing about Palm Beach Central is that we’re a microcosm of society,” he said. “It’s one of the more diverse schools I’ve worked at — a tapestry of many cultures. Our almost 2,900 students are 20 percent Black; 41 percent Hispanic; 31 percent White; 14 percent of our students have disabilities; 6 percent are English Language Learners. And, even though we’re in Wellington, 56 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches. Despite that, we have a 97 percent graduation rate. Our diversity is our strength. We learn from being around other cultures. We try to connect with, include and accept everyone while still having high expectations for every student.”

He’s also proud of the school’s extra-curriculars, such as the football team that was undefeated this season going two games into the playoffs.

“In addition, there’s student government, the arts, a plethora of activities,” Edgecomb said. “There’s always something going on at the school, day and night. Our students are philanthropic. They give back to society. Right now, they’re planning a dance marathon to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network. Pre-pandemic, they raised more than $100,000. The students are wonderful; the teachers are skilled; and the parents are super supportive.

Edgecomb has watched students evolve over the course of his 34-year career.

“Since 1988, when I started, I’ve seen many changes,” he said. “The most pronounced and obvious is the technology. It has changed how we teach and how they receive information. To capture today’s kids’ attention, you need more tools in your tool belt. And they don’t see the teacher as the person with all the answers like I did growing up. The kids want to know the ‘why’ behind everything. Everything has to be proven.”

In this way, the teacher is now more of a guide and facilitator who leads kids to the answers. “Before, teachers just told them how to do it and whether they were right or wrong,” he explained.

Professionally, Edgecomb would like to see Palm Beach Central “continuing to ride the wave of the momentum of student achievement” well into the future.

Personally, he feels blessed as a successful family man.

“My faith and family are the most important things to me,” he said. “I am blessed to have a wife with a similar career, and two daughters working in our schools. Danielle is teaching pre-kindergarten and Kamille is providing mental health support at the elementary level.”

Whether at home or at work, Edgecomb seeks to provide a living example of the value of a good education. “I tell my students, ‘Go change the world with the knowledge and opportunities you’ve had here at Palm Beach Central,’” he said.

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Educating Our Future Leaders

 

Panther Run Elementary School Principal Edilia De La Vega Keeps Her Focus On The Hundreds Of Students In Her Care

Story by Deborah Welky | Photos by Denise Fleischman

Panther Run Elementary School has been serving students in the Wellington area for more than 30 years. The school opened in 1991 on Lake Worth Road as the primary school serving the southern areas of the quickly growing community.

Since 2017, the principal has been Edilia De La Vega. She uses her own struggles during her elementary years as motivation for the work she does to help the hundreds of Wellington students in her care.

“My parents migrated to Miami from Cuba and worked blue collar jobs here in the United States,” De La Vega recalled. “They enrolled me, their only child, in a private school run by immigrants, so I was taught in Spanish. When they moved into a more Anglo area, I entered third grade in a public school. I spoke no English and looked like I came from the Mariel Boatlift. I struggled until the fifth grade, when a teacher named Ms. Green mentored me so much that I was able to catch up. Education was very important in my family, and I graduated high school in the top 10 percent of my class.”

De La Vega remembers always wanting to be a teacher. She would spend hours teaching classes with her Barbie dolls sitting in for students.

Eventually, De La Vega earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Barry University, later earning a master’s degree in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and her specialist degree in leadership from Nova Southeastern University. She began teaching first grade in Hialeah when she was 21 years old.

After just a year teaching there, Principal Jimmy Lee Brown suggested she look toward a leadership track. “He felt like I had a more global picture for education,” De La Vega said. “I was always trying to build goals for the school.”

Although she earned the credentials, that idea stayed on the back burner for a while. Mother to young children, she moved with her husband Ed, now assistant village manager at the Village of Wellington, to Palm Beach County 16 years ago. She started working at the Ideal School, then moved on to Equestrian Trails Elementary School.

“I’m the type of person who gives 150 percent,” De La Vega said. “I wanted to become an assistant principal, but I knew it would take a lot of time away from my family. I wanted to be able to commit to the job fully.”

When her children were older, De La Vega knew it was time. She achieved her dream and became assistant principal at Panther Run in 2011. She stayed in that post until 2017, when she was promoted to principal.

Panther Run is an A-rated school known for academic excellence. It has achieved the Five Star Award for the past 22 years, is a Green School of Excellence and has earned the Golden School Award. Fine arts are important at Panther Run, and the art program has also won many awards. The Calypso Cats steel drum band is a community favorite, as is the Symphonic Band.

Called ROAR, Panther Run’s positive support program teaches Respect, Ownership, Attitude and Responsibility. “We’re very big about teaching character traits,” De La Vega said. “We have students of the month, buddy ambassadors and we’re very big on building a strong school community. One size does not fit all. If a child is in crisis or in need, they can’t function in a classroom. We get them the help they need to do the academics. It helped us win the Resilience Award.”

She cites the current pandemic as the biggest challenge she has had to face as an educator. “It’s a huge balancing act between taking care of the community by keeping the campus and the children safe, and also meeting the social and emotional needs of our children and staff — all while making sure the school is functioning academically,” De La Vega said. “It was a little bit nerve-wracking at the beginning when we were all just figuring it out.”

De La Vega found success by “being organized, planning everything out and creating a template for all that we need to get done.” It’s a 24/7 job as she works to balance academics with the physical and mental health of both students and staff.

“Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has taken the forefront more than ever before,” she said. “You need balance. The school will not continue to flourish without it.”

She puts a special focus on keeping the needs of her teachers front and center. “For some of our teachers, this pandemic may be the most stressful point in their careers,” De La Vega said. “There’s already a teacher shortage, and we don’t want to lose them.”

She also credits the parents for their help and support. “Our parents know the rules and regulations,” she said. “They know the policies. It builds a sense of community and ties in with our schoolwide positive support program.”

De La Vega credits Wellington’s Keely Spinelli Grant program with providing the funds needed to help lower-achieving students make gains. She feels it’s this spirit of community that propels Panther Run toward excellence.

“We have gifted, high-achieving classes; an accelerated mathematics program; our own ESOL programs for students from other countries,” she said. “We meet the needs of all the children and, ever since they started the rating system, we have been an A-rated school.”

In addition to academic awards, the school has placed first in all four Heroes for Education 5K runs, consistently attracting the most participants within the entire school district. Again, parental involvement helped.

“I may be an over-communicator, but I like to provide as much information as possible to my families,” De La Vega said. “I’m really imbedded in the Wellington community, and I’m a very transparent leader. I meet with my staff weekly to make sure our school is running efficiently, and I never make decisions in isolation.”

One of the biggest changes over the years is the technology.

“The access to technology is both good and bad,” she said. “In the classroom, it’s great. We’ve bought Smart Boards and so many great programs for our kids. On the other hand, their attention spans have shortened. We need them to be focused and engaged in our classrooms. To that end, we have several teachers certified in Google Classroom. We teach in a way that is more engaging and more competitive, that keeps them abreast of what the teachers need them to learn. We use interactive games and PowerPoint. Some kids even send me theirs to look at.”

Panther Run serves 794 students, and De La Vega makes it a point to learn each of their names. “The kids know the school’s big, so when I welcome them in the morning, they light up,” she said. “They like the connection, and they know they can talk to me. I love elementary school kids.”

De La Vega’s goal for Panther Run is “to continue to grow academically and maybe be the top school in the county. I think our children and our staff work really hard at it.”

For herself, she’d like to continue to grow in her career. “I like to think globally of how we can make things better. I’m not afraid of change,” she said. “And I love working in the Wellington area; I love the connection to my community.”

De La Vega is the mother of two children, now in their 20s, who went through the public school system in Palm Beach County. Just as she is proud of them, she is also proud of her students at Panther Run today.

“We’re building the future,” she said. “I have future doctors, future presidents in my school. People might get bogged down with what’s going on in society, but education is the most important career — building strong, capable, young humans who are socially and emotionally ready to take on the world. I may not have given birth to them, but these are my children.”

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35 Years Of Middle School Excellence Lindsay Ingersoll Is Proud To Be Serving As The New Principal At Wellington Landings Middle School

35 Years Of Middle School Excellence Lindsay Ingersoll Is Proud To Be Serving As The New Principal At Wellington Landings Middle School

Story by Deborah Welky | Photos by Denise Fleischman

Wellington Landings Middle School opened in 1987 as the second public school and first middle school serving the fledgling community of Wellington. Since then, it has become a thriving academic home to generations of Wellington youth and has consistently ranked among the county’s top middle schools.

The school is currently led by Lindsay Ingersoll, who took over the role of principal not quite one year ago. Before that, she served as an assistant principal at Wellington Landings since 2012.

Ingersoll recalls having a difficult time in middle school, and that’s what led her to becoming a middle school principal.

“Elementary school was fine and dandy, and by high school, I’d found myself a little bit, but middle school was a tough time for me, as it is for many kids,” Ingersoll said. “There are so many changes in a child who comes in as an 11-year-old and leaves as a 14-year-old. They need extra love and support to get through that stage of life. When my career choices led me to education, I found myself wanting to impact as many middle school students as possible.”

Today, the students at Wellington Landings are the beneficiaries of Ingersoll’s love and support.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to become a psychologist, and I pursued that degree,” Ingersoll said. “I’m really thankful I did that because it helps me every day in my current role as principal. In the beginning, I knew I wanted to work with kids, but I was not sure where I wanted to go. A special education teaching opportunity arose at Lantana Middle School and, even though it was not my original plan, that’s where I ended up.”

Helping this unique population of students had a deep impact on her.

“As I learned more and saw that I had leadership qualities in me that were growing and becoming more expansive, I became the special education coordinator,” Ingersoll recalled. “During that period of time, I went to school to get my master’s degree, and shortly thereafter, I was offered the position of assistant principal at Wellington Landings.”

Although her entire teaching career has been in Florida, Ingersoll’s youth was spent in California.

“I grew up in Calabasas — a suburb of Los Angeles — in what resembled an old west kind of town,” she said. “It had a small-town feel, nothing like it is today. Today, it is a very different place, but it’s still fun to go back there.”

Ingersoll got her bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State University-Northridge before making the move to Florida, where she later earned her master’s degree in educational leadership from Florida Atlantic University.

“I was brought up in a house that, luckily, valued education,” she said. “My mother was a former elementary school teacher, so when I began looking at entering the field of teaching, she was excited and supportive.”

There were other key mentors along the way.

“In my career, the person who has mentored me the most is the former principal here, Blake Bennett. We were actually teachers together, so we have known each other going on 20 years,” Ingersoll said. “Blake had faith in those leadership skills I had, and when I was able to come here to work underneath her, she always challenged me to go out of my comfort zone, to garner those skills to become a better leader.”

When Bennett was named the new principal at the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, Ingersoll took over the top job at Wellington Landings in March 2021.

The past two years have been challenging times for educators, trying to balance safety with the academic needs of students.

“The challenges I come across every day are just molehills to be navigated and climbed over, but I always give challenges to myself as well,” Ingersoll said. “Like making sure I’m always a step ahead, looking outside the box, being ahead of the game, being creative and innovative in order to support our students and our staff. For the last two years, almost all of that was technology-related, but now we are trying to find a balance — a combination of what we learned during distance-learning and how we want to teach now that all our students are back on campus.”

And Ingersoll is glad the students are back — all 1,300 of them. A great many of them spent all of the last school year working remotely.

“There’s nothing to compare to having the students here in school,” she said. “Some students have the ability to be successful online, but they have to be intrinsically motivated. I’m so happy to have all our students back here.”

Wellington Landings is home to several choice academies, such as its fine arts and pre-information technology programs. It has consistently been ranked as the highest-performing non-magnet middle school in Palm Beach County for years.

“We’re very proud of that,” Ingersoll said. “Our kids continue to perform at a very high level. We’re also a Florida Five-Star School, which means that the Florida Department of Education recognizes that we continue to show evidence of exemplary community involvement. I think it’s important that I’m part of the community. Wellington is a really unique community, particularly in the support it gives our schools. The Keely Spinelli grants, for instance, help us support students who are struggling. We are able to purchase supplemental instructional tools to help those students.”

Also offering sometimes unexpected insights are Ingersoll’s own children — ages 6, 13 and 17 — who have attended Wellington schools. “It gives me a little extra insight on everything,” she laughed.

Looking back on her own middle school years, Ingersoll doesn’t think the children have changed, but some of their needs have, and the school must be sensitive to that.

“As a school, we have several problem-solving teams. We meet regularly to adjust, based on student needs. Sometimes, things in the world change. We need to make changes at that point in time,” she said. “We do that a lot through our positive behavior support (PBS) — a whole school approach to setting expectations, encouraging positivity and focusing on using those expectations to help students reach their highest potential.”

Yet the thing Ingersoll is the proudest of is the level of collaboration at Wellington Landings.

“The students, teachers, non-instructional staff, custodians, PTO and SAC all help us be successful,” she said. “We’re always collaborating together. Everybody puts their heart and their soul into making our campus what I consider to be the best place. I would like to see us continue on our tradition of excellence, making sure that we’re always creating innovative opportunities for our students. We don’t ever want to be stagnant. I am so happy to be staying here for a while. I feel like I am where I belong, and I want to put all of my focus on making sure that Wellington Landings continues to be the wonderful school that it is.”

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