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.”