By Deborah Welky
Wellington Elementary School was the first public school built in the young community of Wellington back in 1981, opening its doors with 13 educators teaching grades three to six under the direction of the legendary Principal Buz Spooner and Assistant Principal Marge Mosser.
Spooner went on to lead Wellington Elementary for 20 years before he retired, setting up a school culture that continues to thrive today. Since 2014, the school has been led by Principal Dr. Maria Vaughan.
Vaughan grew up in London, England, and received her bachelor’s degree from Kingston University there. In 1996, she moved to the United States to live closer to her parents, continuing her education at Nova Southeastern University, where she received both her master’s and doctoral degrees.
“I moved to Florida because of the beautiful weather and family connections here,” Vaughan said, adding that she moved to the western communities in 2019.
In London, Vaughan attended what is called “primary” school there, here known as elementary.
“I loved my primary school!” she recalled. “However, after I left and went on to secondary school, I realized that there were many gaps in my education and, because of this, I struggled — specifically in the area of math.”
As often happens, it only took one dedicated and inspirational educator to turn things around.
“A teacher named Ms. Okikiolu took me under her wing and tutored me one-on-one after school,” Vaughan said. “She was the most patient and kind teacher I had ever had. If it was not for her, I would have been unable to pass the exams needed to go to college to become a teacher.”
And a teacher is what Vaughan wanted to be, even as a child.
“Once I became a teacher, I started to think about how I could have a greater impact on student learning, and how I could help other teachers to develop their potential,” Vaughan said. “So, I became a team leader, and that was the beginning of my road to becoming a principal.”
That is what first brought her to the western communities.
“After being an elementary and middle school teacher for 20 years, I was fortunate to be promoted to assistant principal at H.L. Johnson Elementary School in Royal Palm Beach,” Vaughan said. “I was then promoted as an instructional support team leader (ISTL) for the south and west area offices. I served in that position for three years and was then promoted to be the principal at Wellington Elementary School.”
She didn’t know it yet, but when she started down that road as a team leader, she was about to meet a key mentor.
“Dr. Matthew Shoemaker has had the biggest influence on my career,” Vaughan said. “He was the west area superintendent, and I worked under him. As a leader, he would take the time to mentor me and share his reasoning behind decisions. He demonstrated what it means to be a servant leader and led with the ethos that we should always make decisions that are in the best interest of students. I have adopted that philosophy as a leader, and that is what guides my decision making.”
And for an elementary school principal, what could be in the best interest of students more than choosing top-notch teachers? However, it’s not always easy.
“The biggest challenge I face as a principal is the severe teacher shortage that we are now facing nationwide,” Vaughan said. “I have tried to combat this by, firstly, making sure that we retain the teachers we have and, secondly, by being proactive in finding and hiring new teachers.”
Attracting and retaining students is another challenge that one does not usually consider when talking about elementary education in public schools. Yet Vaughan ranks this as one of the highlights of her tenure.
“One area that we here at Wellington Elementary have been successful in is attracting students back to a public school who had otherwise chosen charter or private schools,” she said. “The opening of our fine arts academy has helped with this, as it offers a variety of programs that encourage and foster artistic creativity and spark students’ interest.”
The fine arts academy began in 2016 and includes, musical theater (productions and chorus), handbells, strings (orchestra ensemble), art (club, competitions and showcases), physical education (running club and team sports), and communications (TV production, journalism club and yearbook).
While the fine arts academy first began with baby steps, it has now evolved into a respected, recognized program.
“In the future, I would like to see our fine arts program expand so that more students can participate in some of the programs offered, and also to add components like dance, keyboarding and band,” Vaughan said.
Wellington Elementary’s gifted center also regularly receives accolades, Vaughan noted.
Set on more than 20 acres, this green school also has a lavish nature trail. The school is also involved in health and wellness, participating in various causes and walks, such as National Walk to School Day, Autism Speaks, the American Cancer Society, Heroes for Education and more.
Meanwhile, Vaughan feels driven to pass on her knowledge to those just starting along educational roads of their own. “Personally, I would like to continue helping teachers, especially new teachers, to grow professionally,” she said. “I want to work to attract more people to the education profession.”