A Nurturing And Challenging School Culture

A Nurturing  And Challenging School Culture Equestrian Trails Elementary School Principal Michele Chorniewy Aims To Create Resilient Young Learners

Story by Deborah Welky  |  Photos by Denise Fleischman

Equestrian Trails Elementary School opened in 2003 to serve Wellington’s eastern neighborhoods. Located adjacent to the Olympia community, the school will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year.

For the past 12 years, the principal at Equestrian Trails has been Michele Chorniewy, who grew up in a small, rural, “horse country” town just outside Ocala.

“I enjoyed elementary school tremendously,” Chorniewy recalled. “I can even look back on specific years and specific teachers who made that time special for me.”

Her first mentor, however, was her mother, Marlene.

“My mother should’ve been a teacher,” Chorniewy said. “I grew up in a single parent home with one sister. My mother had this mindset of high expectations, especially for us girls, that nothing could hold us back. She didn’t accept anything but the best we could possibly do. She was a huge influence in my wanting to be a teacher and make a difference, and she helped me find that inner drive within myself.”

Chorniewy received her undergraduate degree at the University of Central Florida and her master’s degree at San José State University in California. She also took part in a program and taught leadership to other teachers, her first steps toward administration.

“I taught for two years in Connecticut and for 10 in California, but I always knew I would be coming back to Florida,” she said. “I relocated when an opportunity presented itself right after 9/11. I spent one year teaching and observing at Cholee Lake Elementary School in Greenacres, then mentioned my degree to the principal. Soon after that, I became a team leader and then ESOL coordinator at the school.”

Her time at Cholee Lake helped Chorniewy make the transition to assistant principal, first at Limestone Creek Elementary School in Jupiter and then Marsh Point Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens.

“I stayed with that principal, Maureen Werner, for three years and joined her when she went to open a brand-new school,” Chorniewy said. “We chose the design, the colors and hired every single person. At that time, you had to be an assistant principal for five years before you could apply to be a principal.”

Chorniewy credits Werner, who recently retired, with being a key mentor.

“With her as my mentor, I learned how to create a caring ‘school family,’ a supportive environment — especially for staff — where everyone feels appreciated and wants to come to work and views it as a happy place,” she said.

While working at Marsh Point, Chorniewy moved to Wellington, and her own daughters attended Polo Park Middle School and Wellington High School. By the time Equestrian Trails had an opening for a principal, Chorniewy was more than ready.

“I’ve been here at Equestrian Trails for 12 years now,” Chorniewy said. “When I got here, the school had dropped to a B-rated school. I needed to build a strong foundation through students and staff with relationships and a ‘we can do it’ attitude. Now, we’re an A-rated school with state-of-the-art programs and hands-on, project-based learning. We have lots of opportunities for kids to showcase their talents through arts, technology and more.”

The school is highly competitive in the Academic Games and does well in the STEM-based SECME competition.

“We’re a STEM choice school, something I created,” Chorniewy said. “We used to have a few clubs, but now we have robotics, a positivity club focusing on the importance of kindness, and a drama club, which I run myself. I consistently work to bring forth new programs, to make sure kids can compete globally for the jobs of the future, and to promote that to girls especially.

This past year, Equestrian Trails was second in the school district and 18th in Florida on state testing. “That was very big, coming off the pandemic,” she said.

When the pandemic struck, Chorniewy had unique experience for dealing with it.

“A big influencer on my career was Dr. [Martin] Krovetz, my lead professor at San José State,” she said. “He has written books on fostering resiliency in children and was well known around the U.S. I did my graduate work underneath him and learned the importance of creating a nurturing and academically challenging culture at school. In short, making sure students get what they need mentally, preparing them to overcome challenges and being there for them so they can sustain that while, at the same time, maintaining a top-notch academic culture for all kids equitably.”

Chorniewy has found getting back to normal harder than dealing with the early phases of the pandemic.

“The aftermath has turned out to be the hardest,” she said. “Teachers are having a hard time getting kids to learn. We’re seeing how academics suffer when students are home for long periods of time, with no parent in the room with them. And there’s a loss of social skills, especially in those kindergarteners who are now in second grade. We’re seeing kids who don’t know how to talk to one another, nor problem solve.”

Her focus recently has been getting those students the extra resources and assistance they need.

“True, some kids enjoy being on the computer and have the inner drive to listen to a teacher remotely but, especially on an elementary level, they’re not there yet,” Chorniewy said. “The majority of children need to be in school. Sadly, a lot of our kids who really needed to be in school were the last ones to come back. When they had the choice, they stayed home.”

In the future, Chorniewy hopes to get deeper into project-based learning and to have students work on global problem-solving, over weeks and months if necessary. She wants to bring in technology that students will need when they go to middle and high school.

“I want my students to problem-solve and work together,” she said. “We need to come back to that.”

While retirement may be in her future, she has no immediate plans to leave Equestrian Trails.

“I plan on retiring right here at Equestrian Trails,” Chorniewy said. “I recently remarried, so I’m looking forward to traveling. My daughters are older and getting married. I’m looking forward to grandchildren. There are always new things. In the meantime, I want to keep the school growing. I want to find new ways to inspire kids. I want to leave the school much better than when I got here. I’m already looking at staff for leadership ability. Great leaders create an environment where things continue to run well whether they are there or not. Everyone should continue learning.”