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.”