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.