Story by Deborah Welky | Photos by Denise Fleischman
Binks Forest Elementary School opened in February 2000 as the third elementary school in Wellington, serving the community’s growing western areas. For the past 13 years, the school has been led by Principal Michella Levy.
Levy is living proof that success can be achieved no matter what life throws at you. Raised in a small central Florida town, she recalled struggled all through her school years, in a community where education did not seem to be a priority.
“I didn’t get the education that I needed, and I had no family support,” Levy said. “I went from kindergarten through 12th grade with the same group of kids. I was on a work/study program where I learned only basic reading, basic math, and went to work for the rest of the of day. There were 103 in my graduating class. I have a great work ethic, but school was not a great experience. And that’s why I’m a teacher and a principal now — to make a difference.”
Once Levy started reading in earnest, she read everything she could. Although it took her eight years to earn her bachelor’s degree, she completed a typically three-year master’s degree program in just one year — all while teaching full time.
By age 27, she was teaching elementary school at an inner-city school in Orlando. She went on to teach fourth and fifth grade in Palm Springs here in Palm Beach County, while also working as a reading coach, showing teachers how to successfully teach reading. She knew firsthand just how important that was.
This was followed by six years at Hidden Oaks Elementary School in suburban Lake Worth.
“I wanted to become a school counselor, but the principal at Hidden Oaks said, ‘No, I want you as my assistant principal,’” remembered Levy, who earned her master’s degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University and took the job.
Thirteen years ago, Levy was promoted to principal at Binks Forest here in Wellington.
“I’m very grateful and very humbled to be here. I truly do get to make a difference for 1,200 kids every day,” she said. “Every decision I make, I ask myself, ‘Am I doing the best for the child?’ If there’s a problem, I call the kid in, read their soul and see what they need. I’ll move a kid out of a particular class in a minute if that’s what they need.”
Levy gives special thanks to former Area Superintendent Dr. Matthew Shoemaker for his support during her early years as a principal.
“His guidance was amazing — with love and patience. The people who you love, you do things for out of love. The people you fear, you only do it out of fear. So, I lead with love,” Levy said. “I greet them at the door, hug them, want to know what kind of morning they had. I tell them, ‘We’re a family. We don’t bicker. We don’t gossip. We’re family. We love each other.’”
When Levy took over as principal, Binks Forest was already an A-rated school, in part because it was a gifted center, home to high-performing students from across Wellington. Today, most elementary schools keep their high-performing students, so Binks Forest is no longer classified as a gifted center, but it’s still an A-rated school.
“We’re a perfectly rounded school,” Levy said. “One-third of our students are functioning below grade level, one third are at grade level and one third are above grade level. We have more of our students than ever on the free and reduced-price lunch program, and people don’t realize that. It’s not the same ‘clientele,’ but we’re still scoring high on the state tests.”
For the past two years, being a principal meant dealing with many more social and emotional challenges — for staff, as well as students.
“You had to be there for everybody,” Levy said. “Even though we were delivering laptops and desks, kids were raising themselves in front of screens, my own included. I was too busy to ‘enjoy’ the pandemic.”
Yet Levy doesn’t consider the pandemic to be her biggest challenge as a principal. Instead, it’s something much simpler.
“Our motto at Binks is to ‘expect the best.’ I expect the best, and I’m a pro-active person. So, I find it hard to run a school when I don’t have complete control over everything. For example, maintenance and furniture. I know what I need, and it’s difficult, with maintenance budget cuts, to get the resources. Getting a toilet fixed can take a while, but, if a bathroom isn’t fixed, a child loses seven minutes of class time going to another bathroom further away. Maintenance is important.”
Levy has tried to offset the problem by doing some fundraising on her own, but she always works to put her focus on the students.
“We pride ourselves on extremely high expectations for kids, but we also want to make learning fun,” she said. “We’ve planned 11 field trips for our fourth graders because I believe they will remember experiences over workbooks. We turn science, social studies and English into a farming experience. We plant things; we shuck corn. We dress up for a ‘Coming to America’ history lesson. They may not remember a book, but they will remember ‘Coming to America’ in second grade.”
What Levy looks for when hiring teachers goes beyond academics. “My staff and my teachers have to have heart,” she said. “I can teach teachers how to teach, but I can’t teach ‘heart,’ so that’s what I look for.”
At the start of the school year, Levy also takes the time to make sure that each student is placed with the correct teacher.
“I have their background on cards, and I look at every single kid individually,” Levy said. “It takes me about 60 hours to place every kid with the perfect teacher, but my goal is to educate the whole child — to make sure each child has a great year. Even then, I never let academics go — if a child needs individualized instruction in one area, that’s what they will get.”
Levy once had set her sights set on becoming a high school principal or even a superintendent but, upon reflection, decided to stay put.
“I’ll make more of a difference here,” she said. “I love what I’ve built at Binks Forest — the culture and environment. Because I’m so grateful to all the people who mentored me, I participate in a ‘My Mentor and Me’ program, as do many of the teachers here. It’s a good program for any student who needs a little extra love and attention. I mentor six children because I know what it’s like. Nothing has been handed to me.”