Story by Chris Felker • Photos by Abner Pedraza
Veteran educator Mary Baldwin is among the first to arrive at Wellington Landings Middle School each day, and one of the last to leave. It’s not just because she enjoys teaching, of course, although that’s a big part of the reason.
Baldwin is a pioneer of the Middle School Afterschool Program, which began in 1995 with a Florida Department of Education grant awarded to the Palm Beach County School District. She has been running Wellington Landings’ program ever since. “It’s really unique and really cool, I think,” Baldwin said. “What’s so awesome about our program is we just have so much to offer.”
Although many other middle schools have similar programs, Baldwin doesn’t know of any others that are so extensive, offering the incredible range of activities available to Wellington Landings students who stay after hours because their parents work late or lack other options to ensure their children are supervised and safe after school.
So many activities are available that the school has its own full-color program brochure that’s given to parents. The program has proved so popular over the years that activities are also now available before the regular class day, starting at 7:30 a.m. and continuing until breakfast at 9:05 a.m.
Baldwin fills two other, complex roles in her regular school day job. “Right now I’m not in a classroom setting, I’m the eighth-grade and the ESE (exceptional student education) administrator. When the bell rings, I change that hat to this hat,” she explained. “My degree is in exceptional student education, and I’ve always worked with the ESE population.”
Born and raised in Gainesville, Baldwin earned her degree from Florida State University, married and moved to the area in 1984 with her husband, where they started a family. She has three grown children, and also a younger child, now in seventh grade.
Baldwin was certain of her calling even at a young age. As a student, she was drawn to helping those younger than herself, often students who were slower to learn.
“I’ve just always enjoyed working with children. I was good at it. I like kids — I love kids, actually — and to this day, probably one of the things I’m most proud about, is that after 34 years in education, I still love my work,” she said.
Her involvement with students outside the classroom has much to do with that. She explains that the afterschool program is free to all who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, with nominal fees for others. “You can get math help with a certified math teacher, and it’s only $3 a day,” Baldwin said, offering just one example.
The school’s brochure only begins to list the dizzying variety of enrichments that students can seek out. Among the clubs are: academic games, anime, audio-visual, chess, debate, drama, environmental, future educators, majorettes, National Junior Honor Society, newspaper, twirling, yearbook and more. Then there are intramural sports, such as basketball, fitness/conditioning, flag football, indoor soccer, lacrosse, track, volleyball, weight training and wrestling.
“Wellington is sports-driven. Kids play sports from very early ages. So to make any of the teams, it’s extremely competitive,” Baldwin said; thus, the afterschool sports activities at Wellington Landings are extremely popular.
Other afterschool activities include cheerleading, creative cooking, dance, fishing, game room, golf, homework help, Minecraft, scrapbooking, sign language and step team.
The Wellington Landings program draws accolades from students, parents and the school district.
“The Wellington Landings Afterschool Program is the best blend of afterschool and day school,” said Olivia Rogers, who manages Out of School Programs for the school district. “This program has always had a wide variety of activities so that many students can participate. The school has embraced the afterschool program as part of the entire school culture, which has made the program a huge success.”
That’s a big source of pride for Baldwin, who uses a tight annual budget to run the activities.
One component of the afterschool program is a series of built-in recognitions for students who might not otherwise stand out among their peers.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we recognize these kids all the time,” Baldwin said. “So someone who maybe really excels in flag football — they may not get recognition through honor roll or didn’t make a sports team — but we’ll put them on the morning announcements.”
They also regularly stage sports tournaments. “The entire school will come out and watch the championship game. We’ll have the cheerleaders come out — all their peers can see them,” Baldwin said. “The other thing is that we do a whole assembly in February. All of the afterschool programs perform, and all the kids are invited to watch.”
The activities make such an impression on the children that, at any given time, 10 high-schoolers come back and volunteer to help with the afterschool program, Baldwin said. Among those students was Theresa Cameron.
“As an eighth-grader, she started helping me in the program,” Baldwin said. “Then she came over every day after school in ninth and 10th grades. When she was in 11th grade, I ended up hiring her to help me.”
Cameron eventually earned an education degree and was hired as a teacher at Wellington Landings. “It was such a cool success story to have someone from eighth grade all the way through to now,” Baldwin said. “She’s my right-hand person here in the afterschool program.”
Baldwin said her biggest personal satisfaction comes from her relationships with students. “Every day is a challenge, but every day is a new day and a fun day, and I just love it,” she said. “The afterschool program gives us an opportunity to see kids in a different light, outside of the structured classroom, and build those relationships that are so important in their overall success as students.”