Story by Deborah Welky | Photos by Denise Fleischman
Back when Wellington was a fledgling community, there was no local high school. Teenagers were bused far away to schools on the coast. That all changed in 1988 with the long-awaited opening of Wellington High School on Greenview Shores Blvd.
For nearly 35 years now, Wellington High School has been educating and graduating generations of Wolverines at a school known for its strong academics and unique special programs, burnishing the Village of Wellington’s reputation for great local schools.
Since 2018, Wellington High School has been led by Principal Cara Hayden, who took over for longtime Principal Mario Crocetti when he retired.
Hayden is someone who rises to meet every challenge, and she has been doing so since back in her own high school days, which were split between two different states — the first half in northern California, and the second half in Plantation, Florida. The one constant was her involvement in sports.
“My life was filled with athletics,” Hayden said. “I was doing varsity swimming and playing varsity water polo all four years. When I wasn’t doing sports, I was always working to take care of myself. I worked to save up enough money for college and to buy a car.”
Upon graduation, she was accepted into Florida State University, where she earned three degrees over the next nine years, including a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“I wanted to work with at-risk kids,” Hayden recalled. “I wanted to help them know that there’s something more out there than what is in their immediate social life.”
So, Hayden began her journey as a social worker.
“But then I saw that kids with disabilities weren’t getting equal access to high level courses and other services, so I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in disabilities and emotional disturbances.”
From 2000 to 2009, Hayden taught algebra and geometry to students who had trouble learning, then became a specialist on the subject. “I traveled from school to school, teaching students and showing teachers how to better teach them,” she explained.
An FSU certification in educational leadership in hand, Hayden made her biggest advance when the principal of one of the schools on her itinerary, Santaluces High School, created an assistant principal position especially for her.
“I was an assistant principal there for five years,” Hayden said. “I helped the school become an A-rated school and worked to make sure all students graduated. Then I got the call to become principal at Wellington High School.”
Hayden was excited by the opportunity to lead a school with such a stellar reputation.
“I always knew that I wanted to impact as many students as I could,” she said. “I wanted to eventually be able to run my own school and make sure all students received all the services they deserved.”
As if leading a high school with 2,700 students isn’t challenging enough, Hayden arrived at a challenging time.
“Coming to Wellington has been one of my greatest challenges. As soon as I arrived, the Stoneman Douglas incident occurred,” she recalled, referring to the deadly February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “So, I had to take a school I’d only been in one month and change most policies to ensure the safety of our students and to do the best I could to make sure something like that didn’t happen at WHS.”
Then, just two years later, COVID-19 altered the landscape once again. Being suddenly thrust into remote learning presented its own challenges.
“I would say we’ve all learned a tremendous amount, and these tragedies have brought our staff and students much closer,” Hayden said. “We’ve learned to work as a team and to collaborate better than we would have if we hadn’t had to turn the school into a virtual school.”
Despite everything, Wellington High School continues to thrive. It is home to award-winning programs, both academic and extracurricular. It is home to four highly regarded choice academies: Equine/Pre-Veterinary, Fine Arts, Fire Science and Marketing.
“Each year, we see more students graduating from WHS with the tools and training that prepare them for college and the work force,” Hayden said. “We have record numbers earning AICE diplomas, college credits and industry certifications. Our athletic teams continue to achieve athletically and academically. Each of our performing arts groups — band, chorus, dance and theater — have earned Superior ratings at interscholastic competitions. Finally, we’ve expanded our leadership offerings beyond student government to include Latinos in Action, Link Crew and the Black Leadership & Achievement Student Team (BLAST).”
Personally, Hayden is thankful for the support she got from so many people along the way, such as Deputy Superintendent Edward Tierney; Keith Oswald, currently the school district’s chief of equity and wellness; and Dreyfoos School of the Arts Principal Blake Bennett. Each helped her at key points in her career.
“I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve worked with a lot of great people. Keith Oswald was a principal when I was teaching and gave me my first opportunity to step into a leadership role,” she said. “Edward Tierney was at Boynton Beach High School when I was teaching math there. He’s a very serious guy, and he came into my class to observe, wearing a very serious face. At end of class, he told me it was the best math class he had ever seen. Since then, he has always looked out for me. As a teacher, I did work incredibly hard and did everything I was supposed to do with the best intentions for all my students. Also Blake Bennett, who was an assistant principal back then, all three of them have really helped shape my career.”
Hayden is most proud of the amazing work done by the students at Wellington High School through challenging times.
“Even though students have had to adapt to a series of abrupt changes and unusual challenges over the past two years, at their core, kids still value the same things about being part of a school as always. They’ve always been supportive of their peers; now they have more social emotional learning skills to help their friends and classmates,” she said. “Students wish to be part of meaningful clubs and organizations; now, they know how to extend those efforts beyond meetings and classrooms by using social media and digital resources. Most importantly, they want to be seen, heard and valued.”
Hayden remains as excited about her position at WHS as the first day she arrived four years ago.
“I plan to hang out here as long as they’ll have me,” she said. “I want to continue to see our students be safe, have a meaningful learning environment and continue to grow academically and socially. I want to see human kindness. I want the students leaving Wellington High School to become citizens that we are all going to be proud of.”