Education Committee Hears Keely Spinelli Grant Presentations

The Wellington Education Committee with local principals and educators, including Gail Pasterczyk, Michele Johnson, Maria Vaughan, Dana Pallaria, Orlando Mastrapa, Edilia De La Vega, Darren Edgecomb, Michael Aronson, Blake Bennett, Eugina Smith Feaman, Karen Berard and John Rejc. School Board Member Marcia Andrews, Instructional Elementary Superintendent Vivian Green, Instructional Secondary Superintendent Karen Whetsell and Regional Superintendent Valerie Zuloaga-Haines were also in attendance.

Wellington’s Education Committee met Tuesday, Aug. 20 to review the success of last year’s Keely Spinelli Grant Program and find out how Wellington schools plan to spend this year’s money.

The committee heard from elementary, middle and high school principals, who described how the grants have made a difference for their school children, especially under-performing students in the lowest 25th percentile. The overarching goal of the Keely Spinelli Grant Program is to help bring those students up to grade level.

Central Regional Superintendent Valerie Zuloaga-Haines noted how important the grants have been in making a difference in Wellington schools.

“When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer and like school more,” Zuloaga-Haines said.

She explained that the grant program supports the Palm Beach County School District’s four long-term goals: increasing proficiency in third grade reading to 75 percent or higher, ensuring high school readiness, promoting high school graduation and fostering post-graduate success.

The program is named in honor of the late Binks Forest Elementary School Principal Keely Spinelli, a literacy-focused educator who died of cancer in 2008. In 2013, the Village of Wellington created the Keely Spinelli Grant Program with the intent of offering financial assistance to students at 11 village schools.

Every year, each school receives grants that get put to good use helping students achieve elevated reading skills while offering tutoring tools to advance the abilities of children in science and math. Each year, school principals must reapply, noting what the money will be used for.

On Tuesday evening, the grant recipients explained how the money has influenced their children to learn, and how they will use this year’s money in their schools.

The Wellington Village Council approved $400,000 from the general operating fund to go toward the Keely Spinelli Grant Program for 11 schools. Each school will be awarded $35,363 to create advancements for lower-achieving students, enriching their learning.

Binks Forest Elementary School Assistant Principal Karen Berard was the first educator to address the board.

“We, together with all of Binks Forest, wanted to thank you for continuing to support our school, and the other schools in Wellington,” Berard said. “We focused mainly with this grant money on the lowest 25 percent. In reading, we went from 61 percent to 78 percent for our lowest 25 percent. We were able to use a little bit of that money for science curriculum, and our scores went up from 73 percent to 82 percent, which is a huge gain if you look across the district.”

This year’s money will be used toward language arts and math programming.

“We have a big emphasis on third grade,” Berard said. “This is a big emphasis in the district. One of the areas is tutorial groups. This has been a very significant part of our improvements. We would also like to get a few more Chromebooks so we can access online reading and math programs.”

Elbridge Gale Elementary School Principal Gail Pasterczyk thanked the committee for its support.

“These gains could not have been made [without the grants]. There are no other funds in our schools to do what we are able to do,” Pasterczyk said. “Last year was the first year we were able to help more than just the third, fourth and fifth graders. We were grateful for that flexibility because we are so extremely proud of our first graders. Out of 150 students, we had only one child not where they needed to be at the end of the year.”

Palm Beach Central High School Principal Darren Edgecomb told the committee that the grants are an important expansion of his school.

“I want to express our gratitude as well,” Edgecomb said. “The latitude you have given us with the grant has made things possible. We were recognized for our 95 percent graduation rate. We spend the vast majority of our money on tutorials. This is what we plan on continuing to do. We have lunch tutorials. We have math labs, after-school tutorials, and Saturday tutorials in math and reading. This is the main way for reaching all of our students.”

After nearly a dozen principals made their presentations, School Board Member Marcia Andrews also thanked the board for Wellington’s support of its local schools.

“I am so proud to be your school board member. We have straight A-level schools. With the council and the Wellington Education Board, we are awesome as a family and a team,” Andrews said. “Keely Spinelli, I knew her personally. She made the difference here, and you’re continuing that legacy, as all of us are.”

Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone attended the meeting and thanked the school administrators and the committee for their hard work.

“You all know how proud we are of our schools,” Napoleone said. “We are an A-rated school district. It’s all because of the work that you do every day. From the principals to the staff, to the teachers, students, the involved parents — we have a great village. I want to thank all of you for what you do.”

In other business:

• The board picked its chair and vice chair for the upcoming year. John Webber will remain chair, while Shelly Albright will remain vice chair.

• Community Services Director Paulette Edwards gave the committee an update on village programs, such as the SWAG (Students Working to Achieve Greatness) program, which was initiated in 2017 and provides internships for high school students.

“We had 12 students who went through the SWAG program this summer,” Edwards said. “We have a total of 34 graduates through the program. This year, as we do every year, we had students from both Palm Beach Central and Wellington high schools. They were located at positions all over Wellington and some at Palm Beach County. We had some located at the county commissioner’s office and the state attorney’s office.”

Edwards noted that Wellington hosted another successful back-to-school event at the end of July. “We served more than 800 families,” she said. “We had 1,000 backpacks that were available. Families lined up as early as 7:30 a.m. on that Saturday to participate in the program. Everyone was so thankful.”