In 1997, Leslie Millar entered the halls of Wynnebrook Elementary not knowing it would be her home for the next 20 years.
From the beginning, Miller found herself immersed in a school culture that prided itself on meeting the needs of its students.
If a child came to school and couldn’t see the board, the faculty made sure the child was taken to the eye doctor to get glasses. If children needed clothes, Wynnebrook provided uniforms and sneakers.
“We had a family resource center like no other,” said Millar, now a third-grade reading teacher at Wynnebrook. “The families knew that we were there for them in the long run.”
Whether it was a car wash fundraiser or holiday dance, families came out in droves to school events. Test scores skyrocketed. Now, Wynnebrook, a Title 1 School with 92 percent of students on free or reduced price lunches, is enjoying a run of 14 years as an “A” graded school.
“Our hidden gem was not so hidden anymore,” Millar said. “No one was going to tell us that minority children cannot learn. We broke that barrier.”
In February, Wynnebrook, located on Drexel Road in West Palm Beach, celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting a party that featured new and current staff, parents, and students as well as city officials.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who visited Wynnebrook twice to view its success, again made the trip from Washington D.C. as the guest speaker of the 50th birthday bash.
Hastings was introduced by radio personality Sally Severaid, who emceed the event and took pride in naming Wynnebrook’s five principals. She pointed out how rare it is for a school to have so few principals in 50 years.
Walter Murray was the first principal. His tenure was 17 years, from 1965 to 1982.
“Teachers who worked for him say he was fair, kind-hearted and supportive of their efforts at Wynnebrook,” Severaid said. “We regret to say that Mr. Murray has passed, but he is fondly remembered by many. We feel he was the cornerstone of the philosophy of ‘Excellence in Education’ at Wynnebrook Elementary School.”
Al Carnahan was principal from 1983 to 1990, Kenneth Swain was principal from 1990 to 2000, and Jeff Peff was principal from 2000 to 2016. Current principal Suzanne Berry is the first female principal of Wynnebrook.
In addition to the principals, two other special guests were Judith Ann Baldoni and Dean Lavallee.
Lavallee was one of the very first students to walk through the doors of Wynnebrook, and now owns the Park Avenue BBQ chain of restaurants. In addition to being an esteemed alumnus and guest speaker at the 50th bash, he was happy to provide lunch for the occasion.
Baldoni, who spoke about the many changes she witnessed at the school, taught first grade and kindergarten in the corner room by the office for 38 years, from 1966 to 2004.
She remembers how before another school was built west of Wynnebrook, its boundary went all the way to Loxahatchee. She traveled down narrow dirt roads to migrant farms and dairies to find students.
“The school board had to pay the parents to drive their kids down those roads to get them to the bus stop on the main highway,” Baldoni said.
Probably the most ironic twist came after her retirement in 2004. She missed Wynnebrook and her friends so much, that she returned as a substitute teacher. After 38 years of teaching, the county required her to take a course on “How to teach” in order to become a substitute.
Millar is halfway to Baldoni’s incredible length of service. At the beginning of Millar’s career, she wrote a program called, “Job Shadowing, Cameras and Careers.” At that time, Wynnebrook had a classroom called “Dropout Prevention.”
During one summer, Millar went into a Target store and trained the employees to become workplace mentors. She then went into the classroom and taught the students how to dress for success and interview. Those students trained at Target once a week, working alongside their workplace mentors. Cameras were donated, and the students put together portfolios of how the business world related to their school work.
Jeb Bush, the governor at the time, called to tell Millar he was honoring her, Target, and Principal Jeff Pegg at the Ritz Carlton.
“Years later, a high school student came up to me and told me he was in my Target program.,” Millar said. “He told me that this program changed his life. That meant the world to me.”