Cara Hayden had big shoes to fill on her first day as principal at Wellington High School.
The 45-year-old former principal of Starlight Cove Elementary recently replaced Mario Crocetti, who retired after nearly a decade at the school — about the same amount of time Hayden has worked for the Palm Beach County School District.
“It’s a little intimidating but I’m hoping to really collaborate with the staff that’s already here, the community, the families and the kids,” said Hayden, whose first day flying solo as principal of Wellington High was Jan. 30.
She came to Palm Beach County in 2007 from a teaching position at Coral Gables Senior High School to teach geometry and algebra at Boynton Beach High School. She was a district math specialist before serving as an assistant principal at Santaluces High School for five years.
In 2016, she was promoted to principal at Starlight Cove Elementary School in Lantana. Her move to Wellington High was announced in December, with her first day at the school on Jan. 16. She said realizing her goal of becoming a high school principal is “a dream come true.”
Hayden lives just outside Wellington with her three middle school-age children, all of whom she plans to bring to Wellington High.
She talked with The Palm Beach Post about her experience, her accomplishments and what she’s most looking forward to in her new role:
On going from high school, to elementary school, and back again: “Generally it’s hard to take someone out of a high school assistant principal position and put you in charge of the entire school. You can’t take over a high school without seeing what else is out there and what else is happening, and to see it from the ground up, so they like you to broaden your experiences a little bit.
“I applied to Starlight Cove when it came open, and it was in the same community as Santaluces so I was able to work with the same families. It was like a backwards design. I knew what the end result was going to be … and what would happen when they go to Santaluces, and I wanted to make a difference. …
“So now I have a much more broad understanding of curriculum and a stronger foundation, and I also learned a tremendous amount about how to run a full organization and not just a piece of it.”
On a mid-year transition of power and taking over from Crocetti: “Mr. Crocetti was here with me for two weeks helping me out, helping me get to know the school and get to know all the little ins and outs. It was a blessing. Most people don’t get that opportunity, to work with someone whose life was invested in what you’re about to take over. He was so incredibly gracious and so willing to teach me what he knew. He’s really been a rock in this community.
“And he checks in on me to make sure I’m OK. It’s probably the nicest transition anyone could ever ask for, walking into a high school mid-year, taking on such a huge responsibility. He’s been so kind, so gracious.”
On her vision for Wellington High: “The vision is to increase the rigor in our academic offerings, while at the same time try to close the achievement gap with our lowest 25 (percent) and our core instruction group.
“I’d like to ensure that all of our students have opportunities to take college coursework. Many of our students come to us their freshman year and they start taking college coursework. I don’t care when you do it, it’s if you do it. I would like to see even a senior who’s been in regular classes their entire high school career and in their senior year they jump into that first college level course. … And if that’s not for them, then I’d like to increase some of the vocational opportunities for our students as well so that everyone has a reason to come to school, everyone wants to be here and we can find their interest.”
On Superintendent Robert Avossa’s recently announced resignation: “I’m very surprised. I did not know that was coming. But everybody needs to do what they need to do for themselves and for their family. I know that the (School) Board will do everything they can to replace him with someone amazing.”
On fights on campus: “Coming in mid-year, I really don’t want to come in and change all of the systems that they have in place, but I am walking in with my eyes wide open. I’m making a lot of observations and I’m taking a lot of notes and listening to the community, listening to the staff, listening to our students. My No. 1 priority obviously is the safety of our students.”
On her greatest professional accomplishments: “The last couple years I was at Santaluces we had a program for our at-risk seniors, and we had some students whose GPA was below 1.0. Many people had given up on them.
“Myself and a few of my colleagues pulled together a program called Sunset School where we would work with every single one of those kids and we would make a full educational plan … and they would do it. It was just a matter of those kids believing that they could, that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. …
“I was at Macy’s a few weeks ago buying a dress for my daughter and a young lady was behind the counter, and she goes, ‘Ms. Hayden?’ It was one of my seniors from Santaluces. She was one of those that she just needed someone that she could deescalate with and sit down with for a second and talk and realize there was light at the end of the tunnel. We worked tirelessly with her. … We really took a personal approach with the kids and we were able to get them through.
“Seeing her at Macy’s the other day, I was like, ‘No way.’ She’s at Palm Beach State now. I was so intrigued, and I was so happy that she pulled it off.”
On what she wants parents to know about her: “I’m very transparent, and one of my mantras … is I would much rather be proactive than reactive. I like to educate myself, educate those around me and then educate the parents that are part of our high school community. Then we work together with the faculty, staff and community to come together for solutions. I’m not the be-all, end-all. I’m a collaborator and I believe that transparency and collaboration breeds trust, and I think that’s going to be key in helping Wellington move to the next level.”
On her children’s reaction to possibly having ‘Principal Mom’ someday: “They’re already thoroughly embarrassed because I danced in the pep rally last Friday (Feb. 2) and they were here for Bring Your Child to Work Day, so they were already like, ‘Ugh, God.’ (laughs) I am full of energy and I have no problem making a fool of myself for the good of the building and for the good of the school. I am not proud in any way and they know that about me, so they’re ready to be embarrassed, basically.”
On musical morning announcements, and finding joy in her job: “I used to do musical morning announcements at Starlight Cove. The kids find you a little bit more personable when you’re willing to make a fool of yourself. We would do little skits. Our last big one was to ‘Despacito.’ I pulled in the teachers. It was fun.
“You can’t be too serious. You have to find joy in your day and joy in your job and enjoy what you’re doing. And you want to engage the kids, you can’t just tell them. You have to include them.”