The leadership of a principal permeates the school building. Elaine Saef pours her heart and soul into Panther Run Elementary. And, when she finaled for 2017 Principal of the Year, about a third of the over 1000 guests came just to support her. Her win was a raucous celebration of love.
“This school is family. Everyone is welcome. Kids are changing and we will change with them. So, whoever walks through our doors, we are going to teach. It’s a non-negotiable.”
I visited Saef just after her finalist nominee interviews. Panther Run sits in the working class community of Pembroke Pines, FL, whose population exploded after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. At its peak 1500 kids filled the building. The construction of much needed new schools, including charters, allows Panther Run to now have an enrollment of 567, with 50 of those kids on the autism spectrum. Overall, about 30% the student body has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for giftedness or special needs. Every classroom has students with varying exceptionalities.
Saef stands about 5 feet tall, and was almost lost among the furniture, pictures, paperwork and mementos in her office. She’s the youngest of 5 and the proud product of Broward County schools and universities.
She insisted I tour the school, no doubt to feel the energy for myself. We couldn’t get 10 feet without kids stopping to tell her stories, give her hugs, or say hello.
Elaine Saef may be the shortest principal in the district, but it’s obvious she sets a huge example.
What brought you into principalship?
My mother was a teacher, and she was my ride to school throughout high school. I used to go to her classroom every day after school to help her. I thought I wanted to be different; my sister also became a teacher. But after college I started teaching when I couldn’t find a job in my marketing field. Mom was right. So, I went back to school and for a second bachelors to make it real.
Then, while teaching my principal pushed me to get my masters. By this time, I loved what I was doing and didn’t ever want to leave my 4th grade classroom. But she saw something in me. After my masters I held a district position but I missed working with the kids too much. So I applied to be an assistant principal here and served for 9 years. I then became principal 10 years ago. This is home. I helped open it and helped raise it. The staff raised me as a principal. This is family.
What is “PIF-WIAMAD?”
It was my dream to be the principal of this school. And I wanted to pay it forward, to my students, staff and the community as a whole. My first year I started the “Pay It Forward” (PIF) theme. It grew into all our interactions with our kids, with their parents, with the community and with the staff. If I treat my staff well, they will treat my kids and their parents well and we will all get along.
Then we added “who I am makes a difference” (WIAMAD) because it’s not just about any interaction, but about having positive interactions. It’s about how you show up to relationships with others. The PIF-WIAMAD slogan emerged. It stuck. It became our culture and we live by it. Not just in-house, but we send signs to our partners. We put it out in the community.
So what does “PIF-WIAMAD” look like in a school day?
It’s in everything, starting with the feeling you get when you walk in. I am very hands on. If I hear a parent at the front desk registering I go out and introduce myself. I want to meet my new parents; try to learn every child’s name. Our culture at Panther Run invites people in.
But more importantly, when you see our students in the hallway they will look at you, they will say good morning and speak to you. They are not looking down. They are happy. We get the honor of having them more awake-hours than their parents. We tell our kids that we are a family and their classmates are their brother and sisters. So we must treat each other with respect.
PIF-WIAMAD also shows up in the way we work with parents. A parent shouldn’t have to fill out a form or wait 24 hours to talk to the principal. If I’m available, why shouldn’t I speak to them immediately? If they are worried about their kid, I need to know why. If they are nervous, I need to fix it. Making a parent wait is just going to make them angrier, and it’s not helping anyone including our kids.
You can tell staff and kids are happy when you walk around a school. If a parent walks into a school, public or not, and they don’t get that feeling they will go to the next school. The new state law that allows students to go to any school in the state if there is room, so we will see more parents shop around. And they should.
Parents are clamoring to get their children with special needs into Panther Run. Why is that?
I was always very little…a short person. In eighth grade I failed Algebra. My grades fell “B, to C, then D, and F”. That was because on the first day my teacher lifted me up in front of the class and said “Boy, you’re a little one aren’t you?” And that was it. I didn’t care about Algebra. His action was a statement to me that my height was all he saw when I walked through the door. He didn’t care who I was.
We all have our thing that we get picked on for, and I wanted to build a culture where you don’t. I retook algebra in 9th grade and passed. I swore I would never disrespect anyone like that.
All special needs are welcome at Panther Run. We figure out how the child needs to learn and teach that way to develop their skills. We let our parents know we are in this together. They’ve raised their child and know which strategies worked at home and which didn’t. Share that with us, we can implement or adjust it for the classroom. We learn from our parents.
They have heard about our reputation; about how we treat the kids and our parents. We are one of the top choices for McKay reassignments for ESE students in our typical and ESE student bodies. Last year we had over 40 kids on the waitlist. We requested a 6th unit this year. And, now it’s full.
What are your hopes for education with the new administration?
I hope they understand a school grade doesn’t define us. We fell to a “B” and got back up to an “A” last year. This year, I don’t know. A few days of tests do not define the child or a school.
Recently, half the school had the stomach virus during the recent FSA (Florida Standard Assessment). In one class of 3rd graders only 8 kids were present. Did they test well when they returned? Probably not. We switched to a computer-based test from a written test. We don’t have a lot of computers in our school, so are we testing their use of the computer, or are we testing their knowledge?
There may be an autistic student taking a 5th grade test who functions on a 2nd grade level. There is only so much help we are allowed to give him. I have had kids come to me and beg not to take the test, but they have to. And that impacts your school grade.
That’s why we teach to the whole child, with the arts, field days and mini-marathons. Some kids may not be the honor roll student, but they may be the athlete or the performer.
I love them. I love my kids. All kids can and will learn.
On February 11th, Panther Run Elementary was named the Kindest Public School in the City of Pembroke Pines. PIF-WIAMAD!!