Editor's note: Due to issues with the digital file from which Monday's edition was published, portions of this story were missing from both print and online editions. We are reprinting the full story here.
Of all the schools in the Florida Keys, only Stanley Switlik Elementary can claim a connection, however tenuous, to famed pilot Amelia Earhart.
Located on the gulfside of Marathon, with sweet open water views, the school sits on land donated by Polish immigrant Stanley Switlik, who with a partner, built the first parachute training tower in the U.S. Earhart was the first jumper from the structure, and described the experience as "loads of fun."
Though the school faces its share of challenges in these anxious and economically challenging times, improvements have been made under the leadership of Principal Lesley Salinero, who served as assistant principal from 2000 to 2003, as principal, from 2003 to 2005, and is now into her second year as principal of the school, once again.
And on a day when physical education teacher Steve Hawes is helping his students prepare for the annual Jogathon fundraiser, which takes place later this week, the kids indeed appear to be having "loads of fun." (This is especially true, when they manage to outrun the principal, who reciprocates with student rewards.)
"We have the highest population of minority students of any school in the Keys," said Salinero, whose career in education began as a teacher at May Sands Elementary in 1989. "We also serve the highest number of free and reduced-price lunches. In a way, we're almost surrogate parents to some of these kids."
Among the changes Salinero has spearheaded since retaking the helm, is a major upgrade of the Pre-K-through-5 school's media center.
"It took three years of persuading, but we moved it from this small, windowless room, to a much bigger space on the ground level," Salinero said. "Some people were worried that it might flood down here, so it wasn't easy making the move."
Salinero, who holds degrees from Nova Southeastern University, Troy State University, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, designed the layout of the new center herself, while students helped pick out the decorations for the large, brightly lit space.
Other innovations at the school include the alignment of "specials," subjects such as art, PE, and media, with core subjects, such as language arts within the arts class, research within the library class, and math within PE.
"This means, for example, that when the kids are running, we're also having them work out math problems at the same time," Salinero said.
The all-important subject of science has been singled out as a "standalone special," instead of music this year, giving students a "double dose" of the discipline in the school's newly created science lab, to help them become career and college ready.
While Switlik recognizes and takes part in Literacy Week, the school takes reading seriously throughout the academic year.
"We have a special book club in which a group of students read selected books," Salinero said. "As a reward, they meet with me and discuss what they have read, what they liked about the book, while enjoying cupcakes. We also have a monthly reading recognition where all the top readers get a party with the principal at the cafeteria. Finally, at the close of the school year, all students with 100 points or more are taken to the yacht club for a Principal's Luncheon, with all the frills."
The school is also the only one in the district that participates in the Scripps Spelling Bee. Centennial Bank pays to register the school in the competition, and last year provided funds for the family of the winner to travel to the state competition.
"[The bank] also gave savings bonds to the top three finishers," Salinero said, "It's a very big deal for our kids and their families, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Centennial also provides many other supports for our school, including cooking out for hundreds of kids and families at our open house, Halloween carnival, holiday performance, and other events. They have a real heart for our school."
Against the odds, perhaps, Switlik has racked up plenty of accolades over the years.
It was the only school in the state to win the Governor's Point of Light Award in 2005, and has also won recognition with a Little Red School House Award.
Switlik was the first, and remains the oldest, school in the district accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and has won the Five Star School Award annually for the past 12 years.
More school recognition came in May 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott held the first-ever Governor's Cabinet Meeting at a public school -- Switlik.
"That was pretty exciting for the students," Salinero said. "For them, he's a very famous person."
In terms of keeping up with current technology, the school has installed Promethean smart boards in nearly all of the classrooms. Teachers wear lapel microphones, which interact with the boards.
There are also a number of cameras on the premises, to keep an eye on the grounds, though Salinero lamented the loss of a full-time School Resource Officer.
"He used to come to train the kids for the DARE program," she said. "But now he's on stand-by."
Salinero takes a keen interest in school safety, and the issue of bullying.
Since 2005, she's served as the district's executive director of Curriculum and Exceptional Student Education, and knows first-hand how students who appear to be different can experience difficulties with their peers.
"I've found that bullying is less prevalent in elementary school," Salinero said. "The kids are learning boundaries. But there definitely needs to be a culture of intolerance of bullying. Our kids don't have locks on their lockers. I tell them, this is my house. This is your house. My teachers are on the same page."
As to the matter of teachers, Salinero's attitude is simple.
"If I wouldn't put my kids in their class, I won't put somebody else's. What's interesting is that usually all it takes is talking to the teacher, and they improve. When they don't, you have a problem, and you deal with it accordingly."
Fourth-grade teacher Nan Young enjoys the atmosphere at the school, and being a part of the "Switlik family."
In her "Pod," as the grade clusters are called, students were given sable palm seedlings for Arbor Day, so they'd learn to avoid landscaping around power lines.
Young's class has also been working "really hard" practicing for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, by typing essays into an E-Folio for computer grading.
"They only have one hour to take the test," Young said. "It's really hard. But you need to get kids psyched about reading and writing, so they can get into it and make it personal. Good readers make good writers."