As with most of the world’s finest school principals, Lynn Zaldua began her career in the classroom as a teacher. On Wednesday, January 6, she was named Principal of the Year for Miami-Dade County Schools’ South Region.
Students, staff and parents of the award-winning school were ecstatic at the announcement and shared the news of the well-deserved honor. “Ms. Zaldua embodies the qualities of a true leader, always has a Plan A, B and C ready to ensure the safety of our children and ensures they get the best education possible,” said Pinecrest PTA President Christy Jurado.
In 1996, Zaldua joined Miami-Dade County Schools, the fourth largest school district in the United States, as a teacher at Coral Way Elementary. She spent nine years as a teacher and was one of the district’s first educators who taught in what was then, the new bi-lingual format. With the birth of her first daughter, Zaldua transferred to Bent Tree Elementary School in Kendale Lakes to be closer to home. It was there she met the first of a series of educational mentors who guided and inspired her.
“At Bent Tree Elementary, Principal Bart Christie gently pushed me into leadership positions and encouraged me to continue my professional growth,” she says. “I completed my Master’s Degree in elementary education and earned a Certificate in Educational Leadership. I was lucky to have wonderful mentors at every stage of my career, and many of them have gone on to higher positions in the school district.”
Before long, Zaldua became noticed as a rising star and was named Assistant Principal at William Chapman Elementary and Joe Hall Elementary. One of the highlights of her tenure, she says, was at Vineland Elementary School, where she helped in the conversion to a Kindergarten through 8th grade school. “It was such a new and amazing challenge to be involved in every detail, from designing school uniforms to supervising construction and creating a new school mission and vision.”
In 2010, Pinecrest Elementary School, perennially one of the state’s top-performing elementary schools, put out a request for an assistant principal. Like cream, Zaldua’s name rose to the top and she transferred to Pinecrest to serve under Principal Marisol Diaz (who has since risen to the position of Administrative Director of Miami-Dade County Schools).
Pinecrest is the only elementary school in Miami-Dade County that has maintained an “A” status since the inception of the school grading system. Student attendance ranks among the state’s highest. Parents are extremely supportive and the school is renowned for having some of the best teachers and administrators in Miami.
Zaldua hit the ground running at Pinecrest and focused on creating innovative programs. One was a program where students needing intervention and extra tutoring would get the help they needed during non-classroom hours, to ensure that the pace of teaching was uninterrupted. She encouraged teachers to pursue educational development and supported them in their efforts, just as her own mentors had. And she focused on sharing information and nurturing an atmosphere of team spirit among faculty.
In 2015, Marisol Diaz was promoted and Zaldua was named Principal of Pinecrest Elementary by the Superintendent of the South Region, Barbara Mendizabal, and the School Board at that time. The new principal stepped into her new role happily and seamlessly. The staff was thrilled.
“Everyone here knows that excellence is expected,” says Terri Vega, who taught at Pinecrest for 26 years and is now the school counselor. “Ms. Zaldua’s consistency, attention to detail and passion for education help run our school consistently without missing a beat. There is not one thing she doesn’t do well.”
Since then, Pinecrest has launched a number of exciting initiatives. One of the biggest is STEAM, which stands for Science, Tech, Engineering, Art and Math. The program focuses on giving children high order thinking skills and teaching them how to apply those skills to the real world. As part of this effort, the school partnered with parent mentors in the field of robotics to start a robotics team at the school and after winning several awards, qualified for the 2020 Robotics World Championship in Kentucky and was the only elementary school in the district to compete.
Realizing that Pinecrest Elementary is special, Zaldua began nominating the school for awards. Each year, the Florida Department of Education recognizes top-performing schools with its Five Star School Award. Criteria include excellence in academic achievement, attendance, community involvement, parental participation and more. Pinecrest Elementary has won the award consecutively since 2015.
Zaldua is known for partnering with local high school students to implement innovative projects designed to instill a spirit of service in her students. “We try to educate the child on all levels, and service gives them the opportunity to make a difference in the community, which helps put them on the path to becoming a good citizen and future leader,” says Zaldua.
Among the programs are Bridge to English, which connects students struggling to learn English with other students and families who speak the same native language, and Hugs for the Seniors, a program of letter-writing to elderly residents of nursing homes.
“One of the biggest factors in having a successful school is amazing teachers,” says Zaldua. “We are blessed to have a team that works together, almost like a family. We have common goals and we work collaboratively to achieve them.”
Laura Haim, 2019 Rookie Teacher of the Year and current educator at Pinecrest Elementary, gives Zaldua tremendous credit. “Ms. Zaldua has an unwavering focus on delivering excellence to our students, and she knows that to develop great students, you need to empower great teachers. She gives us the resources and support we need to do what we love.”
According to multiple people interviewed for this article, the common denominator in perceptions about Pinecrest Elementary School is a pervasive feeling of family and sense of belonging among students, teachers and administrators.
“The kids feel like Pinecrest is their second home,” says Zaldua. “Despite being in a pandemic, we have the county’s highest percentage of students choosing to be back in the classroom. It feels wonderful to know their parents trust us and the children want to be here.”