By Grace Hwang Lynch on August 25, 2015

Finalist: Sally Smollar, Plumosa School of the Arts, Delray Beach, FL Photo by Patricia Boyd

Finalist: Sally Smollar, Plumosa School of the Arts, Delray Beach, FL Photo by Patricia Boyd


When Delray Beach, Florida mother Joan Lingmerth noticed that her fourth grader, Wyatt, was going to bed early, she wondered if there was a problem. Quite the opposite, her son was so enthralled with Tyler Whitesides’s book series “Janitors” (Shadow Mountain) that he wanted to spend more time reading in bed. “He began setting his alarm 15 minutes early each morning to read before getting ready for school,” Lingmerth explains. “I promise I owe this new passion for reading to [Sally] Smollar.”

For the past nine years, Smollar has served as the librarian at Plumosa School of the Arts (PSA), a Title I public choice school in Delray Beach, FL. The school emphasizes Spanish dual-language immersion, communication, and visual, performing, and communication arts. A full 78 percent of PSA’s 615 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. With the help of federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grants, the library has an annual budget of $4,180, supplemented by $1,695 raised through Scholastic Book Fairs.

“Mrs. Smollar uses all of her available resources to inspire our students to think outside of the box,” says Nancy Earley, magnet coordinator at PSA. With the help of a TV production teacher and a senior citizen assistant hired with funding from the AARP Worksearch program, Smollar teaches digital media classes to third, fourth, and fifth graders. The library is well stocked with 20 iMacs, 18 iPads, and less common technology, such as Wacom Bamboo drawing tablets, used for digital art, including self-portraits. Students become proficient in programs such as Keynote or PowerPoint, and some go home and teach their parents keyboard shortcuts on the Mac.

Smollar strives to “utilize library resources and access to technology to engage students in a variety of projects that encourage them to jump out of bed in the morning,” she says. To motivate reluctant readers, she taught the kids to create iMovie trailers to promote the Sunshine State Young Reader Award nominees. Over 100 students participated in her school’s Battle of the Books, which was broadcast over the school’s in-house TV channel.

In addition to leading the student council and yearbook committees, Smollar works with the Palm Beach County Bar Association to stage an annual mock trial, in the hopes of exposing students as young as third grade to future careers in the law. “You give children opportunities to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise get to do. You give them inspiration,” she says. After attending a faculty seminar about cyber safety, she invited the speaker, Gregory Schiller, special predator enforcement prosecutor with the Florida State Attorney’s office, to come to the school. Schiller spoke to adults about the dangers of online bullying or location tracking via GPS and Bluetooth on computers or mobile devices.

PSA’s recently renovated campus is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified, and in keeping with this environmentally-conscious theme, Smollar brought her passion for organic gardening to the school in order to teach kids about where food comes from and to instill healthier eating habits. Through the Grow’ums Blue Ribbon Contest, students received a free seed packet and starter pellet. Grow’ums is an organization that sells garden kits and offers discounts to schools while also helping them organize fundraisers. Twelve weeks later, 31 of Smollar’s students entered their plants into a growing contest at the South Florida Fair, and a few won blue ribbons. Smollar has also started working with Grow’ums to sell seeds as a fundraiser for the school garden. Meanwhile, she had students produce videos to show how to plant seeds, as well as promote the contest and fundraiser.

Noticing how much of a hit the “Janitors” series was with students like Wyatt, Smollar invited Whitesides to visit PSA for a private lunch with a group of kids. Whatever experiences she creates for her students, “I am constantly reminded that my effect on students may not always be apparent or immediate,” Smollar says, recounting how she ran into the mother of a girl who had taken her digital media class back in 2001. Her daughter is now working at ABC News in New York City, an achievement that her mother credits to Smollar’s guidance.

Grace Hwang LynchGrace Hwang Lynch, a Bay Area freelance writer on race, culture, and parenting, blogs at

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