Hispanic Heritage: Profiles in Leadership - Elena Villani

How an Emergency Surgery Redirected a Principal’s Career Path
Posted on 11/18/2019
Principal with students

Elena Villani is currently the principal at Highland Elementary School, but there was a time when she planned to be a lawyer. Right before her final exams while she was an undergraduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she needed an emergency appendectomy and ended up missing her exams.  

As she recovered in the hospital, she had time to watch the news, and was saddened to see stories about robberies, murders, and other crimes. She realized that she wanted to help address the crime that was happening in the streets, and believed she could do so in a classroom. In that moment, her professional path shifted to the goal of becoming a teacher.

“My ultimate inspiration was accentuated when I came across a quote by Nelson Mandela, which said 'education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world'. I decided then that I would switch my major and use my passion for changing the world by becoming an educator.” Villani said.

Coming from an immigrant Cuban family who arrived in the United States in 1970, Villani was born in Queens, New York, and raised in Brooklyn. She graduated from the borough's Franklin K. Lane High School in 1992, and went on to obtain an associate degree in Law Studies from Briarcliffe College, a bachelor's and master's in Education from Molloy College, as well as another master's degree in Educational Leadership from American College of Education.

“My parents always pushed me to be better and do better,” Villani said. “If I earned a 95% on a test, my parents wanted to know why I didn't get 100%. Due to their limited English, they weren't able to help me with my homework, but I was never allowed to use that as an excuse.”

At an early age, her parents instilled in her the importance of having a strong work ethic. That was evident each day when she got out of school and on the weekends, when she worked at her parent's business along with her sister. Growing up, the siblings' focus was always on school and work. The Cuban culture and her parents' work ethic was a consistent theme as she grew up, and still is today.

“I don't accept excuses, only passion, and determination toward success,” Villani said. “Growing up as an inner-city student in Brooklyn from immigrant parents, I learned early on the importance of education.”

Villani began her education career as a first-grade teacher at P.S. 213 in Brooklyn. In the Palm Beach County School District, she started as a teacher at Westward Elementary in 2000. She also taught at Cholee Lake Elementary, worked as a Learning Team Facilitator at Palm Springs Elementary and Crosspointe Elementary, a Reading Coach and Learning Team Facilitator at Liberty Park Elementary, a Title I Specialist supporting 18 schools, an Assistant Principal at Palm Beach Lakes Community High School, and now the Principal at Highland Elementary.

“I lead with my heart and work hard each day,” Villani said. “What motivates me is seeing the smiles and determination on the faces of my students and staff as they work hard toward our shared goals.”

Villani believes strongly in advocating for her students, and it’s very important to her to ensure that her students receive a world-class education, a concept put forth in the District’s mission statement.

“I want my students to see a positive role model in me, and I also want to be a good role model for my sons,” Villani said. “I let them know that when you love what you do, you will never work a single day in your life. I certainly love what I do and I love my school!”

The School District of Palm Beach County