It’s official: North Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach has the kindest students in the county.
School board officials chose the elementary school out of 392 schools in the district to be honored with a “friendship bench” on Thursday for its commitment to promoting kindness among students.
The “friendship bench” award was inspired by a student at Palm Bay Elementary in central Florida, who wanted to encourage classmates to be more tolerant of others. About a year ago, Acacia Woodley, 11, was bullied at school by another student. Acacia only has two fingers and one hand due to a birth defect. Instead of fighting, she decided to befriend her bully. As she got to know her, Acacia realized that her friend’s hostility stemmed from family problems.
“I realized it wasn’t only the people getting bullied who need help,” Acacia said during a speech on Thursday. “It is the people bullying who need help, too.”
Acacia spoke in front of hundreds of students at North Beach Elementary. Miami Beach Commissioner Jorge Exposito, Martin Karp, vice chair of the Miami-Dade School Board, and Palm Bay Mayor Guillermo Capote attended.
After her daughter’s discussions with her, Amber Woodley started a nonprofit organization, Tiny Girl, Big Dream, to make benches from recycled material. The benches have inspirational quotes on the planks. There are 15 benches in Brevard County, where Palm Bay is located.
The company’s goal is to get 100 benches in schools throughout Florida, she said.
North Beach Elementary received the bench for its Jennifer Beth Turken Heart Award program, in its sixth year. The program celebrates students who demonstrate acts of kindness by throwing monthly ice cream parties in their honor. At the end of the school year, teachers also give one exceptionally kind student from each grade a new bicycle.
The program is named after a former North Beach student who lost a battle with brain cancer in 1996. While at school, 8-year-old Jennifer Turken underwent chemotherapy to treat the cancer and lost her hair.
“These kids made such fun of her,” said her mother Dana Turken. “They made these horrible disgusting faces behind her back and to her face. She knew who she was and she knew she was beautiful, but it just hurt me to see.”
Jennifer’s parents created the award program in their daughter’s honor so children are encouraged to be kind.
“We thought, ‘If these kids aren’t taught at home, we’re going to teach them at school,’ ” said Dana Turken.
The Turken family purchases bikes for the annual award ceremony and pays for the monthly parties. After Jennifer died, her family also funded a new school playground.
North Miami Beach Elementary School Principal Alice Quarles said she has seen a change in how students interact with one another since the program launched.
“They are acting in a much kinder and considerate way,” Quarles said.
Generally, North Beach officials deal with minor teasing that doesn’t rise to the level of bullying, Quarles said.
“The issues that elementary schools have are, ‘I don’t want to be your friend,’ ” she said. “People need to feel comfortable going to school and they need to recognize that school is a safe place to be.”
Turken attributes the program’s success to that awards are granted for good behavior. In the first year of the program, one student won a bike for helping a janitor clean the lunch room every day. The boy grew up in a poor family and struggled in school, but when he received the award his classmates cheered. The boy cried.
“I still get chills thinking about what the effects on the children have been,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
This year, Fienberg Fisher K-8 Center in South Beach launched its own Jennifer Beth Turken Heart Award program.
“Dana Turken approached me about it and I knew Jennifer,” said Fienberg Fisher principal Maria Zabala. “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to keep her memory alive.
“Really, it’s made a huge difference for us. The children have internalized the message.”