CHIPLEY - It was a red letter day for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC) Wednesday as the organization celebrated 50 years of advancing schools and communities for student success.

Located on West Boulevard in Chipley, PAEC hosted a reception to commemorate the milestone.

PAEC is Florida's first legislatively created educational consortium, founded in 1967 to help school districts with limited resources better serve children, teachers, and administrators by providing support services the districts could not otherwise afford. Today, PAEC serves 14 member districts representing more than 45,000 students and provides a central source of support services such as professional development, curriculum support, migrant education, instructional technology, distance learning and more.

Many other non-member districts are also served, purchasing services on a contract basis.

In addition to support services, PAEC has also pioneered and executed groundbreaking concepts, including the Florida Education Channel (FEC), which became a leading provider of professional learning content for teachers and administrators before internet access made distant learning easier to achieve. As a satellite-delivered service, FEC was utilized nationally by school districts, including those in Alaska and Puerto Rico. Now fully internet based, FEC has gone global with customers as far away as China and Japan.

Prior to the anniversary festivities, members of the PAEC Board of Directors, staff, and guests gathered as Senator George Gainer read a Legislative Proclamation naming the building's board room in honor of former PAEC Executive Director Paula Lovett Waller.

Waller, who began her professional career in 1969 as a home economics teacher at Chipley High School, is widely recognized for her leadership in the education field. Just four years into her career, Waller was promoted to serve as a district-level supervisor with the Washington County District School Board and then served in several capacities at PAEC, including as manager of the Title II Basic Skills Project, before being named Executive Director in 1987, a role Waller served until her retirement in 2007.

Washington County School Board member and former educator Dr. Lou Cleveland said Waller's leadership was inspiring to other women because it came during a time when most leadership roles were served by men.

"What [Waller] means to women in leadership positions in education is monumental," said Cleveland. "She was one of the first leaders in this area to be a woman in these leadership positions, and she did it so well that she opened the door for other women who sought leadership positions in their own organizations."

But while Waller retired from PAEC, colleagues say she has not retired from her passion for the organization's mission of elevating student achievement

"The passion and drive is still with her," said present PAEC Executive Director John Selover, "the passion for students, the passion for leadership. She still spends a lot of time talking about the leadership and responsibility of the districts and their role in the community. Thanks to her leadership, that's one thing we don't forget here at PAEC - because at the end of the day, it's about the students, it's about the community, and it's about improving things where we live."

Waller says she remains passionate because she believes in the mission and recognizes the organization's entrepreneur spirit.

"It's educational entrepreneurship," said Waller. "That's the key, and that's the future."