Mitchell listens and learns about community concerns
By Pamela Doan
Laura Mitchell describes her first two months as the new superintendent at the Garrison Union Free School District as a lot of learning and relationship building. She’s been out in the halls, classrooms, the parking lot, and at events, meeting and talking with students, teachers, parents and the community to find out what’s on everyone’s mind. Mitchell, who started at her post in April, describes it as the best thing that she could have done. Her mid-semester introduction has allowed her to get to know the district in order to put together a foundation for future decision-making.
In a time when it seems that education is being reduced to data and testing, Mitchell’s refreshing approach is to build teams and listen. “If you don’t have strong relationships, you can’t have honest conversations about best practices or where we are as a district. That’s the important foundation piece for a strong district that’s going to move forward in a practical and strategic way, in an intentional manner,” she said of the course that she’s set for herself as the district leader.
Her experience speaks to the success of this approach, too. After she worked as a library media specialist in a school in Harlem while she was attending classes at night, a friend suggested that she focus on education leadership and a door was opened.
She became the assistant principal at that school and then was recruited by the founder to develop another Young Women’s Leadership School in Queens, New York, with a committee. As the founder and principal there, she had the opportunity to set up the school in a model that put teachers and students in leadership roles.
“I grew a team. It was shared decision-making and teachers became leaders,” Mitchell said. “When teachers feel valued, you can see it in the classroom. Students see it, too. Their teachers are fair, they’re role models, they want to be there, they say ‘sorry’ when they make mistakes. That’s how you learn to be a good citizen. I feel like many of those pieces are here, too.”
Coming from urban environments where as a principal, her district superintendent oversaw 60 schools, Mitchell enjoys the intimacy and being on-site at the school where she can experience first-hand the day-to-day activities and be in touch with what’s happening.
She described the school as the “hub” for Garrison, which lacks a main street or other places for people to gather. The school fosters a sense of community and in parents she noticed a difference. “The parents here are their child’s advocate, as they sho,” she said. “That may seem sort of practical, but it’s not the norm. I’ve found at other schools that it’s their child and not the whole picture.”
The most frequent concerns that she’s heard from parents are about curriculum, state testing and the Common Core. Mitchell shared a perspective similar to one expressed by members of the Board of Education and the principal, that the curriculum and rigor are not the problem, but that implementation has been rushed and not given everyone time to think and process the new standards.
Mitchell described the challenge of teaching under the Common Core as “how to embed practice seamlessly into curriculum where we’re not teaching to the test.” She used an example of a science curriculum that was put together by teachers at her previous school that strategically taught the skills and focused on specific areas to foster a love of science in the children while setting them up for success on the Regents Examinations and in state testing.
The school budget will continue to be a challenge and Mitchell discussed how she wanted to seek out grants and other sources of fundraising to allow the school to continue to teach “the whole child” and maintain arts programs and extracurricular activities. “Students who struggle in other content areas might flourish and thrive in those areas,” she said. Garrison didn’t face program cuts this budget season as Haldane did, but their Board of Education has described the budget as very lean.
In the months ahead, Mitchell wants to sit down one-on-one with teachers to discuss curriculum and what they need. She’ll be asking a lot of questions and listening as she puts together her understanding of how things fit in the district curriculum, partnerships, and the resources of parents’ expertise. “I imagine some visual that shows all these pieces that make it a rich and thoughtful experience for everyone,” she said.
Mitchell said that her door is always open and that she invites anyone with an idea or concern to come see her. “That’s what I want people to know,” she said.