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Veteran educator guides STEM

WINDSOR – G. Fisher Mitchell knows education.

During a career which has spanned more than three decades, he has been a teacher, principal and district administrator. In that time he has seen education change and develop and he likes what is happening in Bertie County Schools now.

With the addition of the Bertie School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) last year and the upcoming changes that will launch a Ninth Grade Academy and Early College High School, Mitchell believes students have opportunities never available before.

“There have never been such diverse offerings for students,” Mitchell said. “There were more schools in the county in the past, but never have students had the opportunities in education we have now.”

One of those offerings Mitchell has poured himself into during the past year is the STEM School.

The STEM school began in August 2007 with a total of 60 students. It was started as part of the North Carolina New Schools’ Project and is focused on students who are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, math and engineering.

The school started with a different philosophy than the traditional high school, according to Mitchell.

“Beginning the first day, we knew that every one of our students would go to college,” he said. “We plan for 100 percent. Early on in the year, as freshmen, we asked them to pick a college they would attend and wear a badge with their school name and their likely college major.”

The STEM students took that a step further, however, as they visited four colleges and universities during the year. They took tours of Chowan University, Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. As sophomores, they will tour four additional schools.

Students at the STEM school were on a yearlong schedule last year, taking World History, English I, Engineering in the Future and Core-Plus Mathematics (a combination of Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Statistics and Probability and Discrete Mathematics) in the STEM school and completing two electives n Digital Communications and Health and Physical Education in the traditional high school.

Next year they will change to a block schedule that will allow three teachers in each grade with an average class size of 20. Students will rotate within three classes for each grade level with ninth graders on one end of the hall and tenth graders on the other.

In the middle sits the principal’s office, where Mitchell says students have come to feel at home.

“It makes a good relationship with the teachers and the principal and the students and the principal,” he said. “I think both see the principal more than they do in a more traditional setting.”

While the small setting of the school is ideal for learning, according to Mitchell, it also provides challenges for the staff members.

“Probably you would hear people say that we have it easier because of the small number of students,” Mitchell said. “That’s true, but we also have a small staff which means everyone has to give 110 percent.

“I liken it to a tent,” he continued. “You have four posts. Here we all have a corner post and if one person drops their corner, the tent is going down.”

While different in focus, the STEM school is also different in the way students learn.

“You shouldn’t come to the STEM school and expect to see student desks all in a row,” Mitchell said. “They work in collaborative project in small groups in the classroom.

“We’re expecting them to work like engineers and think like mathematicians and scientists while using technology,” he said.

All of that is part of the North Carolina New Schools Project which stresses readiness for college, powerful teaching and learning, personalization, redefining professionalism and purposeful design.

“Our students should be engaged at all times,” Mitchell stressed. “It’s not just pencil and paper.”

Mitchell isn’t just selling a program; he has bought into it. So much so, in fact, that he has given up retirement to remain as the school’s principal.

“Some of the students are in my office every day and not for disciplinary reasons,” Mitchell said. “My office is not a strange place for them.

“In fact, to get some work done, sometimes I have to shut the door,” he laughed. “As the year progressed, I became more attached to them and I knew that I would like to see them through their four years and into college.”

He stepped in to help open the school when then-principal Lawrence Green became sick. Mitchell was so involved in setting up the school, which is currently housed in the 300 building at Bertie High School that he brought his own truck and trailer to help clean up the facility.

After getting it started, however, Mitchell believed his tenure with the school was over.

“I packed up my cardboard boxes and went home,” Mitchell said. “The next morning, I got a call at 7:45 from Mr. Green asking me could I come in because he was ill. The cardboard boxes are still sitting over there (in the corner of the office).”

Mitchell served as a teacher before working as principal of C.G. White Middle School, Southwestern Middle School and Bertie High School. He retired after three years as Assistant Superintendent of School in Bertie County. He was lured back to work as interim principal of Northwest Halifax High School and then worked for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction recruiting teachers before taking over as Director of the TRACES program.

“I was invited to all those jobs,” Mitchell laughed. “I didn’t apply for any of them.”

While he didn’t apply for the job as Principal of the STEM school, he admits he is enjoying his work and is excited about next year.

“I’m looking forward to opening up and getting going again,” he said.

Expectation is the driving force for students at the school, he believes, and that makes the job more exciting.

“I think there is a culture of high expectations already,” he said. “I think the students expect a lot of themselves.

“I also hear them say they feel like we’re a family over here,” he added. “I think they like the security of how small the school is and the interaction they can have with the teachers and administration.”

Another event that happened during the school year is what Mitchell calls the “highlight of his career.”

During an open house showcasing the school, Mitchell had a visitor he didn’t recognize. After she entered, she identified herself as the mother of a student he taught early in his career.

“It was nice to hear an update about a student I hadn’t heard from in all these years,” he said. “but the more exciting thing was that Mrs. McGaw didn’t have any children or grandchildren at the STEM School. She was there because she liked what she had read about the program and wanted to see it for herself.

McGaw sat through the presentation Mitchell gave and then visited each classroom and heard presentations from the students, staying until the Open House ended.

“I have never had anything like that happen,” he said. “It is still the highlight of my career.”

Those types of incidents are what have made the STEM school exciting for Mitchell and what has him out of retirement and looking forward to the next three years.