Bertie: Back to the future

Published 9:04 am Friday, May 1, 2009

WINDSOR – When you have a need, you turn to your strengths.

Bertie County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Zullinger did just that Monday.

G. Fisher Mitchell, who serves as principal of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) School, was named Acting Principal of Bertie High School. Mitchell, who will continue to lead the STEM School, was approved for the post by the Bertie County Board of Education following Dr. Zullinger’s recommendation.

The board also appointed Norman M. Cherry Sr. as Interim Assistant Principal at Bertie High. He will replace Sharon Bond who retired last month and will aid Mitchell in the transition.

Mitchell replaces Natasha Stevenson, who had been serving in the role since Bertie High School Principal Calvin Moore was deployed with his National Guard unit in October of 2008. Stevenson was placed on paid administrative leave by the superintendent.

Dr. Zullinger said he couldn’t comment on the decision to replace Stevenson other than to call it an administrative action. Such action is covered by North Carolina General Statutes which prevents the release of personnel information.

The superintendent did, however, have much to say about the two men who would be taking over administrative duties at Bertie High.

“We have entered a time when we have to have strong leadership at Bertie High School,” Dr. Zullinger said. “Both Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Cherry bring that. They also bring strong community support, another imperative for us.

“Bertie High School has got to step up,” he added. “We have Judge (Howard) Manning watching what we’re doing. He is expecting us to make quality, child-based decisions and this is one of those.”

Mitchell, who came out of retirement to run a grant program and later to be principal of the Bertie STEM School, is no stranger to Bertie High School. He served as principal of the school from 1993-1997. He was then promoted to Assistant Superintendent, a position from which he retired in 2000.

He said he was willing to take over the Acting Principal role because he was asked to do so.

“When I’m working for someone, if there is anything I can do to help them, I’ll do it,” he said. “The Superintendent asked me to help him and that’s what I’m trying to do. If he has confidence that I can help, that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

Mitchell said resuming command of Bertie High School was almost natural for him.

“Does it feel strange? No, it doesn’t,” Mitchell said. “The strangest part was from 10:45 Monday night until Tuesday morning. Getting ready to make the transition, I spent a lot of awake time. Once I got here, I got back in the saddle. It’s like riding a motorcycle.”

Mitchell said he would go about the duties of operating Bertie High School the same way he always had.

“I don’t know how to act like a principal, all I know how to do is be the principal,” Mitchell mused. “That is perhaps the weakness of employing someone like me. I don’t know interim, I just know principal. I acted yesterday just like my first day when I came here in 1993.”

He said his focus will be exactly what is needed: improving test scores.

“We want to get test scores up,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know if that’s what I’m looking forward to most, but it is my number one objective. That will require some difficult decisions.

“A high school can be a fun place to be if good things are happening,” he continued. “If you have good test scores, a winning football team and a winning basketball team, it can be a good place. If not, then it isn’t.”

As for bringing in Cherry, Mitchell said the decision was an obvious one.

“When you take over a situation in May, you need someone who has been in the war,” he said. “You don’t need someone who needs to go through boot camp.

“His experience as a principal is something I needed,” Mitchell added. “I knew certain areas of the school he could take over without coaching or supervision. That’s the kind of person I need. He knows the whole school from a principal standpoint.”

As for Cherry, he said his reason for returning to the daily work of education was simple.

“Because he asked,” Cherry said, “and that’s enough.”

Cherry served as principal of C.G. White, Aulander and Southwestern during his years as an administrator. Twice he followed Mitchell (at C.G. White and Southwestern) and those experiences are one of the reasons he has so much respect for Mitchell.

“Knowing the type of administrator he is, he sets the stage,” Cherry said. “When you follow him, you maintain. There’s not a wheel broken, you just need to keep it rolling.”

Cherry said he also respected Mitchell’s work ethic and personality.

“He’s straight forward. I respect that,” Cherry said. “He tells you what he expects and that’s his style. I respect a man for being what he is.”

Cherry, who serves as Chairman of the Bertie County Commissioners, said he loved his years in education and that he relished the chance to return.

“A chosen career is one you fall in love with, especially if you enjoy it,” Cherry said. “I did for 32 years. As I said when I retired, I never had a bad day. I had some challenging days.

“I understand there will be some challenges here, but I will work with Mr. Mitchell in working through those,” he added.

Mitchell and Cherry began their new duties Tuesday morning and will continue until Moore returns from active military duty.