New Spotsylvania Schools superintendent Mitchell is ready for the moment

by | Jun 28, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania

Many moments come to mind for Clint Mitchell when he reflects on the educational journey that led him to become the superintendent of Spotsylvania County Public Schools on Monday following 2 ½ years in the same role at Colonial Beach. 

One of those moments is Nov. 12, 1989, when Mitchell arrived in New York City from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia to live with his mother for the first time after being raised by his grandparents.  

“People always say, ‘How do you remember that exact date? I remember because I was 14 and that was the turning point of my life,” Mitchell said. “St. Lucia is a great place, a great island, a great vacation place. But for a young man growing up in the Caribbean, educational opportunities are very limited.” 

In a wide-ranging interview with the Free Press, Mitchell, 50, shared the life experiences that he says will help guide his vision as the leader of the embattled Spotsylvania school division. 

Mitchell’s mother regularly sent money to take care of him in St. Lucia, where his grandfather and “greatest role model,” was a farmer who owned a banana plantation. 

In Brooklyn, Mitchell excelled at Samuel J. Tilden High School. 

Another pivotal moment arrived in the form of a letter from former New York City Mayor David Dinkins alerting Mitchell that he was selected to receive a full scholarship to Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious independent boarding school in Connecticut, for a summer. 

For Mitchell, being surrounded by wealthy and exemplary students from Europe, Asia and elsewhere was an eye-opening experience. 

“It was an opportunity for them to interact with Black and brown kids,” Mitchell said. “That was a game-changer for me because it was the first taste of, ‘Wow, this is what you can do if you truly stay in school.’ That summer gave me the springboard to say, ‘I need to truly focus.’” 

Mitchell went on to the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York where he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy and a master’s in urban policy and public administration. He later earned a second master’s in educational leadership from George Mason University and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy from Virginia Tech. 

After teaching at Brownsville High School in Brooklyn, Mitchell moved to Virginia in 2001. He taught civics at the former Mills E. Godwin Middle School in Prince William County (now George Hampton Middle).  

Mitchell thrived in one of his early leadership roles at Mills E. Godwin, starting a Saturday morning academic program intended to raise test scores. His wife, Jehovanni, who is now the school’s principal, assisted as a math teacher. 

“I ran the Saturday academy because I felt our test scores were terrible, and I could make a difference,” Mitchell said. “So, I volunteered my time to teach kids and give them extra support. What we saw is we went from the mid 40s to the mid 70s in our test scores.” 

‘I kept pushing’

Mitchell’s enthusiasm and effectiveness impressed his fellow educators, especially Bruce Leiby. When Leiby was hired as the principal of Bel Air Elementary in Prince William, he invited Mitchell to join the staff as an administrative assistant, a role similar to that of an assistant principal. 

Leiby retired in 2006, and Mitchell was promoted to take his place at the age of 31. 

Mitchell said his first year as a principal may have been the key moment in his career. He said he could’ve given up after receiving the results of a staff survey.  

“I remember some of the survey comments were harsh,” Mitchell said. “I remember people talking about, ‘Oh, we don’t understand him when he speaks because he has an accent.’ I remember people talking about, ‘He needs to go back to college and learn to speak proper English.’

“Being a new principal at 31, that could either make you or break you. But I was determined not to let that define me, so I kept pushing.” 

During Mitchell’s 10 years leading Bel Air, he was named Prince William County principal of the year and also earned The Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. 

“You have to have the will and determination to persevere through the work,” Mitchell said. “And when you’re leading a school, the most important piece is really the culture that you build.”  

In 2016, Mitchell departed Bel Air and headed to Fairfax County to become principal of Mount Vernon Woods Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in the county at the time. 

“It was on the brink of a state takeover,” Mitchell said. 

During Mitchell’s interview, former Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza asked him about his plan to reverse the disturbing trends at Mount Vernon Woods. Mitchell spent an hour and a half in a one-on-one session with Garza detailing the roadmap that would turn the school around. 

“People always talk about ‘You have to go slow to go fast,’” Mitchell said. “I don’t always believe that … Sometimes in education we must go fast to go slow. What I mean by that is there are things the district knows is not working. And if it’s not working, why are we doing it? We need to get rid of that and put something else in place or remove it so people can focus on the things that truly move kids.” 

Within a year Mount Vernon Woods was fully accredited and remained so every year in a five-year period. In 2021, the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary Schools honored Mitchell with the National Distinguished Principal Award. 

“Those awards are predicated on hiring the right people with the right mindset who can help carry out the work that you want to be able to do,” Mitchell said. “When you create a culture that is infectious, people will want to stay and help you lead.” 

A practical visionary

Mitchell appreciated the scenic water views and the slower pace of life when he first visited Colonial Beach to research the division’s vacant superintendent position. But the task awaiting him there was anything but leisurely.

When former Superintendent Dashan Turner resigned in October 2021, his staff departed as well. Mitchell was hired two months later and was tasked with filling almost an entire administrative office with new hires. 

Two employees were hired a week before his arrival in December, but Mitchell put the rest in place. 

“It was scary when I first started and realized the state that the administrative office was in,” Director of Finance Beth Fisher said. “Once Dr. Mitchell arrived that following week, he set our minds at ease. He sat us down, had a conversation and assured us that things were going to go on the right track from there forward, and that they did.” 

As Mitchell’s Colonial Beach tenure ends, staff there expressed gratitude for what they called an inspirational work environment under his leadership. 

“A lot of leaders are visionary and there are some who can get into the details and the nitty gritty defining what that vision should look like practically, instructionally and operationally,” said Kimbrelle Barbosa Lewis, Colonial Beach’s executive director of instruction and professional learning. “Dr. Mitchell has both sides.” 

In a newsletter announcing his resignation, Mitchell highlighted a five-year strategic plan and a three-year capital improvement program as major accomplishments. 

The school division also joined 64 others in the state in the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a consortium of predominantly rural school divisions. Colonial Beach achieved the largest growth in SOL test scores in the consortium (9.8%), and this past school year, it achieved the fourth-largest one-year increase (15.9%).

Mitchell also noted the division completed 90% of the goals it outlined for the first year of the Capital Improvement Plan and finished 45% of the entire plan, including redesigned parking lots, new HVAC units, new bleachers in the high school gymnasium, and a new grandstand and concession stand on the football field. 

Dorothy Wright, Colonial Beach’s director of federal programs, worked with Mitchell at multiple stops over the past 15 years because she said he empowers employees and is willing to be hands-on when necessary. Mitchell said his leadership model is to trust people, give them direction and hold them accountable. 

“I never worked with a leader who is willing to do anything in the district whether that is plowing the snow, greeting the parents or mowing the lawn,” Wright said. “A lot of leaders don’t humble themselves to do that. That is what kept me working with him from county to county.” 

Back to basics

Perhaps Mitchell’s greatest challenge awaits him at Spotsylvania County Public Schools — a division that’s been embroiled in controversy the past several years, including the start of a trial on Monday involving one board member allegedly assaulting another.

Mitchell said one of the feats he is most proud of in Colonial Beach was working with a school board that once voted 3-2 on most issues — and now typically votes 5-0. 

The Spotsylvania board voted 5-2 to enter negotiations with Mitchell on June 13, with Lee Hill District representative Lisa Phelps and April Gillespie of the Berkeley District voting against the motion. Phelps and Gillespie both supported former Superintendent Mark Taylor, who was fired in March, and they were not on hand when Mitchell’s contract was approved 4-0 on Monday. 

Mitchell signed a three-year contract paying him $245,000 per year, a major increase from his approximately $150,000 salary in Colonial Beach. He will also receive $5,000 in moving expenses so he can relocate to Spotsylvania, according to his contract. 

Spotsylvania School Board Chair Lorita Daniels said Mitchell stood out among a qualified pool of candidates because of his “clear understanding of our students’ needs and his well-equipped ability to provide innovative solutions that could foster academic excellence for our students.” 

“Not only did he provide solutions, but he also recognized that it would take collaboration and inclusivity of all stakeholders in the school community to get the job done,” Daniels said. “This is what resonated with the board, and we are looking forward to working with Dr. Mitchell in the near future, confident that his expertise and vision will greatly benefit our school community.” 

Mitchell noted that he met all seven board members during the interview process and said he’s encouraged they were all engaged. 

He said he was aware of the issues in Spotsylvania because it belongs to Region III with Colonial Beach and “that’s what we talk about as superintendents.” 

“I like the challenge,” he said. “Everything in my life has been about challenges.” 

Mitchell said he is prepared because of his time teaching in minority schools that many people did not believe could succeed and leading Colonial Beach, a rural district with 625 students and two schools. 

Mitchell said the size of Colonial Beach compared to Spotsylvania (34 schools and more than 24,000 students) may be a point of contention for some, but he aims to “defy the odds” and make it a nonfactor. He also said he will have more staff and resources in Spotsylvania and that working for a division the size of Colonial Beach offered him the opportunity to get involved with all facets of a school system. 

“In a small district, when it comes to doing the budget presentation, I do it,” Mitchell said. “When it comes to going ahead and working with my director of federal programs to do a Title I, Title II or Title IV application, we do it together. Whether it’s facilities management and construction or a renovation, my hands are involved.

“Those experiences make you ready for a larger district because you know the expectation, you know what needs to be done and no one can speak to me about what they perceive I don’t know, because I’ve done the work.” 

Mitchell said the “brand” of the Spotsylvania school system is bigger than any individual or group. He said his goal is to redirect the focus from the board and administration to the accomplishments of students and teachers. He said great things are happening across the division that are not being recognized. 

“Our food service people are feeding kids all through the summer and no one talks about it because we focus on those other things that make the news,” Mitchell said. 

One of Mitchell’s first initiatives is to request school board training. 

He said he also hopes to encourage regular board retreats. He said in Colonial Beach, retreats were never far away and did not cost taxpayers a lot of money. They gathered three times a year at the nearby University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus to escape distractions. 

During the interview process, Mitchell reminded the Spotsylvania board about their “why” to shift attention back to the schoolchildren and staff. 

“I went through every one of their political campaigns and I emphasized to them, ‘This is what you campaigned about,’ and there were similarities in a lot of the board members that were there,” Mitchell said. “They all talked about what was best for kids. They all talked about staff and teacher retention. They all talked about safety and security. So, why can’t we be unified around those things? My goal is to make sure I bring them back to that work.” 

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