The Flagler County School Board on March 5 interviewed four superintendent candidates in its search for a replacement for Jim Tager. Each 90-minute interview is reported separately. Video of each complete interview appears below the article. The school district is still taking public comments about the candidates. You may send your comments to school board members in the email box provided in the body of the article. Here are links to the three other interviews:
Cathy Mittelstadt, an assistant superintendent for operations in St. Johns County for the past three years, brings a unique profile among the four candidates interviewing for Flagler superintendent: she’s spent the majority of her professional years, almost all of them in leadership positions, in Florida’s top-ranked school district. She did not boast about it this afternoon, referring to St. Johns merely as “high-achieving, high-performing for a number of years.”
One of two candidates all four Flagler school board members wanted to interview (along with Vernon Orndorff), Mittelstadt began by describing herself in terms similar to those Jim Tager, the current superintendent, used to describe his approach when he interviewed three years ago: as taking a “student-centered approach to anything I try to accomplish.” (Tager, required to retire in June out any organization attached to the Florida Retirement System, is taking a superintendent job in Vermont in July.) Mittelstadt said St. Johns’s 40 schools strive to be welcoming, safe schools rather than “institutions,” understanding that more recent safety demands “are not always convenient,” but necessary.
When she was a coach early in her career, she said, “I tried to make sure I gave myself to all my athletes,” ensuring all students were taken care of.” As she rose through the ranks, as a dean, “the opportunity to issue discipline with dignity” was very important: “how can you take that mistake now and help that student learn.” In her first assignment as a principal, at a middle school in St. Augustine, she researched parental and community involvement and found it wanting. She “turned around the culture of the school.” She established “a caring environment,” giving students the certainty that they were cared for at school and that teachers would follow up after hours, with open houses, phone calls, “that culture of share and celebrate.” It reduced misbehaviors, encouraged faith-based groups to get involved, kick-started some clubs, reduced students’ idle time after school, and yielded results: students wanted to go to school.
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“Raising student achievement. That’s my mission. I’ve said that more often than not,” Mittelstadt said, later describing her experience as a high school principal for six years to explain how she enacted that mission: she implemented the so-called AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) targeted at fair- but not necessarily high-achieving students–the class in the middle that AVID aims to steer into dual enrollment, advanced placement and other acceleration programs. It took a year’s preparation, but led to results, Mittelstadt said. (Buddy Taylor Middle School and Matanzas High School enacted AVID until grant funding ran out.)
Mittelstadt didn’t find the need to run on at any lengths: never looking at a set of notes she had placed in front of her, she sat back and answered questions succinctly and with clarity, drawing again and again on concrete examples from her experience in varied postings. “I believe I can take that theme and apply it as a superintendent on a global perspective,” she said.
She put a premium on listening to “stakeholders,” parents and others, and stressed the importance of groups such as exceptional student education advisory groups–a clear nod to Flagler’s parent ESE group known as EPAC, which has had a checkered relationship with the board in the past few weeks (the differences were focused on the superintendent selection process).
Certain words kept recurring in Mittelstadt’s interview: “Trust,” “deep dive,” “fidelity.”
“We love the word fidelity in St. Johns County,” she said, referring in education lingo to how a program aligns with its intended goals. She works with seven principals there, aware of each school’s school improvement plan, the school’s student engagement level, and so on. She describes herself “feeling the stresses” of the principals as she walks the halls of the schools regularly, in a supporting role, to know what needs have to be met.
Asked how she would improve low-performing schools or students, Mittelstadt said it takes “excellent teaching and making sure our teachers have the resources they need to individualize that instruction for the struggling learner.” The students should be immediately assessed when they walk through the door as new residents, determining where the students would be placed, “then I’m going to go back to teaching. It’s all about the teaching.” It’s not fair to give teachers challenging groups of students if they have not been given the right level and amount of staff development, she said.
Mittelstadt spoke about Flagler schools’ coming renewal of the half-cent sales tax, in 2022, from her perspective in St. Johns, which passed a similar tax in 2015 to support construction: St. Johns is adding 1,500 students a year, which means the district needs to add a new school a year for the next 20 years. The mechanism out of Tallahassee was not allowing the district to do that. The half-penny sales tax did, and was visibly necessary. She framed the effort as providing opportunity. (Flagler’s challenge is quite different, and Mittelstadt did not clearly apply her experience to the way she would push for the tax locally.)
Regarding Flagler’s relations with legislative leaders, she said the district should be proud of its A rating, but it should also leverage it for more influence, even with the state. “Diversity is amazing and you want to embrace the voice of all your stakeholders” from the pastures to the beaches, Mitteldtadt said, and finding ways for all the voices to be heard through task forces and advisory groups while using the input “to help you reflect on what you’re doing as a school board.”
To growing future leaders, Mittelstadt said, first, observe staffers interacting with their students, and with their peers. Do they have that “presence” in the classroom? Do they have that “mindfulness to inspire others?” Some naturally do: “that talent rises up.” Those are the people to tap, then to mentor, providing them role models, setting up clear expectations for them. Networking with other counties, across the state and with national organizations “provides a different lens” that helps locally. She complimented the Flagler district for its relatively new teaching academy, set up as one of the district’s flagship programs.
When it comes to addressing wrong-doing, Mittelstadt said she starts with trust and the understanding that “folks make mistakes.” A frank system in place can create a coaching opportunity for those who can overcome a problem, if it can be overcome, “unless it’s a fatal error, and a fatal error is something you cannot tolerate, you can never jeopardize your students.”
Andy Dance, one of the board members, noted toward the end of the interview Mittelstadt’s reflections about balancing safety and friendliness in her district’s 40 schools. Mittelstadt’s comments had special interest for the Flagler board, which has been wrestling with the same issues. “We all struggle with the middle ground of institutionalizing a facility and making it safe,” Mittelstadt said, “and where is the common ground, now I’m anxious to visit some of the St. Johns County schools.”
She closed her interviews, at 50 minutes the shortest of the three until then, with flattering words for the Flagler district and assurances that she could “leverage” her experience to its benefits.