Last year, 2004, was the Indian River School District’s (IRSD’s) biggest ever for capital improvements. It was probably also the biggest year ever for glitches, construction budget overruns, crews going for lunch and never coming back, etc.
This year has started out with a bang as well.
School Board members, who had been wont to kick off public meetings with prayer, were named in a lawsuit questioning the practice. The plaintiffs are also seeking redress for the alleged persecution they received after raising the issue.
Arguably, this isn’t the most comfortable time to sit on the IRSD School Board.
Nevertheless, three out of four School Board members filed for re-election, and new candidates will contest for two of those seats.
In the fifth voting district, however, Board Member Reggie Helms ran uncontested, and for a time it appeared no one would step forward to fill the district’s other seat.
Finally, in the final days leading up to the deadline for candidacy, Donna Mitchell volunteered.
She will take over for Board Member M. Elaine McCabe when McCabe steps down in June (she’s moving from Selbyville to Roxana, across the district line).
Mitchell has served as on-site manager at (the Delaware State Housing Authority’s) Hickory Hill community for the past nine years.
As such, Mitchell oversees a range of programs, like 4-H, afternoon computer labs and craft projects.
“Some of the parents are single, and working long hours,” she pointed out. “We provide a place for the kids who might not otherwise do homework to come and study, or get involved in good activities.”
The computer labs are open to adults, too. Mitchell said they offered James H. Groves Adult High School classes, which she considered a great opportunity for working parents to earn their diplomas.
Prior to Hickory Hill, Mitchell lived and worked at Camp Barnes with her husband, Paris.
She served as the camp’s director for seven years.
“Kids have been my life,” she stated.
Mitchell sent six sons through the IRSD — one is still a junior at Indian River High. She said another had become a teacher since graduation, and two had married teachers.
“So, I have the parent’s perspective, plus I get to see the field of education through teachers’ eyes,” Mitchell pointed out.
She recently participated on the panel to select an IRSD Teacher of the Year, and said she’d liked what she’d seen.
“I have a lot of hope for the future — I saw a lot of excellent teachers,” she said.
Remembering her days at Camp Barnes, Mitchell credited the counselors for making or breaking the program, and she said good teachers were critical in the same way.
At the same time, she expressed concern regarding the state testing. “It adds a lot of stress, and some kids just aren’t test takers,” she said.
She noted how low test scores reflected poorly on both the students and their teachers, and suggested a look at overall performance might be a better way to go.
However, she suggested administrators might be too bogged down with paperwork to spend much time in active observation. Ideally, they would be able to identify problems during spot checks and provide input to help correct them, she said.
According to Mitchell, information on paper just doesn’t tell the whole story.
By way of illustration, she described the person she would have picked for Teacher of the Year.
“This young man, we came in and watched him during a lecture — he was wonderful,” Mitchell recalled. “You could tell he was in love with the subject (history) and the kids were just drawn into it.”
She suspected he hadn’t made the cut because he was young, and short on credentials. “He didn’t have all the degrees, but he was an excellent teacher,” she pointed out.
However, as Mitchell was quick to note, “It always looks different from the sidelines. I don’t want to be overly critical — I just want to get in there and try to help.”
A lifelong resident of Sussex County, Mitchell is an IRSD graduate herself (then-Selbyville High School), and she said her husband was a native son as well.
The Mitchells live in Frankford.