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Palm Coast Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021 8 months ago

Q+A: Superintendent Mittelstadt plans to focus all resources on helping students — and to smile more

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Mittelstadt was hired seven months ago as superintendent of Flagler Schools.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

On the blue wall behind Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s desk you will find a poster created by one of her predecessors, Jacob Oliva. It’s a complicated set of overlapping circles with color-coded type, describing in detail the organizational structure and goals of the Flagler Schools executive team.

I remembered seeing that chart when Oliva first came up with it several years ago, and I asked Mittelstadt, a former St. Johns administrator who was hired in June 2020 as Flagler's superintendent, whether she generally kept or replaced what Oliva and his successor, James Tager, had implemented for the district.

Then she pointed to something I had missed: a card that she had affixed to the center, covering up part of the complicated chart. It said, “Collective Intelligence.”

Each superintendent has a different set of challenges and circumstances, so, no matter how successful past leaders have been, you have to continue to adapt, she said.

“Education evolves every year,” she said. Considering the pandemic’s impact on student attendance and state funding, she added, “The biggest challenge for next year is the budget.”

Mittelstadt, in a sweater and turtleneck, met with me for an interview on Jan. 15 to talk about what she has faced so far, her business-like approach, and how Flagler will continue to adapt.

 

You’ve been described as being “all business.” Do you agree with that?

(Laughing) Don’t judge a book by their cover. Sometimes that cover has a game face on. I will be forthcoming and share with you that in my leadership roles I have been told I don’t smile enough.

I’m a slow processer, so when it doesn’t seem like I’m in the moment, it’s because I’m thinking, and I’m trying to catch up. I’m trying to collect all the information to process and analyze.

I do have to have a business hat, but I do try to smile. I want to be approachable, and I do have an open door.

 

What has surprised you the most about Flagler Schools?

Adjusting to a smaller school district, the strategic way to utilize your limited amount of resources has been a challenge.

 

Don’t all districts have limited resources, dictated by the state?

In a larger district you’re able to distribute your allocations differently, use your title funding in different ways. My first year, the goal is to assess how we are organized and look for ways to refine and utilize our resources.

We were thrown a curveball because training was based on our new lane of teaching, Remote Live. That was completely different from anything we had done before.

 

In one of your recent tweets, you said you were excited that elementary school leadership is talking about high school graduation rates. Why?

All of what we do is about helping students get to the that final destination of a high school diploma, and our elementary principals embrace that from the moment the child walks into their school, in how they’re leveraging their resources.

It’s a K-12 effort.

 

Is that too much pressure for young kids?

It’s a delicate balance, and our school leaders work with our teachers and our academic coaches on how to implement that within their school, both climate and culture.

"The impact of what COVID has done to our society is truly unknown. And so the students that we are not able to be engaged with on a daily basis for a variety of reasons, I worry about daily."

CATHY MITTELSTADT, superintendent

In December you tweeted a video encouraging students to call 1-800-273-TALK if they were struggling with mental health during the holidays. What concerns you most about students’ mental health right now?

Unfortunately, the impact of what COVID has done to our society is truly unknown. And so the students that we are not able to be engaged with on a daily basis for a variety of reasons, I worry about daily. I’m proud of what we provide, but sometimes our information is only outbound, and the people who really need it—are we reaching them?

We have grandparents working with students at home. There are siblings who are trying to work with younger siblings, which is difficult. You’d like to meet the needs of every family, but we’re not even sure what their needs are right now.

 

Some teachers were direct before the beginning of the school year, asking, “How do you open schools, when you know you’re putting people in danger?”

Everyone has a level of concern. Our job as district staff is to navigate the best way possible to stand up educational services that offer choices to meet the needs of our families while also trying to preserver and protect our employees to be ready for the challenges this pandemic has created. So it’s an incredible balance. At the end of the day, we’ve got to connect with these students and make sure they have learning opportunities.

 

Does the state ranking system have it right that St. Johns is No. 1, or are Flagler Schools actually better?

Of course Flagler is better than St. Johns!

I served 17 years in St. Johns. I saw the upward trend of success because of a lot of strategic implementation of that all of our teachers need the appropriate curriculum and support staff to be successful. There was a huge priority of making sure those resources were touching the classrooms directly.

 

Are we doing that in Flagler?

I believe there are ways to be more efficient at the district level, to shift more of our resources to the schools. That will take time, in demonstrating to our board where these areas, perhaps, are in the future.

Brian McMillan has been editor of the Palm Coast Observer since it began in 2010. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children. Email...

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