Dr. Jennifer Mitchell helps Cider Mill move forward

It’s a new day at Cider Mill School. Principal Jennifer Mitchell makes sure that all students are on the correct bus before heading back into the building.

Full of energy, she greets all with a smile and a welcome that indicates all is well at the school.

Dr. Mitchell is the new leader of Cider Mill, replacing Ginny Rico, who died shortly after the end of the recently competed school year.

“Ginny was loved by everyone,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Last year was, in many ways, a difficult year for the staff here. So every goal that I have has to do with building the community here.”

She began her new position on Aug. 12, having arrived from Greenwich, where she was the K-12 program coordinator for reading and language arts. Her excitement at being the person responsible for picking up where Ms. Rico left off is abundant.

“This is where I wanted to be,” she said.

Her work in Greenwich kept her in their central office for five years, but was unique in that it got her out to the various schools in town.

“It was based around reading instruction and teaching and learning,” she said. “The heart of what I was working in every day was my passion.

“Now I have my own building to implement.”

There was an emotional transition for the school to deal with, and Dr. Mitchell made that her first job.

“It was a huge priority — just coming into here,” she said. “I knew that my main focus was building a community. The first meeting I had with the staff here was about building a family. We have a lot of things coming at us: the common core, the new teaching evaluations. We’re going to do everything together. Even little things like what I’m going to say in the morning announcements.”

Her first day of classes was focused on getting into each room to greet students and observe. She called it “the best day ever,” despite being nervous.

“My cheeks hurt by the end of the day,” she said, with a big smile. “Being with the students and feeling the energy.

“Just acknowledging the hard work and the foundation that Ginny left us with and improving on that in a possible and proactive way.”

Among her goals is to personally see as many people around the district as possible.

“I am meeting with everybody in this building and this district,” she said. “I’m working on setting up one-on-one meetings with teachers. I have a series of questions that I’m asking everybody to really come up with the theme so that I don’t create any missteps, so that I’m really going to learn about the school community.

“I will be interviewing the custodians, the secretaries, the teachers. Everybody.”

The missteps can be easy during a transition from a beloved leader to a new person from another town, but that seems almost impossible with Dr. Mitchell. Her infectious personality allows for a new era to begin.

“Ginny was here for so long as a teacher and then moved into administration. I’m a different person than Ginny,” she added. “She just had a sense of caring about everybody and I’m going to continue that, but I’m going to be out in the building and being in teachers’ rooms.

“I’m just going to be there to let everyone know we’re in this together.”

Many of the responsibilities she had in Greenwich have come with her to Wilton, with the primary exception being that she is now in charge of a school.

“This is more of a managerial shift,” she said. “I am just honored and blessed that I am working with (Assistant Principals) Ellen Tuckner and Catherine O’Keefe.

“The next few months are about me learning.”

After conducting all of the meetings, Dr. Mitchell will talk with Cider Mill’s leadership team, working with each house to understand the good and the challenges that are on each level.

As with other administrators in Wilton, she said the biggest change facing her school is the new teacher evaluation system.

“It’s a huge change from where Wilton was,” she said. “The way that we’re reporting and writing up, and the way student data is tied into the whole process; that’s all new. That’s a learning curve for everyone. But the really nice thing is that we’re all in this together.

“In some ways, it’s high stress for everybody right now, but it creates a supportive dynamic for everyone.”

Common core standardized testing, on the other hand, is viewed as more of a movement than being something new.

“We still have a lot of work as we shift towards taking this new assessment,” she said. “We’re still living in CMT land from last spring. But that’s a priority. We’re in this weird space where we’re living under two sets of expectations. I think it will be a sense of relief to not take the CMTs any longer. We’re waiting for information from the state if we’re moving to the Smarter Balance Assessment this year, but I don’t think they’ve determined that at this point.”

She felt the recently released data regarding the CMTs was too new to fully assess, staying consistent with the mantra of the Wilton public school administration.

“A lot of times, people want to jump to conclusions,” she said. “It’s one set of data, and the teachers really have to get to know their students. There’s lots of other data that we use to really look at students’ performance and indicators of success.”

“That data is really good for looking at trends. It’s something we want to spend time on reviewing.”

Originally from Norwalk, Dr. Mitchell said she “came from a very instructionally driven background.” Her first teaching position was at Tracey Elementary school in her hometown, along with her twin sister.

A move to Brookfield followed, where she continued teaching before heading into the administrative side.

“At that point I realized my passion in the area of reading instruction,” she said.

She continued her education and moved into being a coach for instructors.

“I realized I just loved working with teachers and working on the effectiveness in the classroom,” she added.

Greenwich was the next stop before Wilton as she pursued her doctorate in instructional leadership.

“My passion’s always lived in the instructional aspects,” she said.

But after five years in Greenwich’s central office, the call to be back in a school brought her to Cider Mill.

Married with two children (a six-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son), she still lives in Brookfield where she exercises in her spare time. She enjoys time with her family and has had her children come and visit her at the school as she settles into her new office.

“Come back and talk to me in a couple months and see what my schedule is like then,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s an exciting vibe here,” she said. “It’s a vibe of anticipation of a new year, moving forward — not that anyone’s forgetting anybody, but in a very positive way, we’re moving ahead.”