A high school dropout rises to lead the state's highest court and becomes a champion for innovation in public education in North Carolina. That's the story of Burley Mitchell, one of North Carolina's most accomplished statesmen and the founding chair for the NC New Schools Board of Directors.
In fact, Mitchell dropped out of Raleigh's Broughton High School not just once, but twice. He first left at 15 to join the Marines, but was sent home when they discovered he was too young. He dropped out again at 17 to join the Navy and never returned. Instead, he got a GED, went to NC State University and earned a law degree from UNC Chapel Hill.
Mitchell's career in public service began as an assistant attorney general for North Carolina in 1972, providing legal counsel for the state superintendent and the Department of Public Instruction, and culminated as chief justice of the Supreme Court. In between he served as district attorney for Wake County, as secretary of crime control and public policy, and as a judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals. Today he is a partner with the law firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice. Mitchell watched NC New Schools get its start in 2003 and was named chair of the first board of directors in 2006.
"I was actively involved in government for 30 years, and time after time, I watched government start experimental programs and almost none of them went anywhere after the initial funding ran out," Mitchell says. "This experiment with NC New Schools worked exactly how it should - the Gates Foundation started the funding, then weaned us off as we were able to get support from the business community based on our success. That's exactly the way an experiment should work."
Mitchell recalls that the work wasn't always smooth.
"There were a lot of naysayers at the beginning, and we met a great deal of resistance. Sometimes in education, we talk a good game, have committee meetings and nothing happens. NC New Schools broke that mold," Mitchell says. "We created schools that worked - and some that didn't work - and we've kept a group of really committed staff and board members who haven't lost their enthusiasm for making this state a better place for people to live."
He points to two specific schools that show the impact NC New Schools and its partners have had on the state in recent years.
"The Wake NC State University STEM Early College High School is a great example of how schools of education should function - not just writing academic theory, but training teachers in a school where they can actually learn to teach," Mitchell says. "Now NC State, NC New Schools and the Wake County Public School System are working together over there for the good of the students and for the good of the training teachers. That's taking existing resources and putting them together in a different configuration, a new paradigm that has worked."
"In another part of the state, the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience is a real shining light for the future," Mitchell says. "That school is a whole new possibility for kids in northeastern North Carolina who were pretty much doomed to low-wage agriculture and service jobs at best. Now there are new opportunities for them to excel and succeed without having to leave northeastern North Carolina in order to get ahead."
As Chief Justice, Mitchell presided over the landmark education case Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The opinion that he authored set a high bar for public education in North Carolina, declaring that "an education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and complete in society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and constitutionally inadequate."
Mitchell built upon his accomplishments as a jurist in his six-year term as chairman of the NC New Schools Board of Directors.
"The combination of his reputation as a champion of educational opportunity and his passion is critical to the success of NC New Schools," says fellow board member Shirley Prince, executive director of the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association. "His leadership at the outset provided invaluable credibility to a start-up organization whose earliest efforts might otherwise have failed to take hold. The growing number of successful innovative high schools across the state is a clear testament to the strength of his leadership."
Mitchell continues to serve on the board of directors and looks to the schools partnering with NC New Schools for inspiration.
"If I'm ever discouraged about what's happening in education, all I need is to hear from the kids who are in those early college programs," Mitchell says. "They are coming out of high school excited and ready for the future. Tip of the hat to the community colleges and the legislature for making that work in a time when community colleges are overwhelmed. They have really come through."
The business community has also been a key supporter of the work to improve public schools in North Carolina, says Mitchell.
"They need employees for their business," he says. "Education and jobs are one and the same - our business community knows that. Raising education standards raises living standards."
As schools and districts face increasing pressure to reach high standards, they need even more support, Mitchell adds.
"I think it's no secret that we've seen our public schools put under even more stress by reduced funding in recent years," he says. "NC New Schools is an organization that has shown its ability to help our schools find ways to deal as creatively and productively as possible with limited resources."
Looking ahead, Mitchell sees the need for more partnerships that extend the reach of NC New Schools to students across the state.
"We have to reach out to those areas that are not being served in a way that will be helpful for them. It's going to take great creativity," Mitchell says. "I think the NC New Schools focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education is absolutely appropriate because there's a critical need for people with those skills throughout the U.S. The jobs are there, but they need the training.
"I encourage Governor McCrory, Dr. Atkinson and all of our education and business communities to continue to focus on the creativity that NC New Schools brings and be a partner. It is only through working together that we're going to be successful."
This profile is the first in a series celebrating NC New Schools' 10th anniversary.
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