On the wall of the Nathan Hale Elementary School, flanked by student artwork and photos of smiling children, hangs a large plaque bearing a photo of a beaming woman. “Sandra Mitchell Woods, 1999-2016,” it reads.
“Am I dead?” Mitchell Woods joked as she walked by.
Far from it — she’s retiring after 16 years at the helm of the small Roxbury school, albeit with the kind of sendoff usually reserved for beloved politicians and athletes. Her lavish retirement party June 9 was attended by City Councilor Tito Jackson, as well as representatives of the mayor and governor. Six photographers documented the event.
Mitchell Woods may not have brokered a deal with North Korea or hit a record number of home runs, but she’s achieved an equally impressive feat: She oversaw the transformation of the Hale from a struggling school into a coveted destination for Boston’s kindergartners through fifth-graders.
When Mitchell Woods was first assigned to the Hale in 1999, 96 percent of its fourth-graders had failed the previous year’s MCAS math exam. In 2014, that number was zero.
“When I came here, we were the bottom of the bottom of all schools in Boston. The Nathan Hale was toxic,” Mitchell Woods said in a recent interview in her office, which she was in the midst of packing up. The door, hung with dozens of handwritten cards from students and staff, hadn’t been touched.
“So what are you going to do? I made everyone accountable,” she said. “I don’t want to ever paint a perfect picture, but my teachers take ownership of what goes on here.”
The turnaround didn’t come without big changes, and challenges. Mitchell Woods, who joined the district in 1988 and has won national accolades, instituted mandatory school uniforms, brought in community partners, and successfully fought for funding for an English as a Second Language teacher.
Some staff resisted the changes said Cherrita Distant-Hansel, who taught at the 180-student school from 1997 until retiring in 2011. They weren’t used to Mitchell Woods’s impeccable standards, especially at a school that many had long ago given up as a failure.
But Mitchell Woods, 67, never swayed from her vision of the Hale as the best elementary school in Boston. Gradually, those who couldn’t get behind her left, leaving only the most dedicated. “They left on their own, and every time I said, ‘Thank God,’ ” Mitchell Woods said.
For those who stayed, Mitchell Woods reserves unbounded gratitude and individual attention.
“Very seldom does a morning pass when Sandy doesn’t come — you hear her walking the hallway in her high heels — and say, ‘Good morning, thank you for being here,’ ” said Alan Jacobson, who has volunteered at the school for nine years. “She always remembers your birthday. . . . You have a vested interest in trying to make this school a better place.”
Staff, too, felt like an integral part of the school’s revival. Mitchell Woods would leave mints or flowers to encourage them, said longtime fourth-grade teacher Jonathan Holden, and would lead them in “passing the magic” — a moment of hand-holding and positive thinking — at the end of staff meetings.
“Whenever there was a challenge, Sandy was very good at presenting it as a group situation,” Holden said. “She’d say, ‘Our school is facing this challenge, what are we going to do?’ It really helped the staff buy into, this is our school.”
Mitchell Woods has a simple explanation for her success with community engagement: “I beg well,” she said.
But she’s not afraid to tell, rather than request. When a neighbor who lived near the school let his property become littered with weeds and drug needles, Mitchell Woods went to his home and told him to clean it up, she recounted. And she made sure he did, too, calling to congratulate him every time she saw a maintenance truck drive away or the trees being trimmed.
She has been aided by a bit of relentless optimism, though some might call it delusion. In the early years, whenever she had to pitch the Hale to skeptical parents, “I never talked the way it really was,” she said. “I’d speak like we were the best school in Boston. You have to see things the way you want them to be.”
Since then, she has worked to make sure there is nothing bad to see. She is by turns no-nonsense — enforcing strict discipline at school fire drills — and almost childishly enthusiastic. In 2000, when the school’s theme was “Go for the Gold” in honor of the Olympics, she bought gold paint to spray the historic puddingstone surrounding the Hale.
“At night it would glow,” she smiled, remembering. “After all these years, if you look really close, you can still see the little sprinkles.”
But as anyone else at the Hale will tell you, the other marks of Mitchell Woods’s legacy are really quite easy to see.