New School Principal Mindi Ritchie '99 Applies Lessons from Knox while Serving Students
Mindi Ritchie '99 never expected to start her first job as a school principal during a pandemic—nor in the midst of ongoing protests against racial and social injustice. While Ritchie recognizes the difficulties of teaching and learning amidst so much uncertainty, she also sees opportunities to help students and colleagues grow, and she is drawing on lessons learned at Knox as she works toward her goals.
Ritchie was named principal of Galesburg High School North in August. GHS North is an "alternative" high school, with programs and classes geared toward students who've had trouble succeeding in a traditional school environment.
“That may involve anxiety or trauma or maybe an undiagnosed learning disability,” she explains. “Some people have the incorrect assumption that GHS North serves only students with behavior-related problems. That's, first of all, not the case. But I would also say that when students do have difficult behaviors, there's a place that comes from. There's a need that's probably unmet.”
From Ritchie’s point of view, a key aspect of education—and one that is directly tied to her experience at Knox—is to “let the students know that they’re seen and their perspective is valued.” She encourages teachers to always check in directly with students by asking how they’re doing, and then listening attentively to their responses. “Even if a teacher is preparing to teach algebra, it pays out in dividends to take the time to say to students, ‘Tell me something that's on your mind today. Tell me an unanswered question that you have about something going on in the world today,’” she says. This approach enables teachers to try to ease students’ worries, and at the same time, helps students develop skills in self-awareness, reflection, and communication. These skills pave the way for students to become better self-advocates and to succeed in school and in life.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many schools, including the ones in Galesburg, to shift to remote learning, Ritchie believes this is “perfect timing” to focus on one of her goals: to provide students with additional asynchronous learning opportunities. Some students succeed in a traditional learning environment where the teacher and students are all in class at the same time, but others prefer a different, more individualized approach.
“I happen to be one of these people. I like to read things on my own time, learn on my own terms,” she says. “While stress is high and there's a lot going on, there's also an opportunity in education for us to grow in ways that maybe we haven't even considered yet.” Ritchie also considers this an important time to continue to evaluate rigor in coursework. Research shows that people “learn the best when stretched and challenged,” she says, adding that in times of stress, school can still be a source of comfort and a place where students can boost their confidence and feelings of self-worth.
Along with her responsibilities as a principal, Ritchie has been developing both a comprehensive mental health program for students and faculty and a social and emotional learning (SEL) program that teaches students about mindfulness and calming breathing exercises.
As part of the districtwide SEL program, Ritchie recently implemented an outreach initiative called “SEL on Wheels.” Student support personnel and teachers drive a minivan to Galesburg neighborhoods and housing complexes to offer students whatever they need—social and emotional help, academic assistance, a meal, or access to technology. Since SEL on Wheels launched on September 28, almost 500 students have been served. "Creating a system and program in which we can quickly and directly go to students to remove barriers to learning has been incredibly fulfilling for me,” Ritchie says. “Individuals from other school districts have reached out to ask about how to start a program like this in their school district."
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She is well-suited for such ambitious projects. After graduating from Knox, she earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Dayton and, later, professional educator licenses in counseling and administration from Bradley University. She worked as a licensed therapist for several years and then entered the education field, initially as a school counselor in Galesburg and eventually as an assistant principal at Galesburg High School.
“I elected to move from therapy to education for the same reason I moved from school counselor to assistant principal to principal,” she says. “I am a systems person and like to think about broad change and large issues. By moving into the new roles and facing new challenges, I was able to increase my impact in terms of the number of students served.”
Ritchie credits Knox with putting her on a successful and fulfilling career path.
As a Galesburg native, Ritchie has always known about Knox. “My dad made sure that we visited campuses in our childhood, and Knox was the one that we were probably on the most frequently,” she recalls. “We visited Old Main and the squirrels at Knox, and loved the sense of community there. We ate at the Gizmo before I was ever a student.”
Upon arriving on campus, she wasn’t sure what major she wanted to pursue, so she sampled courses in different academic disciplines, such as philosophy and business. She quickly found her fit and decided to major in psychology and Spanish.
“The neat thing about psychology at Knox is that you really get to dive in with each of the professors and their specialty. At that time, I was working with Gary Francois and learning about motivation and learning, Frank McAndrew learning about evolutionary psychology and cognitive psychology, and Heather Hoffmann learning about human sexuality. I loved that hard science base and the way some of the more sociological perspectives were woven in there as well,” she says. “I had wonderful experiences, too, with Spanish. All of my professors there were just stellar, as well.”
She also has fond memories of First-Year Preceptorial (FP) and a senior capstone project. In FP, she got to know a diverse group of people from all over the globe and engage in intellectually stimulating conversations with them. “I am from Galesburg, and I only knew Galesburg. I feel like Knox opened me up to the world,” she says.
For her senior capstone, Ritchie stepped out of her comfort zone to work with physics professor Chuck Schultz to explore the concept of time. “I never thought about myself as a physics person, but it was fascinating,” she recalls.
Ritchie credits her experiences at Knox with many of her professional accomplishments. "Knox helped shape me into the servant leader I am today,” she says. “My classes at Knox helped me to see the importance of inquiry and discourse. Being around so many diverse learners during my time at Knox has stuck with me, and I make it a point to amplify the strengths and voices of others when possible, whether student or faculty member."
Published on November 30, 2020