Strange Days at FIA

A black charter school was supposed to lead African-American youth into a bright future. It hasn't happened.

It started with an anonymous letter sent last June to parents of students at Florida International Academy, an Opa-locka-born charter school with a troubled past. "The Verdict Is In!!!!" screamed the letter. "Ms. Mitchell Must Be Fired!!!!"

The letter went on to allege that Ms. Mitchell, the executive director of the school, was regularly insulting students with such epithets as "crack babies, ignorant, retarded, stupid," and "slut." "She divulges personal information about other students to other parents and she constantly insults the staff and the board members behind their backs." The letter, which included an inspirational passage culled from an old Black Panther screed, suggested parents should boycott the school until Mitchell was replaced because: "She is unprofessional. She is vindictive, and she is symptomatic of the problem that is turning our kids into a permanent underclass."

The subject of all this concern is Ms. Sonia Cossie Mitchell, a tiny, well-dressed woman in her fifties, who speaks with a lilting West Indian accent that ranges from syrupy to stern. Mitchell steps out from behind the desk in her office, hand extended, a resoluteness on her round face as she prepares to debunk the allegations launched against her in the letter, and subsequently by former employees and parents. She apologizes for the chaotic, unfinished look of the place, explaining that the school just moved from its collection of modular classrooms behind an old Opa-locka church to this two-story edifice at 76th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, abandoned a year earlier by another charter school that had a hard time. (See "Lesson the Damage," New Times, May 17, 2001).

Illustration by Josef Gast
Top to bottom: "It's been hard, but I'm tenacious," says Ms. Mitchell; board chairman Vance Phillips: "Thought we'd resolved all that"; A.J. Melton, former Mitchell supporter: "I got mad"
Steve Satterwhite
Top to bottom: "It's been hard, but I'm tenacious," says Ms. Mitchell; board chairman Vance Phillips: "Thought we'd resolved all that"; A.J. Melton, former Mitchell supporter: "I got mad"

Sitting in a plastic chair beside the desk is Mamie Davis, a large, sturdy grandmother in her seventies who has put five foster children through FIA, the last of whom is still attending. Also in the room, hunched in a corner chair, is a clean-cut white guy with the whiff of mid-career lawyer about him. He's introduced as "my friend and attorney, Alan Sackrin." Mitchell seats herself behind the desk and takes a breath as she prepares to relive the tortuous events of the past year. "A year ago, they nailed me to the cross," she begins with a world-weary sigh that fails to stir the puffy cloud of expensively highlighted hair framing her face.

Mitchell briefly outlines the events that transpired after the anonymous letter was dispersed to parents last June. "There were a lot of things going on, more letters, petitions," she recalls. "We had a meeting and most of the parents were there and supported me. But [the accusers] could present no evidence. I thought it was over." It turned out to be only the beginning. Her long-time friend and former assistant director Reginald Williams quit and wrote a letter to the school's governing board, decrying the "reckless and destructive verbal abuse" his former boss allegedly heaped on students and school staff. A teacher named Dwan Hunt also wrote a letter, as did a former aide, Shanika Bradshaw. Several members of the governing board began to question every decision Mitchell made, and even attempted to oust her main ally on the board, chairman Vance Phillips.

As head of a struggling charter populated mostly by African-American sixth- through eighth-grade students, largely from low-income families, many with learning difficulties or behavioral problems, Mitchell is used to formidable odds. "It's been hard, but I'm tenacious," she remarks, perfectly shaped eyebrows arched for emphasis. Mitchell says the allegations against her are solely the fabrications of "jealous people" who envy her position. "I haven't done everything right, but God knows I've tried," she asserts. "Do I go up and down these kids sometimes if their skirt is too short, or they are cursing?" she asks rhetorically. "From age seven I was boarded in a convent school, so I'm strict. But I don't use words like [slut or retarded]."

Mamie Davis listens and nods, causing the enormous blue flower on her hat to tremble slightly. "Miss Mitchell is the best thing ever happened to FIA," she declares, peering sternly through her gold-rimmed glasses and adjusting the grip on the fuzzy leopard-print handbag in her lap. "She's determined to make FIA work. Miss Mitchell will be a gen-u-ine angel." Mitchell inclines her head approvingly, adding with conviction, "This is a charter school. Those parents would be down on my neck [if the allegations were true]. People do not leave their children in the hands of an administrator who's abusing them."

Yet that's exactly what Williams, Hunt, other former employees, and some parents say happened. Dwan Hunt claims Mitchell more than once viciously laid into students she thought were misbehaving. "She would tell them they were 'monsters, Godzillas,'" remembers Hunt, an eighth-grade social studies and reading teacher. "She said she didn't know why they came to school and she was ashamed to be associated with them. The kids would be upset, and she'd sometimes have to call the police on a child," because they'd come after her. Williams alleges: "I've heard her refer to some of those young ladies as 'whores.' I've heard her tell some of those young men they'll end up in prison. It's appalling."

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