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New MHS principal Joe Childs settling into job

Joe Childs, principal of Mitchell High School, makes his rounds and talks with students in the media center recently. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

Joe Childs was sipping from his Longfellow Elementary mug as the early day announcements blared across the halls of Mitchell High School.

He was standing in the hallway in front of the school’s main offices, watching students scurry around the building.

For Childs, the transition to his new job as principal of MHS seems to be as smooth as his morning coffee.

It’s been exactly three months since he started the new position. For the past four years, the 37-year-old Spearfish native had been the principal at Longfellow Elementary in Mitchell, overseeing about 350 students.

The high school holds about 800 students, and Childs knows he can impact a lot more lives each school year.

“The decisions they’re making, they’re thinking about their future plans and what they’re going to do after high school for a professional career,” said Childs, wearing a Kernel gold shirt during a recent interview. “They’re really trying to lay out the foundation of what their future and what adulthood will bring. That’s the biggest difference between them and elementary kids.”

Childs is in his 15th year of education and fifth year as a head principal. After earning an undergraduate degree from Dakota Wesleyan University, he picked up his master’s from South Dakota State University in his early years of teaching.

When he left DWU — a school in which he competed in wrestling, track and cross country — Childs’ first teaching position was in Mobridge, where he was also a varsity wrestling coach. He went on to teach for six years at Watertown Middle School and it was during his master’s degree internship, while also teaching at Watertown, that Childs determined he wanted to become a school administrator.

Childs originally became interested in an education career because his father, Jerry Childs, taught middle school science in Spearfish for 28 years and was an educator for 32 years. After eight years of being a teacher, he was ready for a change.

He moved back to Mitchell with his wife, Mindy, in 2006 and taught language arts at the middle school. The next year, he was hired as the assistant principal at the middle school, a job he had for two years. Then he was at Longfellow as the principal for four years.

“I liked the fact that you had more positive impact on kids and education,” Childs said of being an administrator. “I know it sounds cliché, but for me it’s always been about, ‘How can I have the biggest positive impact on education?’ ”

Before his interview for the MHS principal job, Childs was selected to go to Washington, D.C., as part of the South Dakota Elementary Principal’s Group. After the trip, he would come back and interview for the new job.

“I was supposed to leave and arrive in Mitchell around 9 o’clock in the morning and have my interview that evening,” he said. “It didn’t go that way.”

The night before returning to Mitchell, Childs’ flight was canceled because of weather and he couldn’t immediately find a trip home. He called and told Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves he needed to reschedule the interview.

“I was nervous and had some anxiety about that,” he said. “I continued until about 1 a.m. to talk with airlines on the phone and we thought we found something that would work.

“I called Dr. Graves back that morning and told him I thought I would make it back. I got to the airport, and it was delay after delay. I arrived in Mitchell at 6:45 and interviewed at 7. I don’t think I had ever been happier to see an interview panel.”

Within two days after spending nearly two hours in front of an interview panel, Graves came into Childs’ office at Longfellow and told him the good news.

Graves recommended Childs’ hire to the Mitchell Board of Education in March, and he succeeded Yvonne Palli, who retired at the end of the last school year after 30 years with the district.

“He really demonstrated a competence level,” Graves said. “He understood not just the district, but education in general and the different situations he would likely be facing as a high school principal.”

While Childs spends each day at the high school now, his wife and two children — Jackson, 8, and Madelyn, 5 — are all at Longfellow. Mindy, a Mitchell native, is a special education teacher, Jackson is a third-grader and Madelyn is a kindergartner.

Childs’ regular job duties are making classroom visits, working on budgets, helping students and several other random tasks that arise unexpectedly. Being visible in the hallways and in classrooms is key, he said.

Disciplining students and faculty for poor choices is understood to be a part of any administrator’s job. Childs accepts that, but he tries to look at confrontation as a mentoring tool. While Assistant Principal Craig Mock takes care of the discipline issues with freshmen, sophomores and juniors, Childs deals with the seniors.

He admits he takes work home with him every day, but uses the outdoors as an escape. Hunting and fishing are two of his favorite activities.

“In a position like this, you need to have some kind of release from just the stress of the day or whatever,” Childs said. “It’s just calming for me and takes my mind off things.”

Childs couldn’t pick one day as most interesting since he’s moved to the high school. He said homecoming week was exciting, although the Mitchell football team did knock off his hometown Spearfish Spartans 34-7.

He admits every day as a school principal is different. When asked whether he sees himself as the high school’s principal for the long term, he wouldn’t commit.  

“I guess I’ve never really given it any thought if this is the job I want to retire at,” said Childs, who credited the staff at the high school for making his transition easy. “I just want to have the biggest positive impact on education. This is where I’m at now, and I want to do the best I can.

“It’s gone really fast,” he added. “I’m surprised it’s been three months. It feels like it’s been three days.”