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After more than 30 years, Priscilla "Cookie" Mitchell steps down from GF Head Start

A single Cookie has nourished hundreds of Grand Forks families for more than three decades. As Director of Grand Forks Head Start, Priscilla "Cookie" Mitchell has given preschool students more than just classrooms and a playground. She, her staff...

A single Cookie has nourished hundreds of Grand Forks families for more than three decades.

As Director of Grand Forks Head Start, Priscilla "Cookie" Mitchell has given preschool students more than just classrooms and a playground. She, her staff and volunteers have helped families pay for gas, backpacks, winter coats - whatever it takes to get children to and through school.

"We not only serve the children, we serve the entire family," Mitchell said.

After 34 years, she is retiring. Mitchell is 69 ½, and she promised herself she wouldn't work past her 70th birthday.

"Her shoes are going to be hard to fill," said Tammy Spicer, who has worked as a data entry secretary for Head Start for 19 years. She is also a Head Start parent: her two children went to preschool there.



Mitchell, whose nickname comes from the Blondie comic strip, is a cheerful presence at Head Start. The children all know her name, she says with a laugh, partly because they like saying it: "Cookie!"

"It's been a great experience," Mitchell said. "It's just been a whirlwind of fun getting to know all these parents and all these children, and now they've graduated and gone on to college - and how well some of them are doing. They always come back, too."

Without relying on statistics or acronyms only educators would understand, Mitchell explains her work.

"I just keep writing grants, and we just keep expanding and expanding the program," she said. "With a waiting list of more than 200, you have to keep writing grants to make sure all these children get into Head Start...because we have the services."

The Grand Forks Head Start serves 357 children in Grand Forks, Cavalier, Pembina and Walsh counties. $2.3 million in grants will help fund it next year, Mitchell said.

Empowering others

Amanda Holien, 26, has been a Head Start mom for three years. She and her husband, both UND students, are grateful for the school preparation their two daughters, Mari, 5, and Zoe, 6, have received.


"It's amazing what you can instill in a 4-year-old...the building blocks of life," Holien said.

Holien has served on the Head Start Policy Council, similar to a parent-teacher organization.

Empowering parents and employees to further their educations and fill leadership positions is a common theme for Mitchell.

"You can teach an old dog new tricks," said Patti Olson, a paraprofessional at Head Start. She started as a cook, then worked through nearly all the jobs Head Start has to offer, including office worker, bus monitor and janitor. She does not, however, have her bus license, she said with a laugh.

Mitchell, on the other hand, does. She keeps her license current so she can drive if a bus driver isn't available, she said, though she doesn't have a regular route.


One of Mitchell's proudest moments was helping design the Head Start building at 3600 6th Ave. N. in Grand Forks. It opened just before the Flood of 1997.

Mitchell's other happiest memory at Head Start was when the tables were turned and her family reaped the benefit of others' generosity. More than 700 people attended a benefit dinner in October 2008 to raise more than $16,000 to offset medical costs for one of Mitchell's daughters, D'Ann.


"It makes me cry, because the whole staff got together and the community and had this big raffle and helped us with the cost of staying down there at Mayo and the whole kidney transplant for her," Mitchell said.

New head for Head Start

In August, Jerry Jonnson will take Mitchell's place as Director of Grand Forks Head Start. Jonnson grew up in Grand Forks, graduated from Central High School and received a bachelor's and master's degree from UND. He received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he wrote his dissertation on Head Start teacher effectiveness.

"I've sort of come full circle, because I started my professional career in Head Start" in North and South Dakota, Jonnson said.

Jonnson said he will look for new funding for the program so it can serve more children and families.

"There's an awful lot of energy going toward cutting federal programs. I tend to be one of the advocates of not cutting programs that help people in need," Jonnson said.

Gulya covers education. Reach her at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or send e-mail to lgulya@gfherald.com .

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