Epic adventures begin with small steps. For Dr. Mitchell Salerno, the journey to his new position as head of Windermere Preparatory School began at a Holiday Inn.
“There was a time in high school when I was going into my senior year and my dad had just been laid off,” he said.
Salerno had been attending Trinity Christian School in his hometown of Pittsburgh, along with his younger brother and sister. Suddenly, the family could no longer afford all three tuitions. Hoping to avoid a major upheaval just before graduation, a compromise was offered: Help pay for tuition and stay at your school.
“I worked at a Holiday Inn busing tabes Saturday and Sunday morning starting at 4:30,” Salerno said. “I bused tables for an entire school year and through the summer and paid my dad for the opportunity to go to that school.”
He refers to that time in his life as “the launching pad.”
After graduating high school, Salerno’s academic journey was fueled by an interest in science, but the course was unclear. While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Wheaton College, he noticed something was missing.
“Chemistry is about solving problems and thinking strategically,” Salerno said. “I love that aspect of science, but there’s no people involved.”
After Salerno earned his degree in 1997, the desire for personal interaction in his professional aspirations led to an internal debate on whether to purse a career in medicine. A job posting at Baytown Christian Academy in Texas led to a different experiment.
“They needed a chemistry teacher; my parents encouraged me to head down there,” Salerno said. “I did it, and I loved it. I absolutely loved teaching.”
“Windermere Prep is unique. It has its own unique atmosphere. It has its own unique history and culture. So I think you’d want to honor that history and honor that culture.”
He continued to teach science and chemistry at private schools in Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2004 while returning to his own education with renewed purpose.
His academic achievements include a master’s degree in specialty instructional technology from Duquesne University in 2003 and a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Liberty University in 2011.
Before coming to Windermere Prep, Salerno served as secondary school principal at Statesville Christian School in North Carolina from 2006 to 2008. He then served as high school principal, assistant superintendent and, ultimately, superintendent at The Masters Academy in Orlando from 2008 to 2016.
Before returning to Central Florida in June to take his role at Windermere Prep, Salerno served as head of school at Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, California.
He, his wife, Alexis, and twin daughters, Katie and Emma, are particularly happy to be back in the area, which has become, as he puts it, their “de facto home.”
“The adventure in California was incredible, but my parents live in The Villages, my in-laws have a condo here, a lot of our friends are still here, so coming back to Orlando was very much coming home,” he said. “During the pandemic especially, it’s great to be able to come home to family.”
He approaches his professional role in the same way he approached his academic studies — but from a personal angle.
“What’s really nice is, as an administrator you still have problems to solve,” his said. “You still have to be strategic, you still have to use all those skills you would have to use in chemistry, but you’re around people, which makes a huge difference.”
New leadership with a wealth of experience often can attempt to bring about many changes. But for Salerno, there is a need to respect what is already in place.
“Windermere Prep is unique,” he said. “It has its own unique atmosphere. It has its own unique history and culture. So I think you’d want to honor that history and honor that culture. You want to learn what has made Windermere Prep so successful.
“Years of accumulated experience give you the ability to understand best practice, organizational health and how to build a great team, but I don’t think you can come to an organization like this saying, ‘If we just did X, Y or Z, we’d be excellent,’” he said.
One part of the Windermere Prep experience that resonates with Salerno is it is an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, which offers a diploma program for 11th- and 12th-grade students that prepares them for a university level of academic demands.
“I’m actually in love with the IB,” he said. “I taught in the International Baccalaureate program as a chemistry teacher. Now, to come to an IB school and to work in that program, I’m excited to see it grow and improve and continue to be the best we can be in that program.”
His dedication to the IB program is part of a desire to give students everything they need to achieve what their dreams dictate.
“Inspiring kids to be able to do what they’re dreaming of — that’s been my passion in education,” Salerno said. “I want folks to know that’s how I see my role. Helping the incredible professionals inside this organization do what they do well and creating an environment where they can be successful. Because when those professionals are successful, those kids can achieve their dreams.”