Conchita Mitchell learned about working in the community from her parents.

"As long as I can remember they've both been the president of something," she said. "I think they instilled in me a need -- almost a requirement -- to be civically involved."

On July 1, Mitchell will take her place on the five-member Arlington School Board. She was appointed last week by the County Board to succeed Margaret A. Bocek, whose four-year term expires at the end of next month.

Mitchell, who describes herself politically as an independent, will be the fifth person appointed by the County Board's Democratic majority.

Mitchell, 38, talks quickly and smiles easily. Her manner is thoughtful and down-to-earth, and in her voice there is a hint of the south.

Born in Mexico, she lived in Texas, Louisiana and Arizona before moving to Arlington with her family when she was 8 years old.

Mitchell graduated from Wakefield High School in 1966, two years before her father, Ernest Saulmon, joined the School Board. She earned a bachelor of science degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, becoming the first woman to graduate in industrial arts.

Returning with her own family to Arlington in 1978, she immediately involved herself in the school system, volunteering for school committees and PTAs.

With three children in the county schools, Mitchell has served since 1984 as president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs, the umbrella group for the school system's 26 PTA groups.

For the past two years, she has spent two Thursday evenings each month sitting in the audience at Arlington School Board meetings, listening, observing and closely following current issues.

She said she has been impressed with how committed county officials and residents are to maintaining good public schools.

"We really have in Arlington a nice situation," she said. "County Board members have continued to say, 'Schools are important -- we want to attract families.' "

In her work with PTA volunteers, Mitchell said she has also been "constantly amazed" at the energy and expertise parents bring to the schools.

"Another strength of the system is our ability to examine our programs," Mitchell said in a statement to the County Board.

"We have a strong network of advisory committees that is able to give well-thought-out advice. Arlington is famous for appointing task forces. We're always willing to change a little bit."

Mitchell said the School Board demonstrated that spirit of flexibility and willingness for self-examination this month by voting to undertake a detailed study of racial balance in the school system, which has changed dramatically since 1971, when Arlington's last all-black elementary school was desegregated.

Mitchell said she supports the current School Board's commitment to advancing minority achievement and is pleased that the board has begun a process of looking at school buildings to find out what each facility needs in the way of capital improvements.

"I think we send a message to our children -- 'You're not very important to us' -- when we send them to a school that's not well-maintained," she said.

Mitchell thinks the school system is doing a good job compensating teachers. Starting pay for new instructors will be $20,100 next fall.

"Right now I think the issue is nicely addressed, but I think we have to stay on top of it," she said.

Bonnie Pfoutz, president of the Arlington Education Association, which represents about 870 of the county's 1,000 teachers, said she has been impressed with Mitchell.

"She has always been more than willing to listen and very, very fair and interested," Pfoutz said. "She understands very clearly that the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of children."

Mitchell said she believes that if those conditions are right, students learn to make good choices about their futures.

As a new board member, Mitchell plans to listen and learn, hoping at the same time to "continue to make the community feel involved in the system.

"I want to help those kids out there who don't have advocates at home," she said. "And I am concerned for that broad range of students. Too often we tend to concentrate on the extremes in the system.

"Am I excited?" she asks, pausing. "Yes, I'm excited. I'm a little nervous too."