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Mike Miles, superintendent, championing for better schools

March 26, 2010
photo - Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Mike Miles pauses to ask first grader Tania Walton about her reading Wednesday, February 17, 2010 during a visit to Bricker Elementary School. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Mike Miles pauses to ask first grader Tania Walton about her reading Wednesday, February 17, 2010 during a visit to Bricker Elementary School. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

Mike Miles has just left a meeting when he spies a plane on the horizon. “It’s a C-130,” he says.

The former Army Ranger was once buried in the wreckage of such a plane, and says his soul searching after that brush with death led him to a seemingly quieter education career.

Now he’s superintendent of Harrison School District 2, a job that’s been anything but quiet.

Miles, 53, is a complex man: intense but calm; warrior and poet; a student who went from the parade fields of West Point to the liberal college forums at Berkeley; someone whose favorite movies are “Gladiator” and “The Sound of Music”; a veteran who opposed the war in Iraq; a man who prefers raising up impoverished kids over a glamorous diplomatic job.

Clearly, he is a lightning rod in a district enveloped by excitement and hope on one side and fear and resentment on the other as he leads sweeping changes and raises expectations for every employee.

Miles and his progressive school board are on a quest to turn around the chronically underperforming district, where more than 70 percent of the 11,300 students are impoverished and many are at risk of dropping out.

The board and Miles have dared to fire or push out teachers deemed ineffective and adopt a pay-for-performance system that compensates based on how well students do. It turns upside down the traditional fixed-pay system based on a teacher’s education and years in the profession.

The board also is considering a governance system that most board members say will give them more time to work on student achievement goals and leave day-to-day operations to the superintendent.

Local and state educators are watching because Miles is in the vanguard of educators nationwide who are using controversial techniques in an attempt to turn around failing schools. The Obama administration has made it clear that such efforts will be rewarded with a piece of the $70 billion stimulus pie reserved for education.

Miles has been compared with Michelle Rhee, the go-get-em chancellor who has been villainized and lauded as she tries to repair the shattered Washington, D.C. school system. Rhee, a Korean-American who once taught in the innovative Teach for America program but has never been an administrator, was tapped to run the troubled district of 46,000 students. She has rewarded good teachers but has fired more than 250. Obama has called her “a wonderful new superintendent,” but she gained the wrath of the Washington Teachers Union, which is appealing the firings.

The question many are asking not only of Rhee, but of Miles: Are they reformers who can measure the quality of teachers in a fair way and bring reform to public education, or are they outsiders moving so recklessly that they’re endangering the good in public education along with the bad?

Brian Kates, a member of a Harrison community advisory group says, “Mike’s a leader with vision. He is not taking the safe route. As a result, he’s made himself a polarizing figure.”

It is not lost on Miles that he is praised and cursed by those slogging with him through the mud kicked up by radical change.

“Some take all this as matter of fact. Others see me as a hard-ass. That’s OK.”

Whether they like him or share his vision, most admire his fixation to do right by students. Repeatedly, people explain him this way:

“He is driven.”

Ideas, discontent

Miles says he is as immersed in education as he ever was in training special operations soldiers, doing diplomatic work in U.S. embassies or running a failed grass-roots campaign to become senator.

“Every day is a day for the kids. It is unique, important and a serious day,” he says.

A sound bite? Those who work closely with him say he believes it to his core.

Following him around for several days seems to bear that out.

Breakfast is grabbing a vanilla latte at a coffee shop. He’s in the office by 6:30 a.m., and so is his administrative assistant, Mary McKinley, who has worked for him since he was assistant superintendent in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8.

McKinley is the organized and motherly traffic cop who tells him where his next appointment is and with whom. But she has given up telling him to take time for lunch.

“He is so full of ideas that he forgets to eat,” she says.

Yet, he keeps his calm. “I’ve never seen him angry. I never have to walk the fence or guess. He is direct and decisive. His expectations are high, and if you meet them or exceed them, he never fails to says ‘good job,’” McKinley said.

Miles’ office is sleek, functional and devoid of clutter. There are a few treasures, including a Hachimaki, a stylized Japanese headband with “ganbatte” written on it. “It’s Yoda-like,” Miles says. “It means you have to succeed or don’t do it at all.”

There is a family photo on his desk, and one of President John F. Kennedy on the wall. There’s a photo of a brass compass with 267.5 degrees West. scrawled on it: “It means the district isn’t going in just any direction, we are going in a very specific direction to improve.”

Although some teachers are following that direction, others have jumped ship or been pushed overboard.

There is always speculation or a story swirling around him.

No, he has not fired hundreds of teachers or spent millions on buyouts.

Yes, state election documents show he donated $800 to the recent campaign of school board president Deborah Hendrix, as reported in a recent Gazette column. (He later said it was a contribution from his wife, who shares his checking account.)

No, he isn’t leaving this spring to accept another superintendent position. No, he doesn’t have three heads.

Some believe that Miles and the board don’t communicate and are unfair. A handful who have been fired have sued for wrongful termination, costing the district about $194,000. There have been at least two placard-waving protests at board meetings to complain about new policies.

The Pikes Peak Education Association says there is “discontent down in the trenches” over not only pay-for-performance, but a host of policy changes that union members believe have weakened the school board as well as teacher protection and negotiation ability — including eliminating appeals to the board for some grievance decisions.

“It’s been a strained relationship at best. Many feel that association membership amounts to having a target on their back,” says Mike Stahl, the union’s executive director. He says he gets more complaints from teachers in District 2 than from any of the other 16 public school districts in PPEA’s regional jurisdiction.

“Some think he is a mean guy, but he isn’t,” says Deborah Hendrix, school board president. “Despite what detractors say, his goal isn’t political or to create mayhem. It’s to make a difference in kids’ lives.”

The board hired him, she says, because they sensed he had the guts and vision to lead the district out of its academic torpor.

“Our CSAP scores were in the toilet. We were like 160 out of 178 districts in achievement. We needed a strong leader, someone not afraid to make hard decisions,” Hendrix says. “We had lost our focus and spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with things that didn’t impact children’s lives, and there was little accountability.”

Hendrix met Miles at a state school board conference where he was guest speaker. When he came for a final job interview, recalls Hendrix, “I thought: My goodness, this guy is talking about real change.”

They created a five-year plan to reshape the district, using a systematic corporate approach common in business, but not in education, to tackle student achievement and staff professional development.

Achievements cited

There was no honeymoon. As soon as school started in fall 2006, Miles clashed with teachers when he insisted on literally opening classroom doors. Some teachers felt their professionalism was being questioned and that hall noise would distract students. But he believed that open doors create a mind-set of transparency and focus on instruction, and signaled that instruction would be observed often.

No one disputes that educating tough-to-serve kids has traditionally been fraught with failure. The students often are mobile because of life circumstances, so their education is disrupted, sometimes continually. Some don’t make it to school because of home problems, some come to school hungry, relying on the free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches they receive there. Some are forced to drop out to take jobs to help their families survive.

Miles has made it clear that poverty and family problems are no excuse for low achievement.

“A lot of urban districts give up and make school a baby-sitting service, believing they’ll all be in jail anyway,” Hendrix says. But Miles has told the staff: “If any of you feel that way, we don’t want you in the district. We want people passionate and willing to go the extra mile and engage these students.”

The district cites these achievements during Miles’ three years as CEO:

• District removed from state academic probation

• Improved test scores

• Increased teacher contact days

• More professional development for teachers

• More after-school learning activities

• Expanded programs for diverse learners

• Early recruitment program with UCCS for teacher candidates

• Creation of the only public year-round school in the area

• Creation of a Year 2020 curriculum in information literacy, economics, critical thinking, Chinese, math and science reasoning

As part of the turnaround effort, Harrison’s administration has put teachers on remediation plans for poor performance, and principals have been transformed from building administrators into instructional leaders who make sure that improving the quality of instruction is paramount.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education is offering a billion dollars in stimulus money for schools that recruit and retain effective teachers, track performance of students and teachers, and use innovative techniques to turn around failing schools. Some are taking drastic steps. A district in Rhode Island fired the teachers at a failing high school.

Stahl, the teachers union leader, says, “There are no silver bullets. But there is pressure on administrators to show results through a culture of blame, saying that our schools are terrible and that teachers aren’t accountable. If you know teachers, they aren’t shirking their duties. They give up their life for their job.”

He says that Miles “is a smart guy, but he is not a collaborative sort of individual, and it makes it difficult for teachers to feel respected.”

Miles and his bosses agree that he has raised hackles.

That doesn’t bother board member Richard Price, who has been an educator for 38 years and admires the way Miles takes the heat to get the job done. “This is the first superintendent I’ve ever seen who completely walks the talk about helping students,” Price says.

Miles’ high expectations also play a part.

“His action plans are good, but sometimes too aggressive to take in all at once. We don’t eliminate goals, but we sometimes scale them back so there is more time to put the process in place,” Hendrix says.

“Some of the criticism is because he is so focused he doesn’t often allow people to see his concern, the passion, the humanity side of him.”

Miles says he expects a lot and knows what his teachers are going through. “It’s tough, but our teachers make it look easy,” he says. “The students here have very difficult challenges. But our teachers nurture them and teach them, and that’s admirable.”

Kates, who heads the city’s Meadows Park Community Center where Harrison kids go for after-school programs, says he notices a difference in students’ attitudes. “Before, there was a pervasive culture among the kids that they had to be the breadwinner in the family and couldn’t see the value for high school. But now I’m beginning to hear more talk about college.”

‘That way from the start’

Miles’ sister Shirley Miles, director of the Department of Defense’s 195 schools worldwide, says her brother is a good leader for Harrison because “he can put himself in the shoes of many of those kids. And as hokey as it may sound, he wants to save them all.”

Miles, born in the Panama Canal zone to a black father and a Japanese mother, doesn’t talk much about discrimination. But Shirley Miles does, including one incident when she and Mike were playing marbles with a bunch of kids.

“This one kid starts yelling racial slurs using the N word, telling us to leave. That time I made Mike leave with me. But we had our share of fights. It made us stronger. We had to work harder to prove ourselves.”

Their parents, Floyd and Chiyo Miles of Fountain, pushed education for their eight children. When Miles was a teenager and wanted to work, his father told him school was his job.

When Floyd Miles, a retired Army master sergeant, was deployed to Vietnam, he made his kids promise they would graduate from college. All did so, and among them are a police officer, a nurse, and a brigadier general in Iraq.

Shirley Miles says Mike’s love of teaching blossomed when he helped his siblings with homework. “He’d quiz us harder than a teacher, point out mistakes, question our reasoning.

“We’d say, ‘Dang it Mike, lighten up a little.’ So if people think he is that way now, well he was that way from the start.”

In touch with students

It’s another hurricane of a day. Miles attended a morning meeting on the budget crisis facing Colorado and the district and sprinted out the door. He pays surprise visits to at least four of the district’s 22 schools weekly.

It’s unusual for superintendents to do this consistently and rarer still for students to recognize their superintendent. A first-grader recently called out when he entered a classroom, “Oh, here comes the judge.”

Fourth-grade teacher Allyson Fox, says, “I used to be really uneasy. It was daunting to have the head boss here. But now most of us welcome the feedback and accountability. But maybe 25 percent wish he would stay away.”

In one classroom at Stratmoor Elementary School, Miles sits on a tiny chair amid kindergartners. He watches how the teachers teach, how the students react and how the building executives lead. A former principal and high school economics and history teacher, he understands the methods, the curriculum objectives.

Back in the hall, he asks the principal how what they saw fits with the building’s efforts. He is quick to praise but does not mince words when he sees a problem.

Stratmoor Principal Pamela Robinson says, “Change is never easy, but it has benefited the children. I don’t agree with everything, but there is nothing wrong with seeing if something works.”

She notes that when she meets educators at national conferences “some are amazed at how cutting edge we are, and others are happy they don’t have a superintendent making changes like that.”

A second chance

It was the night of Sept. 21, 1981, somewhere over the Nevada desert. Miles, an Army Ranger and an executive officer who trained special operations teams in hostage rescue, was aboard a C-130. They were on a night exercise out of Fort Lewis, Wash.

Miles had wanted to be in the military since second grade. After graduating valedictorian from Fountain-Fort Carson High School, he received an engineering degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was eighth in his class.

On the night in question, the Hercules crash landed. The fuselage split open as the plane skidded 200 yards and embedded in the desert floor. “I felt my hand break, in three places, and smelled dirt and was knocked unconscious for a minute,” Miles says.

He was buried under the dirt with only his arm showing. Two fellow Rangers dug him out and helped him crawl from the wreckage as the plane exploded into flames.

Seven men were killed. Miles was hospitalized with a broken hand and a jaw broken in three places. The men who saved him received the highest peacetime award for valor. He had helped plan the mission and felt responsible.

“It’s like Private Ryan. I’m here by fate, and I have to earn my second chance. I wanted to give back.”

That second chance eventually led him to the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied Slavic languages and literature, and spent a semester at Leningrad State University in Russia.

Miles had grown up in the era of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and like many of his generation, wanted to heed their message to change the world. He had thought the Army would be that vehicle, but decided he would rather create policy than execute it, and at the time Russia was where important policy was being made.

But why Berkeley, the most liberal of campuses?

“He chose it because he wanted to be more well-rounded and knew that would be entirely different from what his experiences had been,” says his wife, Karen Miles, who met him there. “He was in his late 20s, and the rest of us were just a couple years out of high school and here comes this ex-military man, very disciplined and orderly. His demeanor was so different, but he always had a twinkle in his eye. And he was cute, too.”

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1986, he and Karen moved to New York, where he earned a master’s degree at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, graduating from the W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union in 1989.

He served as a policy analyst at the Soviet desk in the U.S. Department of State in 1989, and then from 1990 to 1995 as diplomat in Moscow and Warsaw at the end of the Cold War.

“It was a dangerous time, there was a coup attempt and here we were with two babies, 6 months old and 2 years old, and had to be ushered into a gymnasium for safety,” Karen recalls.

But eventually, Miles says he grew restless, wanting more hands-on work, and felt education would give him a chance to make a difference.

Away from work

It’s Tuesday night, and Miles is running backward down a basketball court at the Briargate YMCA, blowing a whistle and yelling “Way to hustle, good job!”

He is coaching a team on which his 8-year-old son plays.

Karen says he has always managed to spend time with their kids. Besides Anthony, they have a daughter, Madeleine, 17, and a son, Nicholas, 18, who attends UCLA.

“He comes across as stern, but he is corny and funny,” she says. “Mike has a great imagination. When they were little, he’d throw all the cushions on the floor, move the furniture and they’d act out these elaborate stories.”

When the family arrived in Colorado Springs in 1995 to work at District 8, they lived in Harrison and in Colorado Springs District 11, then moved to Falcon and Briargate, so the commute was not so long to Academy School District 20’s International Baccalaureate program, where the kids were enrolled.

“We hope to have an IB program in Harrison some day,” Miles says.

At District 8, he was a high school teacher, middle school principal, and coordinator of administration services. He wrote the principals’ evaluation rubric now used there and trained teachers to align curriculum and develop standards. While assistant superintendent for curriculum from 2003 to 2006, he helped raise student achievement and close the minority achievement gap.

At work he favors white-cuffed shirts and dark suits. But at home, he wears the same grungy blue sweatshirt, Karen says. He doesn’t cook or vacuum but does do dishes occasionally. He’s the one who gets up in the middle of the night to let the dog out, and when the kids were babies, changed diapers, a skill he learned helping care for his younger siblings.

Karen describes him as calm, reasonable. “If we are arguing that can be irritating,” she laughs.

When Miles was a kid, the family got moral direction from his mother, who is Buddhist, and at a Fountain Valley Baptist Church. “I’m not fire and brimstone,” Miles adds. “But I leave open the possibility of an over-arching force.”

He is famous for his love for movies and uses plots and characters in his pep talks to teachers and principals and everyday conversation. He also loves Shakespeare and Russian and British romantic literature such as Alexander Pope and Lord Byron.

If he had more time, he’d spend it writing and publishing poetry, which he occasionally does. “If I didn’t have responsibilities, I could see myself holed up in a garret writing metered sonnets,” he says, laughing.

Most of his heroes are from literature — Cyrano De Bergerac, a swordsman and scholar, and Don Quixote, an idealistic knight.

One of the few times he has failed was when he ran for Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s Senate seat in 2004 and lost in the primary to Ken Salazar. A novice politician, he ran a grass-roots campaign and got enough votes at the Democratic assembly to top the ballot. He ran, he said, because he believed some in Congress weren’t working for the common good.

He was painted as unpatriotic because he opposed the invasion of Iraq, believing there were no weapons of mass destruction, and that the plan had no exit strategy.

He has no regrets. “It was a fascinating experience, I learned a lot.”

Critics have accused him of using his superintendent’s post to make a name so he can run for office again. But he says it is no longer on his to-do list.

Miles says he frequently gets offers from other school districts to apply for executive positions. He says he has promised the school board at least another two years, noting he wants to see the pay-for-performance plan implemented. “I’m not about to cut and run,” he says.

Time will tell

Research shows that great teachers are more important than class size and curriculum in raising achievement. But many of the new programs and pay incentives nationally have not been in place long enough to see if they make profound differences. Some of the fixes at Harrison have raised test scores, but the pay-for-performance initiative won’t start until fall.

Will it be enough? Reformers say the U.S. education system needs fixing, beginning with teacher education, which focuses on theories rather than methods, and doesn’t provide teachers the depth of knowledge they need for the subjects they teach.

Brian Kates, a member of a Harrison community advisory group, says, “The fruits of all this labor will be realized. It takes time, and the results may not totally occur on Miles’ watch, but he is the one with the courage to get it started.”

Thus, state educators are carefully watching Harrison.

Jo O’Brien, Colorado Department of Education assistant commissioner for standards and assessments, says, “I’m proud of Harrison’s initiative. I think with change of this nature you’ll find people queasy, uncomfortable and not always accepting. But I don’t see the changes there as provocative. They are thoughtful, and the object is student achievement.”

She knows Miles through his work on the state Standards and Assessment Review Steering Committee.

“He is hugely respected, and his ideas are never trivial. He clears the clutter in the room.

“His background gives him a fresh perspective that is not traditional,” she says. “He has a courageous approach that is mission driven, a business and military model. There are no sacred cows. Where we might protect and predict, he says here is the outcome we want and how are we going to get to it.”

Hendrix, the Harrison board president, says that it is difficult to wrap one’s arms around a new approach to education.

She says of her superintendent, “This is not a negative, but sometimes he thinks so fast that he doesn’t realize people need some time to comprehend the new ideas, to take a breath and get on board with what needs to be done. They may be willing to change, but they haven’t figured it all out yet. But when it comes to kids, Mike believes there is no time to waste.”


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