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- During his 14 years at the helm, Greene County Schools' graduation rate increased from 62.1% in 2008-09 to over 95% in 2018-19. @patman28580 @GreeneCoSchools
- “There's no question that education is important. I think that, if we're not at a crossroads, we're approaching the crossroads where we're going to have to make some pretty significant decisions about public schools as we know them.” @patman28580 @GreeneCoSchools
On June 6, 2022, educators, administrators, community members, and students gathered at Greene Central High School to celebrate the retirement of their superintendent, Dr. Patrick Miller.
Miller, superintendent of Greene County Schools since 2008, has been an educator with the district for 29 years, starting as a choral director at Greene Central High School in 1993 before serving as principal of West Greene Elementary from 2005 to 2008. His wife, Rebecca, a music teacher at Greene County Intermediate School, is also retiring at the end of this school year.
During his 14 years at the helm, Greene County Schools’ graduation rate increased from 62.1% in 2008-09 to over 95% in 2018-19 while its dropout rate decreased from 6% to less than 1% in the same time period.
From expanding a 1:1 technology program for all pre-K-12 students to launching a comprehensive STEM program that resulted in Greene Central High School being named a STEM Model School of Distinction by the State Board of Education, Miller says his job is to get to “yes.”
In 2017, Miller was appointed to and elected chair of the new North Carolina Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC), and in 2019, he was named the A. Craig Phillips North Carolina Superintendent of the Year. He also served on the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.
“Dr. Miller has served Greene County Schools for fourteen years as superintendent with trust and integrity,” said Pat Adams, chair of the Greene County Board of Education, in a release announcing Miller’s retirement. “He will be missed in more ways than I can express. His superior leadership has brought honor and recognition not only to himself but also to our students, staff, and programs. He has ushered us through hurricanes, a devastating tornado, funding challenges, technology advances, and a pandemic with unwavering leadership.”
EdNC’s Liz Bell spent the day with Miller in March 2022, visiting schools, driving around Greene County, and listening to his reflections on his career. The interview below is edited for length and clarity.
On learning to be a superintendent
Liz Bell: How long have you served as superintendent of Greene County?
Patrick Miller: I was appointed by the board on January 14, 2008, so 14 years. Before that, I was principal of West Greene Elementary School. I was appointed there immediately upon graduating from the Principal Fellows Program in 2005, so I was only a principal less than three years, which is crazy. I don’t recommend this path to superintendency to anybody else, nor do I think it would ever happen that way again.
Bell: Why wouldn’t you recommend it?
Miller: I hardly knew what a principal was supposed to do. After two and a half years of being a principal, I had no idea what people did at central office — I thought I knew. But when I got here and was sitting in this seat, it was much more than I thought.
What I thought was bad luck at the time happened to be fortuitous in that the district was going into transformation at that time, and we had a team basically come in from DPI to help us improve the academics.
Having that extra help is what gave me a couple years to get my sea legs, if you will, and figure out what it was I was supposed to be doing. I do not believe that Greene would have had the success that it’s had, or I think the board may have tossed me aside, if I hadn’t had that opportunity to learn what I was supposed to do and grow as a leader.
So I didn’t think that it was fortuitous at the time, but looking back, I’m able to see that the coaching and the things that I was able to learn as a result have served me well.
Bell: After those first two or three years, did you feel like you knew what you were doing?
Miller: I knew what I was supposed to be doing at that point in time, but then there were a bunch of challenges that came. In 2011 in April, a tornado came through here and destroyed Greene County Middle School and damaged some of the other schools, but that school was destroyed.
We had the Great Recession and a bunch of money problems — of course, everybody had that, but being poor to start with sort of exacerbated it here. We had hurricanes, floods, all that. That’s not unique to us. Everybody in the east deals with that.
On advice for new superintendents
Bell: What advice would you give to new superintendents?
Miller: That’s something I enjoy doing, working with the new folks, and Jack Hoke through NCSSA (North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association) has given me the opportunity to serve as an executive coach.
I would say, number one, for those who aspire to be superintendent, wait until your last four-to-six years before you can retire. Because the job is just so much more intense and difficult now than it was when I started back in 2008, and it takes a toll on you.
Bell: It’s more difficult now, generally?
Miller: It’s more difficult now because, well, several things. COVID has made things extremely difficult. The amount of divisiveness that exists in the country, in you know, everything — politically, racially, everything that’s going on makes it really difficult, and schools have gotten the brunt of some of that. Ninety-nine percent of folks in school, 99.9%, I would say, do the best they can every single day day in and day out and pretty much get trashed for it whether they deserve it or not. It makes it really hard.
I think one of the jobs, primary jobs, of district administration is to remove the barriers and the distractions from the school level folks so they can do what they’re supposed to do without having to deal with some of that, and it’s really difficult.
On division and disruption
Bell: Would you say the division has increased in the last year?
Miller: I would say that in the first, let’s say, 12 years of my time as superintendent, we could have board meetings and have zero public comment. In the last two years, we’ve probably had more public comment than we’ve had in the previous 12.
Here it hasn’t been as bad as it has been in other places. The people who speak are just expressing their opinion, they haven’t attacked people here like they have in other places. When I’m talking about that, I’m thinking statewide more than I am in Greene County. Our folks kept it fairly civil.
Bell: What are your main takeaways from this period of disruption?
Miller: It’s been sort of a remarkable transformation, I guess. In March of 2020 until June of 2020, we pivoted on a dime — closed on a Friday, we reopened not for students but on Monday feeding kids, getting instructional packets out, and, you know, generally the public perception of the schools was very good. The schools were the heroes.
Then we do the very same thing to open school in the fall of 2022. We were one of the few places who opened on Plan B. We actually did a survey of our parents and found that about 60% wanted some sort of face to face. So we gave them what we were allowed to give.
We did virtual and with those that wanted to come face to face, we did week on, week off. We made it work. We didn’t have any major problems, but all of a sudden, all of that goodwill from March to June 2020 somehow evaporated over the summer. We were villains, and we hadn’t changed anything.
I think that it was probably the result of, I guess, state-level decisions that were made. I can’t help that we weren’t allowed to be open every day for every kid, but we did the best we could. Somehow along that journey, public sentiment turned against us, and maybe it’s coming back. I don’t know.
Bell: Is there a silver lining to that experience going forward?
Miller: I feel like if you can be successful leading during COVID, then you can be successful during most trying times. Moving ahead, you can take those lessons learned and apply them, and you’ll be a better leader hopefully down the road because of it.
On his leadership
Bell: Have you learned anything about yourself personally as a leader?
Miller: I’ve learned that I can have lots of patience when I need it. I think my family would tell you that I waste it all at work and don’t have any left when I get home for them. I have to say that the board here has been extremely supportive during all of it. They haven’t turned on us. They’ve been really good.
Bell: When did you know that this was the right time to leave?
Miller: To be honest, I’ve always said when I reached 30 years I was going to retire, draw my full state retirement, and work and draw another check, too. So this is just part of my plan. I would say COVID helped make that decision easier, but it’s still always been part of my plan.
My middle child is graduating high school this year, and my third child is going to be starting kindergarten in the fall so I’m not waiting around for her. I joke, I tell people I’ve got three graduates this year. My oldest is graduating from Carolina, my middle child is graduating from Greene Central, my youngest is graduating pre-K, and my wife and I are retiring. So, 2022 will be a memorable year for our family. I’m going to get a picture of all three of our kids in cap and gown.
Bell: How do you feel now that you’ve announced retirement, and what is next?
Miller: I feel like a weight has been lifted, and I don’t mean that negatively. I just feel a little more footloose and fancy free. But again, I had always planned that 2022 was going to be the year that I stepped away.
Being one of the longest serving superintendents in the state, and with everything else that’s going on, it’s just fortuitous that it seems like it’s a good time to hand it off to somebody else and let somebody else sit in this seat with fresh ideas. Others in the district need to be able to see that there’s opportunities for them.
My principals have the longest tenure. One is in their ninth year in their school, and I think the shortest tenure is in their fourth year. They’re all getting antsy to have some new challenges, and I’ve been like the cork in the bottle. By removing the cork, it’ll give some of our folks who deserve some new opportunities the chance to have just that.
On points of pride from his superintendency
Bell: Looking back, are there moments that stand out as far as things you’re proud of here in Greene County?
Miller: We built a new school, Greene County Intermediate School, which we started in 2010 and completed in 2012. It is the first new school in Greene County since Greene County Middle, which opened in 1991, so really about 30 years. It has grades four and five, so we had to do a major grade span reconfiguration in all the schools.
At the same time, while we were constructing Greene Intermediate, the tornado came through and tore up the middle school. It would have torn up the intermediate school, but only the foundation was laid. But part of the problem with middle school was the construction trailer at Intermediate was blown into the gym at the middle school and collapsed the gym.
I think the leadership that the team, the Greene County Schools administrative team provided in figuring out how to finish the school year from April to the end of the year — doing a split day at Greene Central High School with the middle school and high school kids — and then we installed a modular campus at the middle school for the two years while it was being rebuilt, that was a big deal.
Another thing I think was a big deal and it was controversial — although now people don’t seem to give it a second thought — but we moved to standards-based grading in K-5. The reason was we wanted parents to have a better, very specific understanding of what their kids knew and were able to do versus the standards for that grade.
So we list the standards on the report card and we use instead of, say, 90, we just do 1, 2, 3, 4 like you would see on end-of-grade tests on each standard that the teacher covered in that particular nine weeks. The parents know in real time what standards my kid is strong in and what standards they need more work in, so hopefully by the time they get to the end of the year, the report card data corresponds to the end-of-grade test results a little better.
We would have kids who were on the honor roll on the old system who then would make a 1 or 2 on the EOG (end-of-grade test), and what was the disconnect? So we made that decision to move to standards-based grading.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the Intermediate School is certified LEED Gold, and Mosley Architects who built it said it was the first school designated LEED Gold east of I-95 in the state at the time.
I would say one of the things that I’m most proud of is increasing the graduation rate. When I got here in 2008, it was 62%, and in 2018-19, it was over 95%. Right now, last year it was 94.5%.
And conversely, we improved the dropout rate. In 2008, 63 kids dropped out and the rate was over 6%. For the last several years, it’s been single digit numbers and been under 1%.
Bell: To what do you attribute that?
Miller: We revisioned the alternative school. It used to be just a behavior-based program and now it’s a true alternative school in the sense that we still do use it for some behavioral reasons, but we also use it for kids who have jobs and need alternative hours or they want to learn, for whatever reason, say, a student has had a baby or can’t attend every day, we can work with them through that alternative program and keep them on track to graduate.
Bell: You also have an early college. When did that open?
Miller: The previous superintendent started that. I think it opened in 2005. The previous superintendent gets credit for that. But that school has been excellent for us for a number of years.
The previous superintendent also started the 1:1 technology program here in 2003 in grades six through 12. We’ve been able to sustain it, enhance it, and expand it. So now we’re one to 1:1 K-12.
Apple will say we were the first district in the country to do that. I can’t prove that and have no data, but they will say we were the first. It’s also we’re so small that it’s easy. It was easy for us to do that. Districtwide at that time for grades 6-12 was two schools.
We also have our dual language immersion program, which started in 2003, but it was not fully in place – it was going up a grade at a time – so I inherited that, and we finished expanding it and getting it in place.
Then we have a comprehensive STEM program here. Three out of our six schools are identified as STEM Schools of Distinction by the State Board, and there’s only 30 of those statewide so we’re pretty proud.
On the teacher licensure proposal
Bell: You’ve been the chair of the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) since 2017. What are your biggest hopes and concerns about the current teacher licensure reform model that you’ve been working on?
Miller: My biggest hope is that out of this work teachers will get a significant increase in salary, and that they will get to that higher level of salary much earlier in their careers. It’s not a secret that they need to be paid more, so I hope that people can take a look at what we’re proposing and see that there’s a lot of nuance that can’t be seen and you’re not able to put everything in a one page graphic.
A question we get is for license IV teachers, which is where most teachers will get and they’ll stay, but we’re recommending $56,000. They’re saying if I get there within five years, do I then stay there at that salary forever? And the answer is no. We’re proposing every time you successfully renew that license you would get a pretty big salary increase — we’re proposing $5,000.
I think there’s a lot of nuance there that people can’t get from just looking at the graphic, and lots of people are not going to watch the hour-long presentation that was made to PEPSC. So a lot of my time has been spent answering questions like that and providing additional information.
Bell: Moving forward, how are you feeling about the state of North Carolina when it comes to funding and resources?
As far as what’s going to happen moving forward with Leandro, I don’t think anybody knows. And then, you know, there’s always the argument of can the courts enforce funding issue to the General Assembly? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not an attorney. But I do think it sets up a constitutional crisis in as far as North Carolina’s constitution requires a free public education, but nobody knows where this is going to end up. I do think that right now public awareness about Leandro is higher than any other time than it has been during my 14 years as superintendent.
Bell: Are there hopes you have when it comes specifically to low wealth schools and communities in our state as well as rural communities in our state receiving the help they need?
Miller: Yes, and I think that in this past budget, the General Assembly began putting some things in that were helpful, and I’ll give you a specific example. They gave money to all but the five or six districts — and I don’t know what the criteria were, something about the tax base — but these places can use it to supplement the local teacher supplements to compete with some of the places that have higher wealth that pull teachers away so that they can make more money.
For instance, because of this allotment, we’re able to pay every teacher that qualifies for an additional $3,700. That’s a large amount of money. And I know that superintendents in the five or six counties that don’t get it are probably not happy about that, and I understand that. But for our folks, who would only get $1,000 flat supplement, it makes a big difference. It almost quadruples what we’re able to pay them.
On the importance of education
Bell: Is there anything else you want to add, being one of the longest serving superintendents, about the importance of the day in and day out of education?
Miller: I wish I had some great one liner to drop, but I don’t.
Some fairly significant decisions are going to have to be made in the next few years, sooner rather than later. I won’t be in this seat when they’re made, but I will be paying attention, I can assure you.
Bell: Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
Miller: The thing that I hope is that we can resolve and heal this level of divisiveness that we have. I feel like we’re always walking on thin ice and trying to keep from falling through while at the same time honoring our mission to provide a free and appropriate public education for every student in our care. It’s a pretty challenging tight road to walk.
Bell: What advice would you give to superintendents who get involved in the policy and political conversations as far as navigating all of that?
Miller: For the first three or four years, I was looking inward and learning my district, which I had the advantage of being from here. I graduated from Greene Central High School, my father graduated from Greene Central High School, and his father would have but it didn’t exist. So I know the community and the internal politics and landmines that would take someone coming in from the outside probably a year or so to begin to learn to navigate. I did not have to do that. I already knew that.
What I didn’t know was what is the job of the superintendent. And so my advice is, first thing, don’t get in the superintendent’s spot too early — your last four to six years is what I recommend. But then spend an appropriate amount of time looking inside the borders of your district before you start to look outside for those opportunities. People will come and want superintendents to serve on this board or that board, do this, do that. But it can get out of control in a hurry. It just about got out of control for me here these last few years. Learn how to say no. I probably should have said it more in my career, but I haven’t. No is a valuable word.
Editor’s note: Patrick Miller currently serves as chair of EdNC’s Board of Directors.