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Visionary for Educating Children

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It wasn’t love that motivated her at first, or faith, hope or charity. It was anger. She was mad as hell, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. That’s how Aretha Miller, born in Jamaica, educated in Boston and enlightened in New York, ended up in Delaware. She is one of the driving forces behind the Community Education Building (CEB) and the charter schools that reside inside the former Bank of America site at 12th and French streets in Wilmington. Miller is CEO of the CEB, and she has a vision for its future, as well as the energy and personality to make her vision a reality.

There are currently two schools in the CEB Kuumba Academy and Academia Antonia Alonso. A third, Great Oaks Charter School, is scheduled to open in September, and a fourth is planned for the not-too-distant future. This is the first year of existence for Academia Antonia Alonso, but Kuumba Academy, which moved into the CEB last year from its former location on North Market Street, was started in 1999. Kuumba has excelled, even though reviews of charter schools across the state have been mixed. Students attending public schools in Wilmington that mostly serve minority and low-income residents perform 20 percent below the state average. Improving those scores dramatically is a prerequisite for any school that wants to join the CEB, and Kuumba Academy has already done that, twice winning the State of Delaware Recognition Award for Closing the Achievement Gap. But, according to Miller, that’s not enough for Kuumba or any of the schools that will call the CEB home. “Our goal is to completely close the education gap by the year 2020,’’ she says. “We’ve set the bar high, but that’s the only way to reach full potential, and that’s our goal—to help every child reach their full potential.’’

Miller isn’t the only one responsible for the early success of the CEB, and she’s the first to point out the contributions of others. They include Maria Matos, the founder of Antonia Alonso, as well as the principals of the respective schools— Sally Maldonado of Kuumba, Teresa Gerchman of Antonia Alonso and Kia Childs of Great Oaks. Miller is also quick to credit the support she’s received from the boards, teachers and parents of the respective schools. “A lot of dedicated people have worked very hard to make this project a success,’’ Miller says. But others are equally quick to mention the huge impact that Aretha Miller has had on the CEB with her desire and determination.

That includes Ron Russo, who, in 1995, became the first president of the first charter school in Delaware, the Charter School of Wilmington. Russo is now a senior education fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute, and he’s met with Miller several times to discuss what is closest to both of their hearts— educating children. “Right away, you’re struck by her energy and her intelligence,’’ says Russo about Miller. “She has a dynamic personality and dynamic ideas, and that comes across in everything she does. The first time I met Aretha, it didn’t take me long to realize that she had a better understanding of the problems we face in Wilmington than most people who have been here their entire lives. I don’t think they could have picked a better candidate for that position, because it’s not an easy job.’’


PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARLOS ALEJANDRO
 

Leaders at the Community Education Building include (from left): Aretha Miller, CEO of the CEB; Teresa Gerchman, executive leader, Academia Antonia Alonso charter school; Patrick Ryan, launch director, Great Oaks Charter School; and Sally Maldonado, head of school, Kuumba Academy.  

Aretha Miller is the CEO of the Community Education Building in Wilmington.

BIG DREAMS FOR A SMALL CITY

Aretha Miller had a plan for her life, and it didn’t include educating at-risk, inner-city kids. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to Boston when she was 15. (She remembers being thrilled the first time she saw snow and having her aunt break the magic spell by handing her a snow shovel.) After graduating from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., she worked in Boston as a teacher, but then spent most of her professional life in New York in various education jobs in the city’s charter-school system. But Miller’s initial goal was to get a doctorate in comparative literature and teach at the college level.

Then she took what was supposed to be a temporary job in New York and saw the poverty and despair that was all around her, and her career path veered in a different direction. “I was angry,’’ says Miller, who is 44. “I just felt that they were too quick to write off black and Latino children. It felt like the children were disposable, and I could not accept that about our children. So I just stayed because I was angry. I wanted to prove that with the right support and the right environment children can have successful lives, and success is different for everyone.’’ Miller eventually formed her own consulting firm, the Venn Group Inc., because she wanted to have a bigger impact. But her life took another unexpected turn last year when she received a call from the Longwood Foundation in Delaware, asking if she would be interested in overseeing the development of the soon-to-be-launched Community Education Building.

Thère du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation and chairman of the board of the CEB, was part of the team that conducted a nationwide search for an administrator who had the experience and ability to oversee a four-school complex. It didn’t take long for the board to find and settle on Miller. “It was clear she appreciated the community we were trying to touch, and she had experience with it,’’ du Pont says. “It was also clear she had high expectations for everybody around her, and that she was a strong leader who had the capabilities to get the best out of people.’’ Matos was also part of the committee that interviewed Miller, and she says there was no doubt in her mind that Miller was the right person for the job. “Aretha Miller is bright, committed, motivated and a do-er,’’ Matos says. “But what impressed me the most was it was obvious that she believes that we’re here for the kids. It’s all about the kids.’’

Miller had never been to Delaware and had no desire to leave the big city for a not-so-big city. However, du Pont and his team were persistent and persuasive, and eventually she agreed to go through the interview process. “I wasn’t really interested in Delaware because I didn’t know anything about Delaware,’’ Miller says with a laugh. “But I decided to come and meet with the board and see what they had to say and see how much they were willing to listen to what I had to say. Basically, I came here on a fact-finding mission because they piqued my curiosity. “Then I started doing some research and thought, ‘This is just unbelievable. A small city, we should be able to do more for our children.’ And it was very appealing that a lot of people in the business community have foundations that have a common goal and a common vision for the children of Wilmington. There was a sense of urgency about how we could use this initiative to transform the lives of the children of this city.’’

Miller took that sense of urgency and turned it up a few notches. Jordan Seemans, a lobbyist with the Dover firm of Ruggerio Willson & Associates, has worked with Miller and calls her “a force of nature.’’ And it’s not just Miller’s energy. It’s also her efficiency that has impressed those who have dealt with her during her short time in Delaware. Doran Moreland of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based group that promotes the growth of charter schools, traveled to Wilmington recently to tour the CEB and came away impressed with the building and the woman in charge of it. “She keeps your attention, and she inspires confidence,’’ Moreland says. “She makes you feel that this is doable. It’s not going to be easy or quick, but it’s doable if we all work together. That’s a marvelous quality for a leader to have, and I don’t have any doubt that she’ll be successful if she gets the support she needs, and it looks like she’s getting it.’’

Maria Matos is the founder of Academia Antonia Alonso, a charter school in the CEB.

NEIGHBORS AND PARTNERS

While Miller moved here recently, Maria Matos has been a fixture in Wilmington for decades, as leader of the Latin American Community Center (LACC) and the Latin American community. When she heard the CEB was looking for tenants, she proposed her idea for a dual-language school. That was the genesis of Academia Antonia Alonso, where subjects are taught equally in English and Spanish, and students embrace their lives in America while holding on to the traditions of the past. “I’m a visionary,’’ Matos says. “I could envision it already. The Lord gave me that gift, to be able to see things that other people don’t see. And I saw the potential for it, just like I saw potential [for the LACC]. I see potential all the time.’’

Matos has also seen what happens when potential isn’t given a chance to be realized, and that’s why helping kids fulfill that potential became her life’s work and passion. “I’ve been involved with this for a long time, and I’ve seen the dramatic difference it makes when kids get a good start in their development, and then you’re able to maintain it,’’ she says. “When you see what these kids are like when they first come here [to the LACC], and then see the difference in just a couple of years, it’s really amazing. And that’s really my motivation [for starting Academia Antonia Alonso]. I just want to give our kids an early start.’’ Kia Childs was also motivated by potential, and that’s what brought her home to Wilmington. Childs, the principal-in-waiting at Great Oaks, went through the Brandywine School District system and graduated from Mount Pleasant High in 2003. And, like Miller, she did not initially plan to dedicate her life to educating inner-city kids. Childs graduated from Hampton University with honors and was accepted to Georgetown School of Law with the promise of scholarship money.

A bright and lucrative future seemed secure. But Childs also had a chance to earn additional scholarship funds if she was willing to join Teach for America, a national corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in poor urban and rural public schools. She was assigned to schools in New Orleans, and that changed her life. When she saw so many kids struggling to do basic things like read at their grade level—including an 18-year-old who was still in eighth grade after failing to be promoted three times—she realized her destiny was in a classroom, not a court room. “Two weeks into the school year, I knew I was going to do this forever,’’ she says. Childs contacted Georgetown and told the school to give her scholarship to someone else. Then Childs was recruited by Great Oaks, which focuses on individualized education, including at least two hours of tutoring for every student every day. She ended up being vice principal of its school in New York City and is now acting principal while she waits for the Wilmington school to open in the fall.

Great Oaks also runs charter schools in Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn. Childs says the “three main pillars’’ of Great Oaks’ mission is to prepare students for success in college, to train highly effective classroom teachers and to invest in the communities in which their schools operate. “This can’t work unless the community is involved,’’ she says. “Teachers and administrators can’t do it by themselves. This is truly a team effort, and we have to have that backing from the families and the community. And that’s why being involved with [the CEB] is so exciting, because of the cooperation we’re getting from so many people.’’ Childs has helped start up two other Great Oaks branches, and she said her biggest challenge now will be dealing with students from different backgrounds, many of whom don’t understand what it takes to be successful in the classroom. “The students, first of all, have to realize that we place high expectations on them,’’ Childs says. “We’re not here to be average. We’re here to excel. And that’s a message a lot of them have never heard before.’’

Kia Childs, the principal-in-waiting at Great Oaks Charter School.

 

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