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RI PowerPlayer: Shea Principal Donald Miller

Monday, February 25, 2013


Every Monday, GoLocalProv.com shines the spotlight on one individual who you may not know that is making a large impact on Rhode Island. This week, we sat down with Donald Miller, the principal of Shea High School, founder and co-moderator of #edchatri, an educational chat that takes place every Sunday night at 8PM on Twitter and the founder of RESPECT (Reaching Everyone So People Enact Change Together), a non-for-profit organization that runs workshops addressing issues of bullying, stereotyping and separation.

Meet Donald Miller, Principal of Shea High School, which was recently ranked as one of the most diverse high schools in Rhode Island.

1.) You are the Principal of Shea High School. Tell us a little bit about your school.

Charles E. Shea Senior High School is one of the most diverse high schools in the nation. Shea currently has students from over 50 countries speaking over 25 different languages. A beacon of cultural diversity, the Shea High family has approximately 900 students in an historic building constructed during World War II. We have an amazing group of students and teachers who are working hard to meet the many requirements of education reform at the national, state and local level. The relationships our students establish with their teachers and with one another as we work toward these goals make Shea a tremendous place to learn and work.

2.) Last week, Shea was ranked as the fifth most-diverse high school in Rhode Island. Tell us what diversity means to you and what your school does to promote diversity among its student population.

One of the key focuses of education today is real world application and there is nothing more real world than the diversity that is on display at Shea High School each and every day. We are a true cross section of what America and the world represent. In this ever growing global economy that we are preparing our students for, there is no better way to prepare for diversity than to live it. The many different cultures contained within the walls of Shea allow us some unique opportunities that other schools might not have.

We have an International Dance team which is under the direction of Mrs. Gonzalez, one of our math teachers, who practice multiple times per week and perform at school events, as well as public events such as the mayoral inauguration.

One of the positives of transformation has been the infusion of technology into the school and the classroom and we have used that technology to connect with other countries throughout the world, including earlier this year when we did a Google Hangout with a school in the Dominican Republic. Because of our diversity we were actually able to bring some of our students together with students from the country where they were born and no translation was needed.

Finally, on April 11th we will have International Night, coupled with our Open House. We will welcome all of our families to Shea with dishes from all of the different cultures represented as well as performances from our International Dance team. It will be a multicultural feast with lots of fun and entertainment.

3.) Bullying is one of the top problems high school students face on a daily basis. What programs/initiatives does Shea High School have to combat this issue?

Statistics around the issue of bullying are staggering with over three million students worldwide being absent from school each month due to the fear of bullying. Even more astonishing is that cyberbullying starts at age nine and over 42% of students admit that they have been a victim of cyberbullying at some point. With that knowledge it is imperative that we create the type of school where students feel safe, loved and supported and Shea is well on its way to doing just that. Through our advisory program, under the direction of Mrs. McCaughey and Mrs. Marchetti, we have been able to provide a focus on personalization and begin to develop the connections necessary to lay the foundations for change.

We have run the RESPECT workshop multiple times, helping our students and teachers to connect and realize that we have a lot more in common than we do different. We have also created a “Shea Circle of Change” club, which is lead by two of our teachers Mr. Palazzo and Mrs. Finkelstein. The focus of this club is to promote positivity both in the school and community. They have been working with other members of the Pawtucket Community to help organize a Journey for Peace March, which will take place on Thursday March 14th in Pawtucket and will involve hundreds of students from Pawtucket and Central Falls.

Most recently, we ran a special RESPECT Workshop on Martin Luther King Day where we invited students and teachers from five high schools, including Smithfield, Pilgrim, Lincoln, Cumberland and Shea. As always the day was extremely powerful and for the first time we had brought together students from different schools with very different backgrounds and the end result was even greater than we could have imagined, with bonds being created between students from all five districts and through social media they have been able to stay in touch.

At the conclusion of the day I shared an idea I had with them for how we can address the issue of cyberbullying and the idea can be found at http://www.time2changeit.org. The basic premise as with traditional bullying is to shift the power from the bullies to the victims, to send support and to make the bullies really reflect on what they are doing and hopefully change their behavior. The most amazing thing that came out of our MLK Day event was the fact that the students of Smithfield HS were so impressed by our students at Shea that they have invited 50 Shea students to their RESPECT Day, which will run on March 11th. They have even offered to pay for the bus to transport our students. It was more than I could have hoped for and I am very much looking forward to this day. I think the goal for all of us in education is to positively impact the lives of all of our students and I believe that with the work we are doing at Shea High we are doing that and more and I could not be happier to be part of the Shea family.

4.) Take us through a day in your life.

With a strong balance between White, Black and Hispanic students, Shea High School is a microcosm of the state's diversity as a whole.

I am a truly blessed man and each day starts with the three most important things in my life and that means waking up my children, Mya - 7, Marcus - 5 and Malia - 3. My amazing wife, Gina and I have worked out a routine that somehow gets them dressed and fed and then it is off to work, but not before I kiss them each goodbye and tell them I love them. I have learned through life’s experiences that tomorrow is not guaranteed and therefore I will never leave them without those words.

I arrive at work around 6:20 each morning and have about an hour before the day really begins and that is time that is extremely valuable to accomplishing all that has to be done. At 7:20, I meet each morning with my administrative team to debrief the day before and plan for the day ahead and then the real day begins and it does so with a smile, a good morning, great to see you and many handshakes as the students ascend the many steps to Shea High.

There is no question that relationships are the key to success and we know as a team, administration, faculty and staff that we never want to miss an opportunity to positively affect the lives of our students. Through positivity, perseverance and persistence we seek to connect with our students and transform lives. Every day at school is different, filled with meetings, observations, interacting with students and teachers and addressing all of plans set forth in transformation. The regular school day ends at 2:30 with an additional 70-minute flex period added to the end of the day for intervention work. This is a time period created to offer additional opportunities for students in need.

My school day ends around 4 p.m. so I can make it to the bus stop in time to pick up my two school children and then it is off to daycare to get the third. The nights are usually filled with a variety of activities including CCD, the YMCA and soccer practice not to mention making as many of the Shea sporting and extracurricular events as possible. Somewhere in there we find time for dinner and get the homework done. At 8 p.m. it is time for a story and bed, and then my wife and I get on our laptops and do whatever work we can before it is off to bed and it starts all over again.

It is often a balancing act between work and family, but I always learned and truly believe that family comes first, so I always do my best to make sure to spend the waking hours with my children and do that work after they go to bed. I also believe that if we are to really succeed in the work we do at school that we need to create a family-like atmosphere for our students and ourselves and that is why I will often be seen at school events with one or more of my children. I think it is important for them and very important for me.

5.) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I lost my father to a heart attack when I was 18 years old and it was the most difficult thing that I have ever had to deal with in my life. If someone had told me then that everything happens for a reason I would definitely not have believed them. However, now many years later I have been able to see how that event in my life has made me the person I am today and it has made me more effective at my job, because I can now better help my students understand and cope with tremendous loss. I do believe that everything happens for a reason and there is a reason I am where I am today.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: I know it may sound cliche, but without question it is my father, because in the 18 years I had with him he showed me work ethic, determination and how to make time for and support your family.

Favorite Restaurant: Being a father of three young children I don’t get out to the Federal Hill or Down City restaurants too much, but I would have to say that without question our family as a whole are big fans of Shogun Japanese Steakhouse. We have been going there since before we had children and now they have seen our children grow up and the kids love the entertainment and the food is great.

Favorite Thing About Winter in Rhode Island: Building snow forts with the kids.

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: Focus - Mike Schmoker, the book we used to guide our transformation plan for Shea HS.

Advice for the Next Donald Miller: Be a leader and not a follower. Be confident and believe in yourself and your dreams. Don’t ever be afraid to “Step out of your Comfort Zone”, that is where the greatest growth happens. Remember what it was like to be a kid, have fun, be real and be sure to love what you do, because when you stop loving it, then you will know it is time to move on. We improve our lives by helping others.


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