No obvious path brought Izabela Miller from her childhood in the small town of Boleslawiec, Poland, to her current position as Principal of Amidon-Bowen Elementary School. She grew up during a time of great political upheaval in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the middle of three girls in a home where her mother worked as the primary breadwinner and her father mostly stayed home, hampered by poor health. The children made do with very few material possessions.
Miller was a solid but restless student, focused on subjects that interested her most, such as foreign languages. She graduated from high school, and traveled with a group of friends throughout Central Asia to India. She volunteered at a hospital run by Mother Teresa’s order of nuns and witnessed conditions she had never imagined possible. It was there that she began to hone in on her true passions. Her experience in India made her realize that she was not motivated by the promise of material wealth.
“I knew then that I did not want to be rich, per se, in the sense of earning a lot of money, but that I wanted to be able to leave the world having made a difference in one person’s life. And I knew it then, at 18 or 19 years old,” Miller said. “I didn’t yet know how I was going to go about it.”
She returned to Poland where she attended teacher’s college. Teaching, she realized, fulfilled her internal desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others. After graduating, she moved to the U.S. and devoted herself to learning English full time. She enrolled in an International Business program at Strayer University as a means of facilitating further language learning in a flexible environment that also allowed her to take care of her young son.
During that time, Miller became a reading coordinator for DC Public Schools, working with students who desperately needed remedial attention, and often those who had few other faculty or staff willing to work with them. After finishing her degree at Strayer, Miller decided to pursue her Master’s in Education, Reading, Curriculum and Instruction at Trinity University in Washington, DC. Upon graduating, she became a reading specialist and then a literacy coach at Maya Angelou, an alternative charter high school in the District.
After four years at Maya Angelou as a reading specialist and literacy coach, Miller then became an instructional coach at Powell, a public elementary school in Northwest DC. Miller’s time at Powell coincided with drastically improved test results and with a change in the DC Public School (DCPS) administration’s philosophy about the kind of people they wanted running their schools. Instead of hiring principals with business degrees who could turn around poor management of struggling schools, DCPS began to place instructional experts in leadership roles to refocus schools on instruction, an especially important decision for schools that were falling behind.
DCPS took notice of Powell’s improving test results and Miller was chosen as a finalist for the open position of Principal at Amidon-Bowen. Having run the reading program at Amidon for two years, before the merger that resulted in Amidon-Bowen, she knew the school very well.
The final decision on Miller’s hiring rested with the community. A wide ranging interview with dozens of community leaders, residents, parents, and faculty with the three finalists for the position meant that she and her fellow applicants would be asked to rank their schools in order of preference, and the communities with which they interviewed would rank their finalists in the same way.
“The community voted, and 95 percent voted for me as their first choice,” said Miller. “And I chose Amidon-Bowen as my first choice. So it was almost a perfect match. I felt like I was really meant to work here.”
Indeed, Miller’s love of her role as head of Amidon-Bowen is palpable and has yielded tangible results for the school. Amidon-Bowen’s enrollment is up over 30 percent this year going from a projected enrollment of 254 for 2013 to an actual enrollment of 320. The numbers continue on a similar trajectory for next year. Miller’s tireless championing of her school has also translated into financial gains.
“Over the past two years, Amidon-Bowen is poised to receive nearly $10 million in grants, tax dollars, and donations,” said Martin Welles, a parent of three Amidon-Bowen students and president of the school’s PTA. “Under her leadership, Amidon-Bowen has renovated the entire school, built a new library and computer rooms, and a new playground is underway. In addition, we have secured more than $1 million in literacy and enrichment based programming dollars.”
Miller, meanwhile, has a fairly straightforward definition of success.
“Personally, there are two ways of measuring success, external and internal,” she said. “My internal measurement is when I see children wanting to be in this school and talking about learning. When you see their eyes open and up and they say, ‘Ms. Miller, this is what we learned today!’ That’s when I feel I have done my job.”
Externally, success throughout the DC public school system is measured by rising test scores, and that cold calculus has posed a challenge for Amidon-Bowen in the years before and since its reconstitution in 2011.
“Improving test scores is a priority and is really the last piece of the puzzle to turning Amidon-Bowen around,” said Welles. “Principal Miller understands the challenges and has devoted a tremendous amount of energy and skill to improving Amidon-Bowen’s scores.”
Calling standardized testing a “necessary evil,” Miller acknowledges that it is essential to have an objective way of measuring student progress.
“For the sake of my students and the sake of my teachers I want so badly for those improvements to show on the standardized scores because everybody is working so hard,” said Miller. “But there is so much work to catch some students up because they were so far below basic when we started last year.”
There is a clear urgency in her tone when Miller speaks about the exigencies of the testing regime, but time is not on her side. Research indicates it takes between three and five years to really start seeing real improvements in a school.
“I think if we can stay on track, we will actually be that school,” says Miller.
Her ambitious vision for Amidon-Bowen’s future is one that involves the entire community, not just the parents who have chosen to send their children to the neighborhood school. She emphasizes the importance of community engagement, and believes that the more community members who visit the school, the more they will understand the positive changes underway and the more they will commit to helping the school’s progress.
“In the words of the current parents, ‘Oh my god, my kids are learning!’” said Miller. “If you want to, you can learn at Amidon-Bowen. And that’s what’s happening in this school. Kids are learning.”
By Lucy Rojansky