By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
BRIDGETON – Dr. Keith Miles Jr. knew he could make a difference the first time he stepped into a classroom at 22 and now the new superintendent at Bridgeton Public Schools brings that enthusiasm and positive attitude to South Jersey.
Miles is one of only a handful of African American males serving as superintendent in New Jersey, taking over the job this past July after Bridgeton went several months with an interim leader.
For Miles, the wait for his first superintendent job has been worth it — growing up in Washington, D.C., serving as waiter and bartender while working his way through college and substituting at the same schools he attended as a student in Maryland.
The former biology teacher said he has seen the challenges and inequities students face first-hand and he is determined he can make needles move in a positive direction.
‘Built For This Work’
“I was floored by how well students responded to me during my initial years of teaching,” Miles said. “Looking around at my colleagues, I was not oblivious to the fact that I would be the only or one of a few Black male teachers my students would have. I remember after building strong relationships and trust, my students being like sponges, intrigued and ready to absorb my lessons, objectives, and guidance.
“I believe it was my respectful, non-threatening, caring, consistent, and firm approach that made the difference. I was received well by students and parents, and I remember getting the sense that I was built for this work,” Miles added.
Along with being a teacher, Miles serves as a high school principal and Philadelphia and Camden along with assistant superintendent and chief of elementary schools in Trenton, all areas with a high concentration of African American and minority students.
“I was raised in the Washington D.C. area and my classmates growing up were Black and Latino,” Miles said. “When I felt my calling called to teach, it was to fight for students who had challenges like I experienced such as young parents, poverty, transiency, drugs, and violence.
Ensuring Quality Public Education
“It was to ensure that all young people had equal access to a quality public education. I wanted to dispel the notion that one’s zip code would predict success, graduation, and access to college. I have always felt that the most talented, experienced, patient, and effective educators should be supporting the students with the most critical needs. I have approached my work in education at every level with a focus on equity,” Miles said.
He says equity doesn’t mean giving every student the same thing but giving every student exactly what he or she needs. He said it means having teachers spend more time with students who were behind and need additional resources.
“As principal, it meant empowering my best teachers to support my most vulnerable students,” Miles said. “As assistant superintendent matching my strongest leaders to communities that had been most underserved. As superintendent, selecting a district where the challenges are greatest as a place to serve, lead, and help others fulfill their dreams and find their purpose.”
Miles attended the prestigious George Washington University in the nation’s capital, where he earned his undergraduate degrees in biology and Spanish literature, and his doctorate degree in educational administration and policy. He focused on the relationship schools and districts build with its parents and students for is dissertation.
Bridgeton Ideal Place To Be
He said he believes Bridgeton was the ideal place for his skill set, even with the current and unique challenges of running a school district during a worldwide pandemic.
“Last year this time, I would never imagine we would be managing the second wave of a once in a century pandemic, working remotely, wearing masks, and conducting business through computer screens,” Miles said.
“Education is a relational field and requires a lot of interaction at all levels. COVID-19 has upended many of our traditional methods and forced us to imagine education differently. The big question is do we want to return to status quo, or boldly step into something new.”
“The great city of Bridgeton has seen a number of challenges like many cities across the county, such as insufficient job opportunities and industries, unemployment, crime, over-policing, and gangs, and the students of Bridgeton look like the students I attended school with growing up in Northwest D.C. The performance of districts with high concentrations of students of color, high transiency rates, high rates of special education and English learners across New Jersey are all on my radar. Bridgeton was an ideal place where I could dedicate myself to meaningful work and truly make a difference,” Miles said.
Being one of the few Black educators his students will ever see, Miles said he has embraced the importance of being a role in his educational setting.
“I have been an educator for almost all of my adult life in the age of cell phones and social media,” he said. “I have always taken my role extremely seriously in education because the stakes are high. There are thousands of students who you touch over your career as an educator; these students look to you for safety, good judgement, and moral character in a world clouded by dysfunction, trauma, and inconsistency.
“Since becoming a tutor, then teacher, and all the roles that followed, it was immediately apparent the huge influence I have on the minority students and families I interact with every day. The relationships I build in my role as an educator are the difference for some students between college or prison.
“Seeing people that look like us in prominent roles in our community is inspiring and impactful. I am grateful and honored to be one of less than 40 African American superintendents across our state with over 400 districts. Being in this very small group of educators, comes with it, a significant amount of responsibility,” Miles said.
More To the Story
Miles touched on several other issues with Front Runner New Jersey.com.
FRNJ: Tell me about your family and where you are from. Just anything you would like to share. What city are you in and what led you there?
Dr. Keith Miles: I am originally from Washington D.C., where I attended school through 4th grade. At 10 years old, we transitioned a few minutes outside of D.C. to Maryland. As a college student at the George Washington University, I tutored in the same schools I attended, waited tables and bartended. After graduation, I substitute taught for a few months and eventually became a high school biology teacher. I currently reside in Deptford in order to be geographically close to Bridgeton and Philadelphia. I also hold a master’s degree in Biology from the University of Maryland, College Park.
FRNJ: Why did you decide to pursue a leadership position at your schools?
Dr. Keith Miles: Back when I started teaching, I was grateful to be able to do what I enjoyed, and make a living doing it. At that time, I felt there was no other job in the world I wanted. I imagined myself a career classroom teacher and retiring as such. I imagined teaching different high school courses over the years and honing my craft each year.
When I became the science department chair during my fifth year in the classroom, a part of my responsibilities was mentoring and supporting new and struggling teachers. Helping my colleagues be successful brought me a ton of fulfillment. As the leader of the science department, I got the opportunity to deliver professional development to other teachers across the district, write curriculum to support other teachers, and teach a course to help teachers pass all the Biology Praxis exams.
After two years in the role of science department chairperson and being extremely involved across the district, my principal nominated me as my school’s Teacher of the Year. I went on to receive the district-wide Teacher of the Year award.
During that same time, there was a big push in education for principals and administrators who were instructional leaders. When asked by my superintendent what I would like to do next, I shared that I wanted to expand my impact supporting teachers full-time by transitioning to a vice principal position at one of our district’s most challenging schools.
That was 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve served as principal in Camden and Philadelphia for six years as well as well as Assistant Superintendent for 3 years. In every leadership role that I have held, I made it my responsibility to help others reach their potential.
FRNJ: Who has and continues to inspire you (parents, teachers, etc.)?
Dr. Keith Miles: I learned my work ethic and value for education from my mother. She worked hard raising me as a single teenage mother while working and attending college to put a roof over our head and food on the table. My mother was supported by a strong extended family and educators who supported her in supporting me. My little brother also inspired me growing up. Even as a teenager, I felt the responsibility of setting a strong example for him and guiding him through adolescence into adulthood. I am always at my best when I am helping and serving others.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Dr. Keith Miles: I see myself still in Bridgeton, working on my second contract, supporting other leaders in being successful in critical educational leadership roles that will move their schools, districts, and communities forward.
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