BALTIMORE – Cathy Miles is talking about “the children,” and seven mothers sitting in the lunchroom of the East Baltimore Community School are gazing at her intently and nodding in agreement.
“Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed,” Miles says on this autumn evening, “That’s our commitment to our students.” And the women nod again.
It’s community engagement night at the school, and although only seven mothers have come — down from 50 parents last month, Miles, the principal of this new school set in a redevelopment project, stands in the center of the room talking about achievement and discipline. She doesn’t seem discouraged.
Miles, 52, is the unlikely face of the East Baltimore Community School. Born and raised on a Missouri farm, Miles stands out in Baltimore’s East Side, and she knows it. She heads a school that’s overwhelmingly black, and as Miles points out, she’s white — just in case anyone overlooked the obvious.
At her last job, Miles served as music teacher and assistant head of the middle school at the Gilman School, the upscale boys’ school in Baltimore’s gracious Roland Park. Resources at Gilman were plentiful, as they should be at a school where tuition for middle-grade students is more than $22,000 a year.
Gilman school sits on 68 acres of land. Miles now heads a school housed in trailers in a weary neighborhood two blocks north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But Miles says the pupils like the temporary building, with its clean, bright interior.
“This modular building … to many is nothing fancy, but it’s brand new and was put just for these families and just for these children.”
More than a year ago, Miles was interviewed by members of the Baltimore school board, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and East Baltimore Development Inc., the non-profit organization that is rebuilding the old Middle East neighborhood.
After her selection, she was given a year to work with education specialists and residents of the area to hire teachers, recruit families and develop a curriculum for the school — all before the trailers were even delivered to the school grounds at 1101 N. Wolfe St.
Miles says it wasn’t easy for her to move from Gilman to the Baltimore public school system.
“I was happy at Gilman. The move wasn’t because I wasn’t happy, but I felt that there was something that I had to give to a public school setting,” she says.
“The idea of being able to provide a good public school for the city’s children in a neighborhood where the city’s children had been moved out had become too much of a social issue for me to turn my back on.”
Her husband of 25 years, Melvin Miles, says that her career change was more of a natural calling. “Compassion, empathy and passion — it’s in her DNA,” he said. “She comes from a family of people who give to society.”
Her mother, June Marie Hayes Melton, was a nurse. Miles describes her as a rock star.
In her early 70s, Melton traveled to the African nation of Togo to tutor children and provide medical help. At 82, she still volunteers for the American Red Cross in Missouri. Miles’ sisters work with youth groups, and her brother started his own church in Missouri.
Her biggest inspiration, she says, was her late father, Malcolm Adrian Essen, a teacher. His framed photograph is above her desk.
“My mom’s vision (is) that being a good student means being a ‘whole person,'” said Miles’ daughter, Erin Miles.
Miles knows that part of her job is to engage people outside the school building. So when only seven parents arrived for the school’s community engagement night, she tried to figure out how to raise attendance.
“The day of community engagement night, we had parents volunteer in the classrooms and in the after school program. So we know that our parents want to be engaged.”
Maybe the time was inconvenient, she muses. “We have to figure out how to fix what happened this month”
At the East Baltimore Community School, Miles wants neighborhood activism to be as much as a part of the curriculum as traditional studies.
“It’s important for our students to become engaged in their community. They see what’s happening, they understand it, and I want them to learn from it,” Miles says.
Miles’ teachers say her office door is always open. But Miles does more than oversee the staff. For example, rather than spending part of her budget on a full-time custodian, she does some of the housekeeping.
She laughs as she says she believes in the “Laura-Ingalls-Wilder school of education,” referring to the author of “The Little House on the Prairie” books. That family had to fend for itself without luxuries — as the school does.
On one afternoon this fall when classes were out, Miles sat in her office with a hammer in one hand and nail in her mouth as she assembled a bookcase to sit under the window in her office. She stopped hammering long enough to explain with amusement that she wasn’t just the principal. She was also the janitor.
A few weeks later, Miles was the mistress of ceremonies at the school’s Literacy Night, an event aimed to encourage reading between parents and students. Her pupils arrived at the event, held after school hours, in their pajamas. Miles, in pink pajamas and pigtails, led the event as she read a storybook aloud to children and parents.
“We got to eat cookies and milk but the best part was going to school in pajamas, I never heard of going to school in pajamas before,” said Malik Jennings, 5.
On Oct. 30, Miles led a storybook-character parade dressed as Max from “Where the Wild Things Are.” Her pupils, dressed as fairies, princesses, Batmen, SpongeBobs and Spidermen followed her down the sidewalk.
“Cathy’s interaction is extremely hands-on,” said Andrea Evan, a kindergarten teacher who has a child attending the school. “She frequently is in classes asking students about their learning, having breakfast with them, going to their football games, sitting on the carpet with the kindergarteners and first-graders, chatting with them at lunch….”
Most days of the week Miles is dressed as a professional, in pantsuits and loafers. On a day without classes, when she came to work in jeans, she politely declined to be photographed in such casual clothes. She says she represents the community and wants its respect.
“She’s a sweetheart,” said Rena Jennings, mother of four children who attend the East Baltimore Community School. Jennings disliked her children’s previous school and is skeptical of the school system.
But Jennings moved back into East Baltimore, after being relocated by EBDI, so that her children could attend the new school. So far, Jennings gives a ringing endorsement.