Malibu High School (MHS) Principal Patrick Miller has dedicated most of his professional life to educating Malibu kids. The Ventura County native recently spoke to The Malibu Times about his life, career and how this school year compares to his previous experience teaching and working in Malibu.
One thing about Miller? He has something not every principal has—an identical twin brother. Thomas Miller is a sergeant with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office in Camarillo and the two enjoy doing things for the two local communities together—like helping to raise the flags for Pepperdine University’s annual Waves of Flags display. (No word on if the twins ever switch places.)
Miller was made principal at Malibu High School beginning with the 2019-20 school year, but already had years of experience in the community. He was a Spanish teacher from 2007-13 and assistant principal from 2015-17 at Malibu High, and principal of Webster Elementary School from 2017-19. For those who are counting: the missing two years were spent as assistant principal of A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, part of the Las Virgenes Unified School District. He has a bachelor’s degree from Linfield College and a master’s from CSU Northridge.
Miller also came into the role following a long series of short-term principals at MHS, becoming the seventh principal in nine school years. Mark Kelly served in the role from 2004-12, followed by Jerry Block (2012-14), Dave Jackson (2014-15), Brandon Gallagher (2015-16), Patricia Carins (2016) and Dr. Cheli Nye (2016-19).
“I appreciate the opportunity to come back to Malibu twice [in my career],” Miller said. “It is home. I enjoy coming to work every day, and the people here get along. It’s a good place to be—really a great place to teach and learn.”
When asked if the fight to break away from Santa Monica to form an independent Malibu school district was making his job any harder, Miller said, “I’ve tried not to get involved over the years, because there are so many other things competing for my time. I try to stay focused on the kids.”
Miller said that there have been many changes since 2007, perhaps the “most drastic” being the new campus buildings, which he said students seemed to like.
A brand new $45 million architectural building opened at the end of May with new science labs, library, cafeteria, classrooms, computer labs and administrative offices. The building was constructed following a long battle over toxins—polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs—that were found in the previous administration and library building.
“The courtyard and quad areas are so much nicer—more open, better views of the ocean and mountains, and a more calming environment,” Miller described. “Before, it was just a dilapidated brick building.”
As far as the shrinking student body and declining enrollment of Malibu schools, Miller thinks it is because young families with children are not moving to Malibu—that the number of students lost because of the Woolsey Fire or the PCB problem was negligible.
He pointed out, for example, that the 2021 graduating class of seniors had 147 students. When that class started MHS four years ago, the number was 157. Only 10 students were lost over their four years in high school, which included the Woolsey Fire. Other classes are starting smaller and staying smaller.
“This is a small school that’s getting smaller,” Miller observed. “My to-do list is a thousand items long; you have to wear so many hats at a small school, but you’re still expected to do your job well. And doing our job well is how we change the negativity about PCBs or the pandemic.”
One of the biggest challenges at the present time is the requirement for weekly COVID-19 testing in the schools.
“The daily screenings and weekly testing are not why any of us signed up to be teachers, but it’s reality,” he noted. The pandemic has been a huge challenge for the past 17 months, Miller said.
“I have lived those challenges, along with the staff and the kids,” Miller said. “We have all had to be flexible, adaptive and resilient. Our kids have ridden the wave and exceeded every expectation. On every measurement, they have performed at or above average. We may have experienced the loss [of in-person classes], but we did not experience learning loss.
“Whether it’s public health, natural disasters or family dynamics [during lockdown], the students have navigated it all better than we even realized,” Miller continued. “But coming back to a traditional school experience, we also can’t try to cover quite as much material during the school year as we might have before. We need to respond to students’ emotional and social needs, and have a climate of care.”
Part of that means giving Malibu students extra support.
“Kids need to feel safe in a school setting,” Miller said. “With all the social and academic stressors, we have to work hard to make sure they have both peer and adult support.”
He praised the teaching staff for “rising to the occasion” when it came to developing online classes, maintaining close relationships with the students during lockdown and keeping them motivated.
When it came to online classes during the pandemic, “the teachers were focused and knew what needed to be taught live, versus what could be done as homework,” Miller explained. “We adapted as we went along, based on what the kids said worked and didn’t work, as well as various assessments. We would try something new, see if it worked and then make changes. We did formal surveys, focus groups—everything we could think of to keep our hands on the pulse of student learning.”
Miller is proud that MHS students continued to tune in to the online classes throughout last year, which wasn’t always the case in some school districts, and that the teacher-student connection was preserved.
“I ... thought I’d teach longer than three years, but I ended up in administration and I’m a doer and a problem solver, and persistent to get things done,” He said, reflecting on his career and management style. “I get support because of my leadership.”