No stranger to controversy Retiring principal faced tough issues SOUTHWEST -- Mount Airy * Woodbine * Taylorsville * Winfield

January 22, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Soft-spoken and petite, Althea Miller does not at first glance seem to be a likely candidate for lightning rod of controversy.

But no small amount of her 16-year tenure as principal of Mount Airy Elementary School has been spent at the center of hot debate over sex education, asbestos and Halloween.

Mrs. Miller announced this month that she will retire in June after a 29-year career in Carroll County schools.

The controversial issues were not unique to Mount Airy Elementary, but the close-knit community seemed to pay more attention to what went on in their school, said Dorothy Mangle, director of elementary education.

"As good a relationship as she and the faculty have with the community, it seems to be the test site for any controversy," Mrs. Mangle said.

The Halloween controversy about six years ago did have a little more to do with Mount Airy, however. State police had linked an incident of grave-robbing there to cult activity.

To diffuse some of the concern that Halloween might encourage such activity, Mrs. Miller came up with an alternative: Have students dress up in period costumes to celebrate the county's 150th anniversary with a parade.

Parents objected.

"They wanted the real Halloween," Mrs. Miller said. "So we had a low-key Halloween celebration."

For all her gentle ways, Mrs. Miller is one of the most respected principals in the system, Mrs. Mangle said.

"She's one of those quiet but powerful people," Mrs. Mangle said.

When the county principals gather for a meeting, it can sometimes take "a whip and chair" to keep their attention, Mrs. Mangle said.

"As soon as [Mrs. Miller] makes a point or raises an issue, they listen," Mrs. Mangle said. "She has no personal agenda. She makes her decisions based on what's appropriate for the children."

Mrs. Miller said she and the staff have tried always to put children first. "I hope in all the decisions we've made, that kids' interests have been uppermost in our minds," she said.

She credited the school staff -- from faculty to cafeteria and custodial workers -- for the real work.

"I think being a good listener is important," she said of her policy toward them. "I tried to be able to do that."

One of the most frustrating -- yet proudest -- times for her and the staff included getting through the renovation of the school in the 1980s, when classrooms were spread out over portables and space at the Mount Airy Middle School.

And last year, the school won national recognition for a program run by the Parent-Teacher Association in which students read books on their own time. The International Reading Association chose the school among 17 around the country to get top honors, and the PTA also won a national recognition for its part in the program.

"That's certainly been a high point," Mrs. Miller said. "I think we came through a time when children do very little independent reading."

As retirement nears, Mrs. Miller looks forward to traveling with her husband at any time of year -- not just summer.

Her husband, Frank Miller, worked as a music teacher, assistant principal and supervisor of vocational education until he retired in 1989.

They have two sons, Bill, 32, who manages statewide public radio in North Dakota, and Bob, 20, a junior majoring in music education at Towson State University.

The couple have no plans to move from Mount Airy, where they've lived for 35 years.

Retirement will make it a little easier for her to follow another passion -- both she and her husband are avid sports fans.

In addition to attending South Carroll High games, they go to every Towson State and University of Maryland basketball or football game they can get to.

"It will just be nice now when we get home late not to have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning," she said.

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