Crowded House

April 01, 1997 7 min read
Of the school’s 5,000 students, 81 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent Anglo, 5 percent African American, and 1 percent Asian.

Ignoring Miller’s advice, I left my hotel in Coral Gables at about 6:45 a.m. and headed west on Bird Road, a busy east-west artery littered with convenience stores and strip malls. (It eventually turns into Bird Drive.) The sun was just coming up, and a light rain was falling. A half-hour later, I turned right on S.W. 144th Ave. and suddenly found myself caught in one of Braddock’s infamous traffic jams. Actually, it wasn’t that bad; cars were moving, albeit slowly. I pulled into the enormous student parking lot, which already held several hundred cars, but I decided to keep on driving to the other entrance, on S.W. 147th Ave., where I turned right, away from the school. Coming toward me was a long line of cars in stop-and-go traffic, all destined for Braddock. After about a mile, I turned around and joined the flow. There were open fields on either side of the two-lane road. A sign nailed to a tree said, “Vacant lots for sale, from $8,500 each.” I knew that one day, these parcels of land would be filled with three-bedroom houses, but at the moment, it seemed as if I were on the edge of civilization.

At 7:25 a.m., when I returned to the student parking lot, the traffic jam was coming to an end, and only a handful of students were still walking from their cars to the school. Buses were still unloading kids on the south side of the building. When the bell rang at 7:30, there was an eerie silence. Somehow, 5,000 students--not to mention several hundred teachers and administrators--had managed to get to school on time. Did things go this smoothly every day?

I parked my car and walked toward the main office. The school itself--a two-story, beige stucco building that resembles a shopping mall--was big, although not quite the behemoth I expected. The campus, however, was dotted with portable classrooms--faded white clapboard boxes arranged in rows, which made them seem like army barracks. They looked anything but temporary. The largest group, about 30 of them, butted up against the school’s athletic fields.

Miller, in shirt sleeves, was waiting for me in his large, windowless office. A 49-year-old former New Yorker who still has traces of a Queens accent, he’s been a teacher, a coach, and a middle school principal. He also spent three years working for the Florida department of education in Tallahassee. None of his previous positions, however, prepared him for his current job. “Just when you think you’ve seen everything,” he said, “just when you think you’ve dealt with every possible problem that you could ever imagine, sure enough, something else happens that you’d never thought of. The managerial part of my job alone is overwhelming. Because of the size of Braddock, you just never run out of things to do.”

Of the school’s 5,000 students, 81 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent Anglo, 5 percent African-American, and 1 percent Asian. The Hispanic students, Miller explained, are predominantly middle-class Cuban Americans, but a number are recent immigrants from a handful of Latin American countries. More than 500 students are enrolled in the school’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, making it one of the largest in the state. About 37 percent of the students qualify for either free or reduced-price lunches.

“This year,” Miller said, “there are over 1,800 students in the 9th grade. That’s the largest we’ve ever had. It’s an indication of the growth in the area. If next year’s 9th grade class comes in at 1,800 students, we’ll be bursting.”

“How many more students can you handle?” I asked.

“We can’t,” he said. “At this point, we’re about saturated. We’re getting two additional portables, but even with those, we’re very close to infringing on our athletic fields. We’ve already had to remove our shot-put area to put in a portable. They"--district officials, I assumed--"wanted to put it in the left field of the baseball diamond, but I said no.”

Portables, he was quick to point out, are only a partial solution to overcrowding. “All they do is create additional classroom space,” he said. “They don’t eliminate the overcrowded conditions in the hallways. They don’t eliminate the fact that we have to feed 5,000 students at two lunches. They don’t eliminate the fact that if we want to have a pep rally, we have to do it twice because we have no place to fit 5,000 students at one time.”

I asked him how many teachers work at Braddock. “About 245,” he said.

“Do you know all their names?” I asked.

“I try to,” he said, “but I would not be telling you the entire truth if I said I know every teacher’s name. There are teachers who I won’t see for weeks, and when I do see them, I’ll say to myself, `Who’s that person again?’ ” He added: “The larger the school, the less contact there is among the faculty members, and the more departmentalized the social gathering becomes. So math teachers stay with math teachers, language arts teachers stay with language arts teachers, and so on.”

I asked whether the school’s size makes it difficult for teachers.

“I think you’ll see that they’ve adjusted pretty well,” he said. “They came here knowing that the school is the way it is, and I think they’re pleased with what we can offer.” That goes for the students as well, he added. “They know they’ll never get the personal attention of a small-school setting. But they seem to deal with the size fairly well. Many of them feel that it’s almost like a college atmosphere.”

Instead of complaining about the large number of students at Braddock, the principal is playing the cards he has been dealt.

Miller had read Breaking Ranks, the NASSP report on restructuring American high schools. “That report is certainly right on target,” he said. “But obviously, you have the best of all worlds, and then you have reality. In the best of worlds, we would have schools with 1,000 students or less. But for a growing area, it’s not practical. As long as education is not the top priority of the public, then you’re not going to have people saying, `Let’s build 10 schools before the growth comes.’ Typically, you’re always behind the growth. And Dade County is behind in dealing with the growth situation.”

Nonetheless, Miller has taken some of the NASSP’s recommendations to heart. “We have tried to create as many avenues as possible to let the students know that this is a personal situation for them,” he said. That means offering a number of different extracurricular activities and academic options, including an alternative-education program for at-risk students and a math, science, and engineering magnet program designed to draw African-American students who live in other parts of Miami. It also means keeping class sizes down to acceptable levels. And Miller is adamant about having all the students attend school at the same time, rather than in split shifts. “You talk about coldness,” he said. “You talk about removing contact not just with staff members but with students. That’s what happens when you go to split shifts.”

Miller struck me as a savvy, charismatic administrator who is making the best of a difficult situation. Instead of complaining about the large number of students at Braddock, the principal is playing the cards he has been dealt. He is determined to make the school look and feel as “normal” as possible, although normal is a relative term. After all, even if Braddock served only the 3,000 students it was designed for, it would still be a very large school.

Miller offered to show me around, so we left his office and made our way to Braddock’s large courtyard, which serves as an outdoor eating area during the school’s two staggered lunch periods. At that moment, however, it was empty, and our voices echoed off the four walls. The principal was holding his ever-present walkie-talkie, which allows him to communicate with security guards--there are 14 of them--and other staff members. (His radio moniker is, appropriately, “Unit One.”)

We left the courtyard and entered a long, empty corridor. I noticed there weren’t any lockers. “The school was built that way,” Miller said. “At a school this size, you can’t afford to have kids milling around, especially when they only have five minutes between classes.”

Miller explained that every course has two sets of books: one for students to use at home, and one for the classroom. “That way,” he said, “the kids aren’t carrying around heavy loads of books.”

About halfway down the corridor, we turned into a stairwell and stopped on the landing. “Right now, you’re under surveillance,” Miller said. “Tell me where the camera is.”

I looked around for a few moments, but I couldn’t see one. “I don’t know,” I said. “Where is it?”

“Over there,” he said, “by the exit sign.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Crowded House