Del Sol teacher pushes math mastery

The bell rings at 2 p.m. and students rush out of Del Sol High School, a struggling school planning to wipe the slate clean in major staffing changes if federal turnaround funding is approved.

But students come to the classroom of Tina Miller.

They trickle in long after the campus has quieted, choosing to do more algebra or prepare for another attempt at the math exam required to graduate from high school in Nevada.

“On tests, I really try to stay after, look at my answers,” says junior Isaiah Alexander, describing how Miller lets students stay late for classwork. “She has me liking math again.”

She doesn’t just let students stay. She invites them, well aware that winning such devotion is the first hurdle at Del Sol, where many students assume graduation, college or just a passing grade are out of reach.

“It doesn’t bother them to get F’s,” says the real estate broker who became a math teacher seven years ago. She grew up in Las Vegas, graduating from Chaparral High School in 1981. “You have to win them over. They have to trust you. Then, you start painting the picture.”

That picture: “Education can only help.”

The school, near McLeod Drive and Patrick Lane, posted a 59 percent graduation rate in 2013, according to the most recent report by the Nevada Department of Education. It’s been a platform for three of President Barack Obama’s speeches, including one in which he detailed and defended his immigration executive order earlier this month.

And it’s home to Clark County’s Educator of the Month for October. The program, sponsored by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sierra Nevada College, chose Miller from nominations submitted at reviewjournal.com under a link for “Contests and Promotions.” A panel that includes members of the Clark County School Board, the Public Education Foundation, Teach for America and private schools chooses the monthly winner.

“There are teachers so much better at math than I am,” acknowledges Miller, who wore a pair of gold earrings she received from a student who just passed the state math exam that had stood between her and graduation. With Miller’s tutoring, the fourth time taking the test was the charm.

Miller said she didn’t need a gift, but the student insisted.

“I get students to trust me. I get them to believe in themselves. That’s my niche.”

Miller gave up her only free period to teach the class for seniors still failing the math exit exam after two years.

“Nobody wanted it,” says Miller, who similarly fell into the role of student council adviser five years ago. “I was asked to help. Next thing you know, I’m in charge. A lot of my colleagues do exactly the same thing, wear many hats. That’s Clark County School District. Never enough bodies.”

Her offer to help with the freshman volleyball team this year turned into her coaching the varsity team when that coach left, meaning she’d start school at 7:30 a.m. and not get home until 9 p.m. some nights. Her daughters previously attended Del Sol and played volleyball, with her twins going to college on volleyball scholarships. But Miller had never coached, just as she’d never taught before making the midlife career shift. Her first year in the classroom was a self-described struggle.

“I didn’t know if I was coming or going,” said Miller, who never considered quitting despite the doubt. “I feel the world needs someone here more than it needs another real estate agent.”

She loves math, earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2000, and tries to pass that on to students, often welcoming them with a beckoning: “Let’s do math.”

Miller knows what students must wonder about her early in the school year. “What’s wrong with her?” suggests a smiling Miller as Isaiah stands and walks over with his finished Algebra II test. With a pass through the Scantron machine, she quickly grades it.

“You only missed one. Well done,” she says.

“What a stud,” adds Nyko Camacho, another junior there to finish his test.

She then grades Nyko’s test. Only two wrong answers.

“Good job, you guys,” she says. “Go ahead and tell all those other boys in sixth period what happened.”

Contact Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.

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