Huddled under his school desk, rocking in silence, Daniel Merrill found a caring comrade in Gary Miller. At the time, Merrill was a fourth grader and Miller a performance coach at Summit Academy Community School – Dayton. For six weeks the two shared a tiny spot on the floor.
“Gary sat with him,” says Robin Merrill, Daniel’s mother, describing how day after day, week after week, Miller crawled under the desk and sat with her son, who is on the spectrum. “Daniel’s previous experience at other schools had not been positive. He shut down, crawled under his desk and rocked.”
Miller’s unwavering dedication to Daniel resulted in a breakthrough. For Daniel, who was primarily nonverbal and communicated with cards strung on a key ring, life changed profoundly.
“Daniel was able to function in school. He felt safe as long as Mr. Miller was in that building. It was a 180-degree game changer for Dan,” says Merrill, describing how her son eventually cast aside his communication cards and never again struggled with speaking.
Today, at age 23 and with a full-time job, Daniel is about to buy his first house. He credits Miller for helping him get this far. And he’s not the only one.
For former student Tyler Wessel, Miller helped him build self-confidence and offered an open ear. Wessel says Miller was always there for him when he needed a friend.
“I will always remember him for being one of the kindest men I have ever met. He never treated Tyler as a young man with a disability, but as he would a member of his own family,” says Paulette Wessel, Tyler’s mother.
John Guyer, CEO of Summit Academy Management, says Miller’s love for his students transcends the classroom.
“He has a desire to see them succeed – not just in school, but in life. He could be considered a father figure to many of his students,” says Guyer, describing Miller’s firm, but caring style. “Gary exemplifies the mission of Summit Academy.”
After nearly 15 years of service to Summit Academy, including 11 years as principal of Summit Academy Transition High School – Dayton, the beloved educator is retiring at the end of the school year. At the time of this reporting, Miller has not yet been informed of this story.
In 2009, Miller took the helm as principal of the newly established high school. That same year, after serving as a parent volunteer in what was a growing Summit Academy, Merrill joined the school as its secretary.
“I kept him out of trouble,” Merrill jokes, describing Miller as a maverick who broke from tradition.
The first day the high school opened, Merrill recalls pulling tape off the floor with Miller. The blue taped lines provided a pathway for youngsters to follow throughout the building. Now with high school-age students milling about the school, Miller opted to change the rules for the teens. He wanted them to have the types of liberties that did not bode well with tape lines meant for elementary-grade students.
Miller and Merrill also wrote a series of master schedules that prompted students to move from one classroom to the next each period, as in other secondary schools. Previously, the students stayed in one classroom and a different teacher would come to that room to teach a new subject each period.
“I can’t stay it worked perfectly. The kids struggled with it,” says Merrill, describing the challenges faced by students who were socially younger than their chronological ages. “Our best day is not the day without problems. Our best day is the day kids come to school and the wheels come off and we teach them and they learn.”
Miller continued to broaden the school’s scope and brought in a club-level basketball team, a school mascot, the White Tiger, and colors, silver and black. He also introduced school dances for all students to attend. Held during school hours, the dances provided a venue where a wallflower could be as acceptable and comfortable as a social butterfly. Miller offered the youngsters a chance to see what a dance looks like, but with an option to opt out of participating in it. Think: fly on a wall. By the time prom rolled around, the students had dipped their feet in the no-longer-mysterious waters of a school dance and attended the year-end affair in full force and with bells on.
Merrill describes the school as one with a quirky culture, one of intention, courtesy of Miller. There, the school staff member who shines is not likely the guy or gal in the slick suit, but rather the one with the good heart, willing give every student a chance, and another, and another.
“Gary finds the good in every person. It’s all he looks for. It doesn’t matter what flaws they have or if they present themselves in a negative way. He will see the good in them,” Merrill says.
Dustin Williams, who teaches social studies at Summit Academy, echoes Merrill’s sentiment. He says that during his seven years working with Miller, the unconventional principal unfailingly pushed the ball forward and never settled with the status quo.
“He was there for the kids. He believed in what we were doing at Summit,” Williams says. “But what made working for Gary so great is it was like working for your favorite coach you ever had. Gary’s greatest accomplishment at Summit is the culture he built with his staff. Gary inspired us, he trusted us, and he empowered us.”
Leaving a legacy
It’s difficult to imagine Summit Academy Transition High School – Dayton without Miller.
Where do you begin to find someone who can preserve the school’s special place in education and, perhaps more importantly, in people’s lives?
Maybe you start by looking under a school desk.