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Dean knuckle-breaker has a heart

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Ian Millman, dean of the World Preparatory Journalism School, Flushing Queens is an enforcer with a good sense of humor. (Courtesy of Kathy Vitale)

By ALEC JOHNSON

When Ian Millman walked into a classroom at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, Queens one February afternoon, the teenagers fell silent. Millman was on a mission—a tour of duty as he calls it—to find one or more culprits who stole several calculators from a classroom earlier in the week.

His sources told him that some of the calculators may have been thrown out a third story window when the substitute teacher that day turned her back. His strategy was to offer a plea-bargain to those students who turned themselves in by the end of the school day. Confess. Return the calculators. Face a less harsh punishment.

“It’s in your best interest to be honest because the truth will come out,” said Millman, 34, a burly man with an appropriately athletic build.  “Don’t make me find you.”

By the end of the day, one student came forward and confessed. Millman slapped him with two hours of detention (not much) tempered with a free food coupon for McDonald’s for being honest. By the next morning, the dean’s investigation had led him to two more suspects. When confronted, they quickly admitted to throwing several of the Texas Instrument scientific calculators out the window. Their punishment: one day suspension plus $12 payback for each missing calculator. It was vintage Millman — creative, focused, true to his word.

“There isn’t a student in this school that won’t spill their guts to him,” Principal Cynthia Schneider said. “He develops relationships but is a knuckle breaker. The kids don’t know what to do.”

Millman is the school’s Academic Intervention Specialist, which in New York City is the new name for the new style dean of discipline—someone who deals with attendance, behavior and academic issues. He pays attention to everything. “I’m the fireman,” said the Queens-born former semi-pro baseball player. “When the bell rings, I slide down the pole and get into action.”

At World Journalism Prep School—one of the city’s new small schools established in 2006 within Intermediate School 25—his influence is unparalleled when it comes to the rules about safety. At the same time, Millman believes it is important to be more than just an enforcer. He is compassionate and treats all the kids with respect, whether it is the straight-A kid that has never been late for class, or the ones that skip school and get caught smoking in the bathroom.

“He works with kids that other people want to throw their hands up in the air at,” said Schneider, who runs the school of 560 students in grades six through 12.

For Millman, his dual approach did not come naturally. “Growing up I saw the dean as having no other purpose than discipline,” said Millman, who lives with his wife, Gretel, their three and a half year old daughter Scarlet and French Bulldog, Rookie, in Seaford, Long Island. Trouble, he said, comes only when students do something they shouldn’t do. And in that case they deserve to be punished.

Punishments range anywhere from a reprimand for not wearing the school uniform—a blue, white or yellow shirt with a WJPS logo—to suspension for fighting or stealing. Millman, also calls home when students are repeatedly absent and works with teachers who have trouble keeping kids focused on academics.

“I played professional baseball for two years after college,” said Millman, who graduated from Queens College in 1998 and played for the North East and Texas Louisiana Leagues while in school from 1997 to 1998. The former pitcher, who wears a large diamond earring in his left ear and keeps his head shaved clean, found teaching after suffering a career ending shoulder injury in 1998.

“When career plan A failed, I went and got a certificate of education,” he said. Shortly after becoming certified, Millman filled in for a social studies teacher IS 25  who was on sabbatical. At the end of the year, he was offered a full time job as a global studies teacher and taught for three years before he was offered a job as a dean at age 24 at I.S. 25, which is one floor below World Journalism. Millman was hesitant at first, because he thought deans were always much older, but now he is happy he said yes; “I really love what I do,” he said. “The minute I feel I’m useless—I’ll go.”

As a kid, Millman never dreamed he would be walking the school halls keeping kids in line. In fact, he spent many of his younger days on the other side of the fence as a frequent visitor to the dean’s office.

“Growing up, I saw my fair share of trouble. So the dean’s office is nothing new to me.” He said, “I wasn’t the worst kid but I wasn’t the best kid. Being on both sides of the coin has made me effective.”

When Millman was student at Francis Lewis High School in Jamaica, Queens, in 1992 he and his friends orchestrated a flawless way to skip class and go out for lunch—until they got caught. “We took the nurse’s medical passes and stamp and took the same kids out of class for a week,” said Millman, who now earns about $78,000 a year as a dean. After he swiped about 40 passes from Angie the nurse and the stamp she used to validate them, he repeatedly excused himself and his friends from class.

“I would walk into class and say the nurse needed to see Willie Jesus,” Millman said. Then he and Willie would head out for lunch. “We got away with it for three weeks,” Millman said. “The fact that we thought we were going to get away with it was the greatest.” The dean eventually caught up with them and they spent several days after school in quarantine in the nurse’s office.

Millman’s rambunctiousness as a teenager taught him all he needs to know about how to be a dean. He knows all the tricks. Now in his seventh year as a dean, Millman tries to connect with all the students. Sometimes students come to him even though they know they are in trouble. “A lot of kids will come to me and say, ‘Hey Millman, I just did this in class and you’re probably going to hear about it,” he said. “It is a great sign of respect.”

When he walks the halls between class, Millman looks more like a bouncer than a dean. He hollers at kids to get to class and questions them about their improper attire.

“Jonathan—Get your hands off her. This is school, not a hotel,” Millman yelled down the hall on Wednesday morning.

“Christian—Put that bag away.”

“Matt—Go get educated.”

“Vin—Why don’t you escort your girl to class and then find one for yourself.”

As Millman’s voice booms down the hall the students scurry and try to avoid getting nailed for breaking the rules. Some comply immediately and others take a little more pushing. They all listen eventually. “I try to be a positive influence. But I am not there to be their friend,” he said. “I am there to enforce the Chancellor’s code, but also to help.”

Millman has seen it all in his decade in education. The first student Millman suspended was a seventh grader, when he was dean at I.S. 25. The student took a hot tater tot from the cafeteria and mashed it into another kid’s eye with his thumb. The most comical suspension Millman remembers came after a student slapped another in the face with a slice of pizza. He had to find the right category to record the offense: “Misuse of others property,” was his choice, he said with a beaming grin.

“I’m involved in everything,” said Millman during a brief break between dealing with the calculator crisis. “When they need something done, I guess I’m your guy.”

On each of the 180 days of the school year, he begins his tour before the students arrive and stays until about 5:30 p.m. although he is free by contract to go home at 2:28 p.m. “Every day I wake up and I like going to work,” he said.

“I stick my head into as many classrooms as I can and see what kids are having a rough morning,” he said. By reading body language, Millman can tell when someone is off. “If you have an overly confident kid that is walking around with slumped shoulders, you know something’s up,” he said. Sometimes it is even easier, like when “a kid comes in and punches the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom.”

Millman asks what’s up and hopes they open up. They usually do. “It means a lot to them because it shows someone cares about what might be happening in their lives,” he said. Students tell him about the prior day’s after school fights and he has prevented “large type gang situations,” he said. “I try to solve issues early so things don’t blow up.”

Millman can even go into the bathroom and look at graffiti and tell who sprayed it. And he keeps a handwriting sample of nearly all the students.

Millman’s ability to garner respect from each of the 560 students at World Journalism Prep is one of his many skills that make him extremely effective at his job. Mia Martinez, 17, said Millman knows when to be serious and when to be nice. “A lot of people think he is mean,” she said. “But he’s the best. He’s straight up.”

Millman makes sure he is seen throughout the school, so students never know if he is watching. “It’s a mix of making the students feel comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time,” to get information about what is going on, he said.

The biggest challenge for Millman is helping the unmotivated kids want to learn. He works with classroom teachers to help document students who need special services because of learning or emotional difficulties, which cause them to act out in class. Then he talks to them personally to see what he can do to help.

The Department of Education sends over-aged, under-credited students to small schools frequently because they can give individualized attention to students. One in particular that Millman worked with is one that Schneider speculates she will see on the front page of the New York Post for murdering someone some day.

Schneider remembered the 17-year-old eighth grader Millman connected with last year. “He was the kind of kid that would walk in and threaten the entire room,” she said. “One day he came straight from jail to school in an orange jumpsuit.”

As Millman remembers, the boy was caught with a large marijuana blunt. When he was arrested, Millman said, “he kicked the cop in the leg and asked for his weed back.” The teen was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed and learning disabled among other issues which Millman said, made him a danger to himself and to other students. He needed services that the newly opened small school could not provide. “I spent all day—every day with him,” he said.

The teen and his mother eventually conceded that he needed a school that could fulfill his individualized education plan and he voluntarily transferred to a larger school. Millman said, “The last I heard he beat some guy up in the park with an umbrella and robbed him.”

The faculty and staff at World Journalism respect Millman as much as the students.

“I personally love him,” said Kathy Vitale an administrative assistant who works in the main office. “He is fair but stern and he doesn’t put up with anybody’s nonsense. A picture of Millman wearing a State Trooper hat, and aviator sunglasses is hanging on the file cabinet behind Vitale’s desk. He is serious, but with a sense of humor and above all is understanding.

“He sees things as gray, not necessarily black and white,” Vitale said. “He understands students for what they are capable of.” His ability to look past student’s problems into the heart of who they are allows him to be a bridge between discipline and counseling.

“He’s kinda like House,” Vice Principal Nancy Poulos said, likening Millman to the rogue doctor on the Fox series by the same name. ”He can drive you crazy but he always gets the job done and knows how to diagnose the situation.”

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