Mike Riley, 58; Education Innovator

Mike Riley advocated college-level courses for high school students.
Mike Riley advocated college-level courses for high school students. (Thomas James Hurst - Seattle Times)
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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mike Riley, a former Frederick County principal who became a national leader in bringing college-level courses to high schools, died Oct. 8 at his home in Reston after a heart attack. He was 58.

Dr. Riley achieved his greatest prominence after becoming school superintendent in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue in 1996.

He became the most outspoken educator in the country on what he saw as the need to make public high schools challenging for all students, not just the A students who were usually the only ones allowed to take college-level courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

He insisted that all Bellevue students be allowed to take AP or IB courses and discussed plans, never fully implemented, to make AP or IB courses mandatory for nearly all graduates.

Dr. Riley's effectiveness in Bellevue was highlighted in a 2003 Newsweek cover story about the 100 best high schools in America. He told the magazine that many of his reforms were based on insights developed in his early career as an English teacher in Chicago.

He said many low-performing students from low-income families in his classes blossomed academically when he sat them down after class and made sure they did their homework. "They went from F's to honor roll," he told Newsweek, "and I realized that . . . they weren't dumb kids, just kids we hadn't connected to."

Michael Norman Riley was born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1950. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Lewis University of Romeoville, Ill., a master's degree in English from DePaul University in Chicago and a doctorate in educational administration from Loyola University in Chicago.

After 12 years as a teacher and administrator in Chicago, he moved to Frederick County in 1984 and was principal of Middletown and Gov. Thomas Johnson high schools. In 1993, he became superintendent of northwest area schools in Baltimore County, and in 1995, he became associate superintendent of the county's entire school system.

In Bellevue, he argued for more demanding lessons in every grade and for making sure that all students, including those whose parents did not go to college, be prepared for higher education.

During his 11 years in the district, the portion of students taking AP courses rose to 84 percent from 10 percent. Three Bellevue high schools were listed in Newsweek's annual top 100 list this year.

With a $1.9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr. Riley worked with several national experts to devise a standard curriculum in six core subjects that would teach skills and concepts necessary to succeed in college.

Dr. Riley encouraged teachers to apply for National Board Certification and set a state record for the number of instructors who received that recognition of classroom skills. But many teachers expressed concern about the standardized curriculum he had established and said it hindered their ability to tailor instruction based on their firsthand knowledge of each student.

Dr. Riley moved to Reston last year to become the senior vice president for the College Board's EXCELerator Schools program, designed to help impoverished students in urban schools prepare for college.

College Board President Gaston Caperton said Mr. Riley's "legacy will be a better education for underserved high school students, about whom he cared so deeply."

Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Gail Lang Riley of Bellevue; a daughter, Michelle Riley of Gaithersburg; and a sister.

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