Gemar Mills '05

Principal of Malcom X Shabazz High School

Now in his early thirties, Gemar Mills ’05 has already accomplished than some educators do in their entire careers. Ever since he first started as a math teacher, Mills has worked with students at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark to dramatically improve their standardized test scores. He quickly was promoted to chair of the math department and later promoted to principal of the school.

“I’m a turn-around principal,” said Mills, who has also taken on truancy and graduation rates at the school. When he took the position in 2011, Malcolm X Shabazz’s graduation rate was 63 percent. Now, only a few years later, it’s 75 percent. Mills acknowledges the challenges that his students face outside the classroom and encourages them to overcome these challenges by putting their education first and striving to reach their full potential. “The kids are just amazing,” he said. “It’s a great job. I’m changing lives. They move on, then come back and say ‘thank you.’ ”

When he meets with former students, Mills encourages them to share their knowledge and work to make their communities better.

Mills entered Montclair State University as a computer science major. Balancing his course load with his role on the football team proved to be difficult for Mills. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he switched his major to mathematics education.

Once he was in the math education program, Mills excelled. He credits his beginning calculus professor with helping him sharpen his algebra skills. “I really understood it, the way he taught it,” Mills said.

As a student, Mills was also involved with the campus community in other ways. He was an Orientation Workshop Leader (OWL), whose job it was to help make the transition to college life easier for first year students. They focused on team building, problem solving and promoting University pride. “We would do skits – things that may occur as a freshman, to see how you would handle it. It was my most influential program, and I developed a lot of love for the program and the school as a whole.”

The other program Mills was heavily involved with was football. He was a defensive tackle and a defensive end. “That was definitely a great experience,” he said. Mills employs the discipline and self-esteem lessons he learned in football with his students today. In football, a team can always come back from a loss.

“Don’t give up,” he tells students. “An F is not the worst thing in the world – you can come back and do it better.”

He encourages students to work together to reach their goals. “Get a buddy,” he said. “Find someone on campus who you can use as support, preferably a student in your major, and push each other.” For Mills, that buddy was his brother. They attended Montclair State at the same time and frequently met in the library to study and hold each other accountable for their grades and assignments.

Mills’ advises current Montclair State students to build relationships with their professors. “Your professor should know who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “Be sure to get to them during their office hours.”

He recently returned to campus for the University’s third annual Boys to Men Conference, where he told his story to more than 400 local high school students. The Educational Opportunity Fund, a program that provides students from underrepresented backgrounds with academic and financial support, hosted the conference. As a student, Mills participated in this program. He described the challenges he faced in his life, driving home the point that if students remain focused on their goals, they can achieve them.

Today, Mills is an EdD candidate at Seton Hall University. He hopes to continue encouraging the students at Malcolm X Shabazz and other high schools to work to their full potential and make education a top priority in their lives. His efforts so far have included participation in the Emmy-winning documentary Saving Shabazz as well as nods from Sports Illustrated, The Atlantic magazine and on NJ.com.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said.