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Gemar Mills ’05 is Passionate about Education

For Gemar Mills ’05, it would seem that no challenge is too daunting. At 27, he transformed Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School from a failing school to a positive environment where students have the tools to achieve. As chief education officer for The Future Project and chief academic officer of College Achieve Public Schools, Mills is helping high school students across the country reach for their dreams.

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Gemar Mills

In 2014, Montclair, The Magazine of Montclair State University, highlighted the rising star of Gemar Mills ’05. At the time only 27 and barely 10 years out of college, Mills was already making his mark as a school principal ready and able to turn a failing school into a success story.

Mills’ remarkable impact at Malcolm X Shabazz High School – nearly doubling language and math proficiency while building an environment that encourages achievement – inspired articles in The Atlantic, Fortune, and Crain’s. Mills’ work was also featured in the book, Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, the Sports Illustrated award-winning series, “Underdogs,” and NBC’s “Positively Black.” The documentary, “Saving Shabazz,” earned an Emmy.

A decade later, Mills is Dr. Mills, having earned a doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership and Administration from Seton Hall University, and is the author of his own book, The Turnaround: 180 Days of Change – 5 transformative methods to rapidly improve your school! The Paterson native took his experience as an inner-city public high school teacher and principal to the national stage to serve as chief education officer for The Future Project, a New York City-based nonprofit, and as chief academic officer of College Achieve Public Schools. He is, concurrently, raising students’ aspirations on more than 50 school campuses across the country while also working to reinvent the very structure of the nation’s high schools.

There was a time when Mills wasn’t all that different from many of the high school students who now benefit from his dedication and expertise. He had plenty of ambition, but not a lot of resources. “I visited Montclair when I was in the 8th grade,” he recalls. “I stayed on campus for a few weeks as part of a summer program. I took math classes and learned how to use Microsoft Office. It was my first interaction with a computer.”

In high school, Mills attracted attention from a lot of colleges, mainly for his talent for football. “I was a first-generation college student,” he points out. “I didn’t know the first thing about choosing a college. When the head coach at Montclair reached out, I felt it was the best choice for me. The campus was familiar, and I could stay close to home. I thought that those factors would help keep me on track academically.”

“Math came easy to me,” Mills continues. “I tested into Calculus I. I considered majoring in computer science, but I couldn’t afford a computer.” The computer lab hours conflicted with his practice schedule, making it all but impossible to keep up.

Mills transitioned to mathematics and started on the teaching track. Academics and his role as a defensive lineman for the Red Hawks left little time for extracurriculars. “My time off the field was largely spent in the library,” he says. He did, however, manage to fit in time to serve as a mentor to high school students in his hometown, through a partnership between the University and the Paterson school district.

“Montclair connected me to where I started from, connected me to scholarship resources, and connected me to all of the academic support that I needed,” Mills adds. “My math professors taught me how to dive deep, how to master the concepts. I failed Calculus II the first time I took it. On my second try, I reached out to the instructor for extra help. This time, I got an A and went on to succeed in University Physics I and University Physics II.”

Math was a natural fit for Mills, but writing was more troublesome. Again, Montclair provided exactly the support he needed. He recalls with fondness the two administrative assistants he worked alongside at Morehead Hall who helped him become a better writer. “It was great,” he says with a laugh. “I was earning work-study money while getting unofficial tutoring.”

“Montclair was there for me even after graduation, when I had to retake the Praxis exam to earn my teaching license,” Mills notes. “I was able to get the tutoring I needed to pass the exam so I could begin my career.”

Mills’ star rose quickly after leaving Montclair. “I was in my second year of teaching at East Side High School in Newark when I was tapped to become chair of the math department at Shabazz high school,” he says. “Just a few years later I was principal. I was in charge of teachers with much more experience than I had. I had to earn the trust and confidence of students, teachers and alumni. That’s when the true journey began.”

In addition to leading two national organizations on the forefront of transforming education in the United States, Mills is an instructor in the Rutgers Graduate School of Education Alternate Route teacher program. He also returns to Montclair to inspire the future educators studying at his alma mater. Earlier this year he was part of an alumni panel organized by the University’s Black Alumni Advisory Council, and in 2023 he was honored at the inaugural symposium of the Male Enrollment and Graduation Alliance (MEGA), a national initiative to improve academic outcomes for Black and Latinx college students. He also is part of the recently formed advisory board for The Charles J. Muth Museum of Hinchliffe Stadium, working with the University and the Paterson community to create a dynamic museum and learning center dedicated to honoring the history of Hinchliffe as a Negro Leagues Baseball Stadium and its legacy as a community center for recreation and entertainment.

“Alumni involvement creates a light for Montclair to shine brighter,” he says. “It brings students into contact with people who are going above and beyond in the world. Our success lets students know what’s possible.”


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