Angelica Allen-McMillan, Murphy’s choice to guide NJ education through the pandemic

Surprise nominee pledges to collaborate with others, address the digital divide and COVID-19-related learning losses
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor’s Office)
Oct. 20, 2020, South Orange: Angelica Allen-McMillan speaks at the event where Gov. Phil Murphy nominated her to be the Commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Education.

Angelica Allen-McMillan’s introduction on Tuesday as Gov. Phil Murphy’s next education commissioner was like no other.

Brought back to the South Orange elementary school where she was the principal for a decade, Allen-McMillan wore a face mask and spoke before a banner espousing social distancing.

The school was virtually empty for the outdoor announcement, with the students at home in remote instruction. It was hardly the bustling elementary school she was familiar with, by a long shot.

But the setting left little doubt about the main task ahead for Allen-McMillan as New Jersey’s next education commissioner who is taking over a 1.4 million-child school system while the COVID-19 pandemic hardly seems abated.

Allen-McMillan acknowledged the challenge on Tuesday, citing the wide gaps in technology accessible to students and what she called potential “learning losses” already happening because of the pandemic.

Just a day before, the state’s largest school district in Newark — another former workplace for her — announced it would stay with remote instruction until at least the end of January.

“I am very humbled that Gov. Murphy has selected me,” Allen-McMillan said to a gaggle of reporters. “I look forward to working with all of our constituents to move the needle, to address the digital divide, and to address learning losses as they may occur throughout the state.”

Veteran educator

For what is arguably the highest-profile position in the governor’s cabinet, Murphy chose in Allen-McMillan a veteran educator in the state — albeit not a particularly well-known one — to carry forward New Jersey’s vast public education system.

If confirmed, she will be succeeding Murphy’s first commissioner, Lamont Repollet, who left in July to become president of Kean University. Assistant Commissioner Kevin Dehmer has served in the interim and will return to his previous post.

Not on many short lists of rumored candidates, Allen-McMillan has served in a range of positions over her 25-year career, mostly in Essex County.

She was principal of the Marshall School in South Orange and then moved to assistant superintendent positions in Newark and Irvington. Interestingly, she also was executive director of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark, not a common crossover from district to charter schools (and back) in that city.

Allen-McMillan most recently was the state’s top administrator in Morris County; she has been its executive county superintendent for the last two years — on-the-job training for taking on the inner workings of the state’s education department.

But in her comments on Tuesday, she brought out more her experience as an East Orange science teacher, citing one lesson and a Delaware River field trip to illustrate her devotion to teaching and learning first and foremost.

“My students and I set sail on a schooner on the Delaware River, examined specimens and water samples and identified connections between land and sea animals,” she recalled.

Politics and education

The job of education commissioner can be as much a political position as an educational one, and Allen-McMillan said she looked forward to working with top legislative and other leaders.

Among the key political players to weigh in on Tuesday was state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the influential chair of the Senate education committee.

“I am hopeful we can collaborate to create a comprehensive plan that recognizes the disparities in our education system and embraces policies that bridge the learning divide,” Ruiz said in a statement.

“Her resume indicates that she can develop both a short-term plan to deal with the challenges we are facing now and long term solutions for a future that moves every child ahead.”

The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, also released a statement of support, while indicating it would be a relationship in progress.

“We look forward to working closely with Dr. Allen-McMillan in her new role,” read the statement posted in the afternoon. “Strong leadership is more important than ever right now as New Jersey’s public schools continue to navigate this challenging school year.”