By Candace Kelley
When students at Malcolm X Shabazz High School come to school — their first stop is daily convocation with Principle Gemar Mills.
“Hearing me through a speaker every morning is not the same as being able to see me and hear me face to face,” said Mills.
And when he sees the students, he gives them a positive start for the day and when they leave here — the students go to class and are greeted by messages that inspire are at every turn.
The high school has come a long way. About four years ago, rival gangs fought in the halls, some students hurled textbooks from the windows for fun and in 2011 the state recommended that the school be shut down.
“Students were able to sneak in marijuana, things like that. So we had to deal with that aroma and then trying to figure out where it was coming from,” Mills said.
When Mills, the chair of the school’s math department, was chosen by the alumni association to take over the troubled school — he knew it was their school’s last chance to make a come back.
Mills came up with a plan. He decided that he would take the lessons he learned on the football field at Montclair State University and bring them right back to the school.
He appointed a Dean of Discipline — Darnell Grant — the head football coach of the Shabazz Bulldogs. He knew students respected the team and he believed if that those on the team felt a sense of school pride, that pride would trickle down.
“Mr. Mills, our head principal is like a head coach for the staff and kind of put a game plan together where we wanted the football players to help and galvanize the rest of the school,” said Grant.
But Mills had another problem. He had to get students from outside of the classroom to inside of the classroom.
“Students would be in groups of hundreds kind of just congregating,” Mills said.
And the school purchased a system to track student infractions. As soon as student was in trouble, all of the key administrators would receive a text message. Soon students realized they couldn’t get away with doing what they wanted.
Now in his fourth year, he and his staff have bragging rights to some major improvements. Language Arts proficiency jumped from 37 percent to 75 percent. Math proficiency went from 17 percent to 37 percent.
“I have a scholarship for football because I’m an athlete so I’m going to Temple University come this fall,” said Roy Pugh.
Mills says that with the work he, the staff and students have accomplished, makes the students feel differently about who they are and the lives they are supposed to lead. It’s a road of redemption and pride, he says that will follow these students wherever they go.