Meet the New Jersey Educator On A Mission To Close Prisons By Opening Schools


October 9, 2020

He’s Breaking The School To Prison Pipeline! 

Meet Dr. Gemar Mills, the New Jersey educator opening up schools to eradicate the need for prisons.


A Paterson, New Jersey native, Mills recognized early on that education would be key to his success. Throughout his academic career, he used school as an anchor and a deterrent from his environment’s negative trappings. After graduating high school he went on to attend Montclair State University, where he initially majored in computer science. While he loved the field, his lack of financial resources wouldn’t allow him to stay in that major. Not being able to afford necessary items like a laptop would eventually lead mentors and coaches to recommend education as a secondary option. 

He heeded their instructions and switched his major to mathematics education while working as a substitute teacher. After graduation, he was hired as a math teacher in Newark, New Jersey, and created tremendous growth among his students within the first three years. At age 25, Mills became department chairperson of mathematics, followed by a second promotion to the vice principal, and a third, becoming the youngest principal of Malcolm X Shabazz High School at just 28-years-old.

“The speed and impact that occurred in that short period of time affirmed for me that my purpose in this life is to provide young people with a fair shot at achieving their dreams through education,” Mills told Because Of Them We Can. 


His tenure at Shabazz helped him hone in on his skills. Mills was dubbed “The Turnaround Principal” after transforming the culture, retention rate, and graduation rate at a school many discounted as a lost cause. Within just a few years, test scores soared, and the school, which was initially set for closure by the state, remained open. Not only was he able to perfect a method for teaching students, but he also impacted the culture at a school where violence was an everyday norm. 

“We don’t want to just save the school, we want to be the catalyst for positive change in Newark and the world,” Mills told Montclair magazine at the time. 

Upon his departure from Shabazz, Mills set out to do just that, opening up his school, College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS), with the goal of getting students through school and higher academia so they can obtain a degree. 


Dr. Gemar Mills cutting the ribbon on the 7th CAPS campus. Photo courtesy of Gemar Mills

“In most inner cities across the country, less than 11% of the population earn a college degree,” Mills said told BOTWC. “That statistic, coupled with the achievement and wealth gap that exists between Black and white families, made it clear to me that our purpose at CAPS should be rooted in getting students into and graduating from the top colleges and universities in our country.” 


The first CAPS school was opened in 2015 in Paterson, New Jersey. To date, CAPS has now opened seven campuses around New Jersey, two in Paterson, three in Plainfield and two in Asbury Park, where they serve more than 2,700 students grades K-9. In addition to his transformational academic curriculum, Mills also plans to directly disrupt the school to prison pipeline by opening as many schools as possible. CAPS is adding additional grades every year at each campus until they serve K-12, intending to open even more schools in the near future at a rate quicker than the state builds prisons. 

“I believe that schools are the natural solution to close prisons because a significant factor in opening them is based on 3rd-grade reading scores. The research shows that below proficient readers are more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime,” Mills said in our interview. “The inability to read is linked to the dropout rate, and the dropout rate is an ingredient that feeds the school to prison pipeline. We can reverse these statistics by educating our young people now to avoid teaching them demoralizing lessons later on in life.” 

Within the first two years of opening, more than 80% of students enrolled at CAPS had shown a 55% increase in reading benchmarks, with 52% of seventh-graders showing a 25% increase in math through Mills’ proven methods. The Jersey educator said he has no plans of slowing down, continuing to focus on providing quality education to students in New Jersey and creating curriculum, resources, and tools that are empowering and easy to digest at all grade levels. His goal is to eventually open schools across the country and address many social and economic ills faced within underserved communities through education.


“Through education, we can begin to correct the inequities that plague our communities and make our ancestors proud, knowing that their efforts weren’t in vain,” Mills told BOTWC. 

To learn more about College Achieve Public Schools, visit their website here.

Congratulations, Dr. Mills! Because of you, we can!


Photo Courtesy of @principalmills/Instagram

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