Newark, N.J.—It wasn’t long into Damon Holmes’s tenure as the new principal of Malcolm X Shabazz High School this fall that Sharon Cook, an administrator at Shabazz, knew the school and students were going to be okay under the new guy.
Cook was having a meeting with Holmes in the principal’s office when he suddenly stopped talking. In mid-sentence. Cook wondered what prompted the dramatic pause—until she glanced around and saw a student hovering outside. Holmes had interrupted his meeting with a key staff member because one student needed his help. Cook instantly realized that in Holmes’ eyes, students come before everything else.
Holmes, 40, took over in September from Gemar Mills, the enormously popular and successful principal who abruptly left in the midst of a remarkable and widely hailed turnaround for this long-troubled Newark institution. Mills had earned the moniker “The Turnaround Principal” for changing the culture of a school that had been so violent the media dubbed it “Baghdad.”
Mills—just 27 when he became principal—had been celebrated for his triumph in transforming Shabazz in a few short years from a virtual war zone to a school in which hope fills the halls. After the turnaround, the school was profiled in magazines, in a documentary produced by New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, and in the book Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, which calls for radically overhauling U.S. high schools.
Last year, after four successful years at the helm, Mills decided to walk away, lured by an offer to become the chief education officer for a well-funded New York City-based nonprofit called The Future Project, which he says is working in about 50 campuses across America—including Shabazz and a half dozen other schools in Newark—to reinvent the structure of the nation’s high schools.