N.J.’s new ‘star’ education chief inherits a system in crisis

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From behind his blue surgical mask, Gov. Phil Murphy spoke candidly.

“These are not normal times,” Murphy told longtime educator Angelica Allen-McMillan in a conversation picked up by a nearby podium microphone. “Honest to God.”

As if she didn’t already know. She just inherited a school system in crisis mode with no clear roadmap for what happens next.

COVID-19 has already spread in the classrooms or hallways of at least 22 New Jersey schools this fall. Some of the state’s largest districts won’t open their doors until January at the earliest. And a feared second wave of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have arrived, jeopardizing the reopening plans schools frantically designed over the summer.

Enter Allen-McMillian, a former science teacher and school administrator who Murphy announced Tuesday as the state’s acting education commissioner. She faces a daunting mission.

“She has a bigger challenge in some ways than any other predecessor I can think of in the last 20 years,” said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an advocacy group for about 100 suburban districts.

Allen-McMillian, of Montclair, spent her 25-year career preparing for this moment, she said. She worked her way from substitute teacher to teacher to principal to administrator, most recently serving as the interim executive superintendent for Morris County. A mother of three, she understands the challenges confronting both educators and families in the pandemic, she said.

“We have been knocked down and will continue to stumble on occasion,” she said, standing outside South Orange’s Marshall Elementary School, where she served as principal for 12 years. “I ask you to remember that this is not as formidable as our resolve and definitely not indomitable when challenged by our effort.”

Allen-McMillian pledged to lead a department that is quick to listen, precise in execution and ready to advance access for all to a quality education.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it hopes to work closely with the new acting commissioner.

“Strong leadership is more important than ever right now as New Jersey’s public schools continue to navigate this challenging school year,” the union’s leadership said in a statement. “At a time when every classroom, virtual or in-person, looks very different than before, it is more important than ever to listen to the people who are still helping our students flourish.”

Murphy ordered all schools to shut down in mid-March as the coronavirus rocked the state. They abruptly switched to all-remote learning that left some students effectively locked out of instruction, part of a national education crisis created by the pandemic.

An estimated 350,000 New Jersey students lacked a device or internet access for online school in the spring. Some students simply completed months of worksheets that went ungraded. And schools in many cases promoted kids to the next grade level even if they had not