Gwinnett superintendent looking to put plans in action in second year

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Empathy and equity guided those plans

Calvin Watts spent much of his first year leading Gwinnett County Public Schools discussing and starting to address longstanding inequities and instill a more caring culture — changes he felt essential amid the pandemic and in the wake of the massive nationwide demonstrations for racial justice.

Ongoing work by him and other leaders in Georgia’s largest school district took shape in several new initiatives focused on closing achievement gaps, reducing class sizes, reforming school discipline, increasing kindergarten readiness and literacy, along with the overarching “Blueprint for the Future.” His staff recently unveiled a division focused on equity, one of the central themes in Watts’ tenure.

The work has also faced scrutiny, with some critics saying the changes are unnecessary or even detrimental to a district that has long enjoyed a strong reputation and others arguing Gwinnett ignored the plight of marginalized students and that the changes are essential but inadequate and require greater urgency.

ExploreGwinnett County seeks to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes

Watts said in a recent interview that he’s confident in his work and comfortable being somewhere in the middle.

“We’re never going to go at the pace that everyone wants us to go, but we all need to be moving forward in the right direction,” he said.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Watts worked in Gwinnett for 13 years before serving six as superintendent of the Kent School District in suburban Seattle. He returned to replace J. Alvin Wilbanks, the longtime superintendent of 25 years whose contract was terminated a year before it would have expired.

Watts said he was surprised that the culture had not shifted to be more empathetic and equitable in response to the pandemic and the protests of 2020.

Gwinnett’s education system has served most students well, but recent efforts have drawn attention to students not receiving the help they need. After taking time to learn about individual students and their struggles, the next stage is equity — providing for Gwinnett’s diverse range of needs as they arise.

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For students today, the needs are far different than ever before. A district survey conducted last school year rated student well-being at 57.6%, a number that was shocking to Watts, who attributed it in part to how the pandemic changed the school experience.

We saw increases in arguments. We saw increases in negative interactions overall. We saw increases in fights in the hallway,” Watts said. Rather than saying, “Students are losing control,” he asked, “What are our children telling us through their actions?”

Gwinnett plans to hire behavioral coaches and move away from detentions and suspensions to building up relationships and intervening before behavior escalates. Gwinnett sent more students to its alternative schools than the Atlanta, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton school districts combined in 2018 and 2019, the last full years of school before the coronavirus pandemic.

Following discussions of equity among the board and district staff, some in the community have said schools should focus on academics and provide the same resources rather than attempt to seek similar outcomes — particularly in test scores and rates of discipline — for everyone.

“Equal opportunity is the driving engine of a free society. The United States of America never promised anyone success, just the opportunity to achieve success,” parent Lance Layson said at the April board meeting. He was one of several people who has questioned Gwinnett’s participation in an equity-focused effort by more than 100 school districts nationwide to transform public education.

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The district also hears that its equity efforts aren’t strong enough: “Gwinnett schools have glaring disparities and our children cannot wait another 25 years for an equitable educational environment,” Anthony Downer, a former teacher in the district and founder of Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice, said.

When the board hired Watts, members touted his previous work on equity and have shown support of his efforts in Gwinnett. School board chair Tarece Johnson said those efforts should involve more students, teachers and community members from diverse backgrounds.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Johnson listed several new initiatives as major accomplishments and areas that require further work. She drew attention to teachers, saying there needed to be progress supporting teachers and soliciting and using their feedback.

Starting this year, school district administrators will meet monthly with the Gwinnett County Association of Educators to discuss issues facing teachers and other employees.

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Watts also wants to hire more teachers of different backgrounds and ensure they have advancement opportunities. A presentation earlier this year revealed 64% of teachers are white. White students account for less than 20% of the student body.

Even though the district is currently fully staffed, Watts said staffing keeps him up at night. He knows the national landscape for teacher hiring is challenging and that Gwinnett is not immune.

It’s one of many issues still looming as he enters his second year.