Gwinnett district’s accreditation review targets school board behavior

Cognia, the agency that accredits local school districts, told the superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools in March that it had received complaints about the school board. The agency this month will conduct a special accreditation review of the district. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Cognia, the agency that accredits local school districts, told the superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools in March that it had received complaints about the school board. The agency this month will conduct a special accreditation review of the district. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The accrediting agency investigating Gwinnett County Public Schools said in a letter to the superintendent that it received several complaints about the behavior of the board of education.

In a letter to Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks earlier this year, the agency said initial complaints included accusations that the five board members do not understand their roles or demonstrate collegiality, allow discriminatory student discipline, use social media unethically and are not responsive to declines in student achievement.

“Our school district has a long history of accreditation success,” Wilbanks said about three weeks later in a five-page response to Cognia, the accrediting agency. He added that the school district is committed to improvement and better student outcomes.

ExploreGwinnett school district is under special accreditation review

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained Cognia’s initial letter to Wilbanks and his response, both written in March, through an open records request.

In an April letter, Cognia said it was opening a special accreditation review after receiving additional complaints. It will investigate whether the school district is violating six of its standards, including that the governing authority adheres to a code of ethics, students have equitable opportunities and educators use data to improve student learning.

The school board and superintendent scheduled three training sessions to address Cognia’s concerns, said Mary Kay Murphy, a board member with 24 years of service, including four accreditation reviews.

“We respect Cognia and appreciate the role that they play in supporting school districts, especially in the area of governance, and I believe that it’s a very helpful forum for our community and our school board,” Murphy said. “It helps us get an appreciation of what we need to do to fulfill the community’s expectation of us.”

Cognia is also conducting a special accreditation review of the Cobb County School District. The investigation was requested by that board’s Democrats, who said they were being silenced by the Republican majority.

Gwinnett County Public Schools is the largest school system in Georgia, with an estimated enrollment of 177,000 across 139 schools.

Since two new members were elected in November, the school board and Wilbanks have gone through trainings that included in-depth conversations about board and superintendent responsibilities, according to the response letter. More training is planned, Wilbanks said.

ExploreMore stories about Gwinnett County Public Schools

The school district has moved toward restorative discipline practices and started implicit bias training, Wilbanks said. The district is also implementing social and emotional learning supports for students, he said.

A Discipline Code Review Committee made recommendations in April to reduce inequities. Gwinnett also runs mentoring programs for Black and Hispanic students identified as “at risk.”

Wilbanks said data does not support the concern about declining student achievement and the graduation rate has increased almost four points over the past 5 years. The district provides plans and resources to the lowest-performing 20% of schools and monitors them every 45 days, Wilbanks said.

The Georgia School Boards Association trained the five-member school board and Wilbanks on Thursday on board norms and protocols.

A Cognia team last visited the Gwinnett school district for a review four years ago. That team praised Gwinnett’s process for monitoring teaching practices and told the district to develop and implement a system for learning support services.

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