Gwinnett school leader faces new challenges at career milestone

Gwinnett then & now

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks was hired for his current position on March 14, 1996. Here’s a look at the district then and now.

Category 1996 2016

Number of schools 73 136

Number of students 85,000 176,000

Budget $597 million $1.86 billion

Employees 9,200 22,000

Wilbanks’ base salary $125,000 $299,800

Pct. of white students 80 25.5

Pct. of black students 9 31.5

Pct. of Hispanic students 4 29

Pct. of Asian students 6 10

Pct. of students with disability 11

Pct. of Free/Reduced Lunch eligile students 13 54

Sources: AJC archives, Gwinnett County Public Schools and Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

J. Alvin Wilbanks has faced massive increases in student enrollment, several changes in state and federal testing requirements, economic recessions and calls to resign over his two decades as head of Gwinnett County’s public school system.

Now Wilbanks, who marks his 20th anniversary as Gwinnett’s superintendent Monday, faces a new challenge. The majority of Gwinnett students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals or have special needs such as autism.

Low-income students and students with disabilities typically have lower graduation rates, and districts often spend more to educate them.

Wilbanks agreed in January to a new two-year contract. While he navigates the newest wave of change, educators in other parts of Georgia, who often laud Wilbanks, will take notes as they grapple with similar issues.

Since 2009, the percentage of Gwinnett students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals has increased by 8 percentage points, from 46 percent to 54 percent. About one in 10 Gwinnett students has a disability, state data show. While those numbers have risen, the money Gwinnett receives from key sources, such as property taxes, has gone down. Local revenue per student has declined 18 percent since 2010, from $3,902 to $3,209, school district budget figures show.

Wilbanks said there’s little he can do to raise revenue. But when it comes to what schools need, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We have to ask ourselves is that a reason not to do it. The answer is no.”

He talked about improving classroom technology, better preparing students for kindergarten and creating more theme schools and new fields of study within existing schools.

Top-notch schools are a critical element in marketing Gwinnett as an ideal destination for businesses.

“The shift in poverty is growing,” said Louise Radloff, who joined the Gwinnett school board in 1973 and is its longest-serving member. “We talk about that a lot. What do we need to do? If they are not being educated, we cannot build a highly successful workforce.”

More students, more schools

Wilbanks, 73, a Georgia native and UGA grad, headed the school district’s technical college in 1996 when the school board hired him as superintendent. He recalled a massive wave of new students as large swaths of farmland were transformed into subdivisions.

Over the years, Gwinnett's student population continued to grow and diversify. Students from 88 countries have come to the district's International Newcomers Center so far this school year. Today, the combined enrollments of Cobb and Atlanta, the second- and sixth-largest districts in Georgia, do not equal Gwinnett's. Gwinnett claims the third-largest school bus fleet in the nation.

The wave of students that came there in the 1990s taught Wilbanks a lesson: Gwinnett needed to build larger schools. Gwinnett’s smallest middle school, Jordan, has 919 students, more than the entire enrollment of 13 Georgia school districts.

He toughened academic standards, to the chagrin of some parents. He recruited teachers who’ve taken several math courses in college, and he hires specialists to teach math teachers. Gwinnett has also been long involved in Reading Recovery, which gives individualized reading lessons to first-graders who are behind in the subject.

Over the past decade, Gwinnett started an online campus where students can study remotely. It opened a school specializing in math, science and technology that is often ranked among the nation’s ten best public high schools.

Twice since 2010, Gwinnett has won the Broad Prize, a national award for its efforts to close the achievement gap among low-income and non-white students. No other Georgia district has won the prize, which provides scholarships to selected students. Wilbanks last week received the University of Georgia College of Education's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Critics, though, say he's been slow to respond to some issues, such as the disproportionate percentage of black and Hispanic students suspended or expelled. Wilbanks has withstood a couple of calls to resign and criticism of the school district's land-acquisition policies, sparked by a series of AJC investigative reports.

The average tenure of school superintendent in large districts like Gwinnett is three years. Wilbanks has had unparalleled continuity and unity on Gwinnett’s school board. The average tenure of the five board members is 23 years. Many observers cannot recall the last time a board vote was not unanimous.

Getting students interested

Wilbanks credits his tenure to good teachers and principals.

He advocates mining data to see what works and finding out what excites students. Wilbanks said he wants to beef up science, technology, engineering and math in all Gwinnett high schools. He wants to provide more online resources and guides for parents to better prepare their children for kindergarten. Two years ago, Gwinnett created academies in five high schools where students could learn more about various careers. Graduation rates rose in four of the five schools last year. This fall, Gwinnett will open its first middle school specializing in science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

“If you can get students interested in something, it’s much easier to educate them,” Wilbanks said.

Gwinnett’s graduation rate, 78 percent, is well above the state average, but lower than other nearby school districts that are often compared to it, such as Cobb and Fulton.

Wilbanks noted those districts have lower percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and cited the high percentage of students who move into Gwinnett each school year.

Some Gwinnett schools with strong academic reputations fared lower than expected on the first Georgia Milestones, the state’s new annual academic measurement. Wilbanks believes they’ll do better this year.

The ongoing challenges aren’t solely in the classroom. Alcova Elementary, for example, has a food pantry and gives food to families of needy students on Fridays.

Radloff and others say Gwinnett needs more help from churches, businesses and civic organizations. Community leaders like Mike Royal say growing Gwinnett’s tax base will be critical to the school district’s future. “It’s something we need to look at as (the school district) continues to grow,” said Royal, who graduated from Brookwood High School, has two children in the school district and is the chairman of the state Board of Education.

Wilbanks, who called the past 20 years “a great journey,” said he’s looking forward to the next two years — and more — in the job.

“There’s a lot of fight in that dog,” Royal said of Wilbanks.

Wilbanks said he pays more attention to his wedding anniversary than milestones such as 20 years as Gwinnett’s superintendent.

Asked what he plans to do Monday, Wilbanks deadpanned “I’ll come to work.”