Gwinnett schools’ prize-winning approach: Individuals, innovation

At a glance

Gwinnett County School District

Students: 173,934

Average ACT Score: 21.9

2012-13 Average SAT Score: 1513

Percentage of Students Eligible for free/reduced lunch: 54

Racial Breakdown

Black: 30.8

Hispanic: 27.4

White: 26.9

Asian: 10.1

Multi-Race: 3.6

American Indian: 0.3

Sources: Gwinnett County Schools, Georgia Department of Education.

The Broad Prize

The Broad Prize for Urban Education is awarded annually to a large school district that shows impressive strides in closing the achievement gap among low-income students. It is named after Eli and Edythe Broad (pronounced like road), who started two Fortune 500 companies and created a foundation to encourage student achievement.

The scholarships

An independent review committee of admissions and financial aid professionals from Gwinnett County and Orange County colleges and universities chooses the winners. The committee looks for students who demonstrate financial need for the scholarship and have improved their grades in high school. Most students receive $20,000 scholarships over four years.

Students who receive scholarships must reapply each year to keep them. The students must maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average. About 20 to 30 percent of recipients lose their scholarship each year, Broad officials said. Students can reapply, though.

It was all hands on deck at Pinckneyville Middle School.

Math scores were not where principal Marci Sledge wanted them to be. So during the last school year, she and every teacher at the Gwinnett County school — even the chorus teacher — worked with small groups of students to improve at math.

The result?

“We saw the most significant improvement we’ve seen in math in years,” Sledge said.

It was that kind of initiative that has Georgia’s largest school district basking in the national spotlight.

Gwinnett last week was named co-recipient of the Broad Foundation Prize for Urban Education for its efforts to close the achievement gap among low-income and minority students. Gwinnett shared the prize with the Orange County, Fla., school district, and will share $1 million in college scholarships. Gwinnett won the prize in 2010.

Gwinnett, the foundation and state officials say, not only conducts rigorous testing, but digs deeper than most school districts into testing data to improve academic performance. They also cite, among other factors, how Gwinnett students are pushed to explain their thinking in the classroom, on exams and with lots of writing.

“The writing makes students explain what they know,” said Twin Rivers Middle School principal Linda Boyd.

Principals at those schools and others visited by the foundation credit a few key factors for the district’s progress: flexibility, stability and accountability. District leaders allow schools and teachers to experiment, but demand results.

In 2009, 28 percent of low-income elementary students met the “exceeds expectations” standard in science on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. In 2012, 42 percent met the “exceeds” standard in science. In 2009, the percentage of Hispanic middle school students who met or exceeded the CRCT standards in math was nine percentage points behind the rest of the district. In 2012, Hispanic middle school students were just five percentage points behind.

In some ways, Gwinnett County seems an unlikely place to be honored for urban education.

Large swaths of eastern Gwinnett are quiet pastures where cows and horses graze. All five school board members are white. Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, described by a Broad team leader as a “Southern gentleman,” has been around long enough to know the correct way to pronounce the last names of longtime Gwinnettians.

Gwinnett, though, has become one of the most diverse districts in Georgia, and its demographics are representative of most urban districts.

Since 2010, Gwinnett’s population has increased by about 14,000 students, enough people to nearly fill Philips Arena. More than half of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. About 70 percent of its students are black, Hispanic or Asian.

Meeting these waves of students are educators who, like soldiers, seem focused on a set of the same goals. They repeat the same phrases. “The teachers are the experts. The administrators offer support,” is one repeated theme.

Gwinnett teachers and principals interviewed say they don’t focus on how to improve performance among various minority students. They look at data to examine how individual students and classes are faring to see what works and isn’t working. Teachers work with fellow teachers on how to help students. Martha Reichrath, the state’s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said she recently went to a Gwinnett elementary school and noticed that every student’s progress was being consistently tracked.

Gwinnett has been “devoted to data long before it was vogue to do so,” she said.

Some critics, such as the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, point out that disproportionate percentages of low-income and minority students are in Gwinnett’s alternative-education schools. They want more black and Hispanic students in Advanced Placement courses. The AP participation rate has nearly doubled for both groups since 2009, but it’s still about 10 percentage points lower than participation among all students.

Another criticism of Gwinnett is that the state has given the district a competitive advantage. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year that Gwinnett received more money by far from a state program to help financially struggling schools. In last year’s budget, Gwinnett’s portion increased bymore than 50 percent, from $43 million to nearly $66 million. Its current total is $69 million.

Some officials cite Gwinnett’s diversity and high percentage of low-income students to defend the district’s eligibility for the program.

“They are benefitting because they have qualified,” said Reichrath.

Those types of debates are not occuring at Pinckneyville Middle School. On a recent day, two five-member teams of eighth-graders debated whether the early settlers were heroes or villians, using fact-based data as the basis for their positions.

Shelley Billig, who led the Broad Foundation site team that visited Gwinnett in 2010 and earlier this year, said they were impressed by students’ ability to discuss what they learn.

Billig, whose team interviewed 322 people in Gwinnett, noted several schools had “war rooms” where they examine data and search for trends. Administrators, she said, meet regularly with Wilbanks to discuss the data and how to improve.

The foundation’s team believes another factor that helps Gwinnett is its stability in leadership. Wilbanks has been superintendent for more than 18 years. The five school board members have been in office from 10 to 41 years.

Gwinnett has a reputation of embracing new ideas, another factor that intrigued the Broad team. It was the only large district in Georgia to dive into a state program in 2009 aimed at giving greater instructional flexibility to schools. Reichrath said Gwinnett was an early supporter of the state’s involvement in the federal Reach to the Top educational grant program.

Earlier this year, a Snellville community group gave five South Gwinnett High School students $400 a piece to start their own businesses. The winners were chosen after “Shark Tank” style interviews.

Principal Eric Thigpen said the competition showed students how they can apply what they’re learning in class, part of Gwinnett’s mantra of trying new ideas to achieve academic success.

“In order to get results, you have to be innovative,” said Thigpen.

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