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Profile: J. Alvin Wilbanks

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Meet J. Alvin Wilbanks

Gwinnett County continues to thrive with a veteran leader in charge. By Kim Greene

When a school district wins the Broad Prize for Urban Education once, people take note. But when the same district wins the award again as soon as it’s eligible to, people really want to know the secrets to its success. Such is the case with Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. The district, which is situated just outside of Atlanta, is led by J. Alvin Wilbanks and serves a diverse student body of almost 174,000 students. Gwinnett won the Broad Prize in 2010 and was named the corecipient of the prestigious award in 2014. Among the district’s accomplishments are higher proficiency rates for black and low-income students, as well as notable student participation in AP programs and the SAT.

Stability and the Status Quo

What’s behind Gwinnett’s big accomplishments? Stability, for sure. Wilbanks has been CEO and superintendent since 1996—a tenure that is almost unheard of for a big-district superintendent. His longevity is accompanied by an equally stable board of education. In fact, three of the five board members who hired Wilbanks still serve today. The newest member has been on the board for about a decade.

Board chairman Daniel Seckinger says Wilbanks and the board have a shared vision and mission that have helped foster their working relationship. “The longevity piece isn’t just the board or just the superintendent. In order for it to be dynamic, it has to be both,” Seckinger says. The two parties have an understanding that if they don’t agree on an issue, they don’t fight it out in public.

“Alvin is very savvy,” Seckinger continues. “On important matters, if he’s not certain of the board’s support for something, then we don’t deal with it. We work it to the point where we are in agreement about it. He’s famous for saying, ‘Sometimes slower is faster.’ ”

Despite the merits that stability brings, many might wonder why Gwinnett doesn’t rest on its laurels, or even stagnate. Wilbanks credits this to “a continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo.” He says the district is constantly asking questions like What if?, Could we?, and Should we? “The status quo won’t get you anywhere in the future. Education has changed,” says Wilbanks.

Closing the Achievement Gap

As evidence of this continuous improvement, the Broad committee noted Gwinnett has an ongoing track record for closing the achievement gap. Specifically, Gwinnett ranked in the top 10 percent of Georgia districts for black students scoring at the advanced proficiency level on reading, math, and
science assessments, as well as in the top 20 percent for low-income students. Wilbanks says much of this success is due to an instructional focus taught through the district’s Quality Plus Teaching Strategies. These dozen strategies are best practices that any teacher—from kindergarten through high school—should employ in lessons, including various methods of questioning and formative assessments.

Wilbanks also points out that the district’s range of Advanced Placement course offerings have benefited students of all backgrounds. In fact, the Broad team noted that 37 percent of Gwinnett’s juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam in 2013, landing them in the top 10 percent of Broad-eligible districts on that measure. Gwinnett students earned passing scores on 58 percent of the exams.

No matter what students score, Wilbanks says he believes the coursework better prepares them for college and beyond. “The more people you get to take AP courses, it’s a greater challenge to the average score. But does it benefit students? We think it does,” he says.

Homegrown Leadership

Maintaining academic progress rests largely on building-level leadership. Wilbanks saw a significant turnover in veteran administrative staff starting in 2000, mostly due to retirements, and he began succession planning that has paid off in the long run. Today, the district has its own Quality Plus Leadership Academy designed to prepare current employees to become future assistant principals and principals, as well as to keep present leaders up to date.

Marci Sledge, principal of Pinckney­ville Middle School in Norcross, was part of the first cohort of the Aspiring Principals Program, a subset of the leadership academy, in 2007–08. Participants attended sessions, some taught by Wilbanks himself, one Saturday a month. Though the program requirements have changed, Sledge says the focus is the same. “It’s about ensuring that the people who take over schools as leaders understand fully the level of expectation and the culture behind our system.”

The program also includes an important piece of principal training—an internship. Principal interns spend several months in a district school working directly with active principals to make day-to-day decisions.

New principals receive mentors for their first two years as well, typically a well-respected, retired principal from within the district. Sledge says this level of training is one of the most valuable things the district has afforded her.

“One of Mr. Wilbanks’s favorite sayings is ‘There are two types of people who work for our system, those who teach and those who support those who teach,’ ” she says. “He always adds, ‘You would not want to find yourself in a third category.’ The leadership academy is an integral part of continuing that level of clarity, vision, and purpose in our schools.”   

Wilbanks’s Dossier

Age: 72 
Base Salary: $276,714
Career Path: Wilbanks began his education career in Georgia’s DeKalb County Schools, where he served as a teacher, assistant principal, and then principal. In 1982, he was hired as Gwinnett’s director of vocational and technical education. He was appointed assistant superintendent in 1984, then became superintendent in 1996. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s in education, as well as an educational specialist’s degree.

Image: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/LANDOV

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