With 173,828 students, the Gwinnett County school system is the largest in Georgia, and is the 13th largest in the country. Its student body is 31% black, 28% Hispanic, 27% Caucasian, 10% Asian and 4% other races. Its superintendent, Alvin Wilbanks, delivered the annual State of the School System address today to a lunchtime meeting of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. After presenting some facts and figures about the system, Wilbanks talked about several initiatives the system is rolling out, all related to student learning.
Wilbanks talked about the career academies now being offered at five of the system’s high schools. These academies let students choose from studies that are focused on a specific career path, for example, Business and Entrepreneurship, Medical and Health Care Sciences, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Law, Education and Public Service, or Fine Arts and Communication Professions. While some academies will lead to a traditional baccalaureate college education, others will lead to further education in a technical school or perhaps a community college. Wilbanks expects these academies to be rolled out to additional high schools in the coming years.
The system as also begun a dual language immersion program. In this program, students spend half their day learning in classes taught in English, and the other half of the day learning in classes taught in a foreign language. The program is being piloted in two of the system’s elementary schools. In one, the foreign language is Spanish, while in the other, it’s French. Especially for those in the early grades, an immersion model may be the best way for a student to become proficient in a language besides English.
The district continues to expand its E-Class initiative, where coursework is distributed electronically to computers, laptops and tablets. Wilbanks told the audience that E-Class expands the walls of the classroom, and provides an incentive for students, who are not intimidated by computerized learning, to do additional classwork outside of school grounds.
The final initiative will roll out in the fall of 2015, when a new high school opens. Within that high school, the system will have a school of entrepreneurship, with enrollment open to middle school students within the entire system. Gwinnett will use the Junior Achievement Biztown model to teach these students entrepreneurial skills.
Superintendent Wilbanks also addressed an issue he expects the Georgia General Assembly to consider when it meets again in January–the school funding formula embodied in the Quality Basic Education Act. The formula is used to determine the amount of money distributed by the state to local districts, and is based in the number and type of students enrolled within a district.
QBE is underfunded by $1 billion in 2014, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Wilbanks fears the formula will be tweaked to match the amount of money available to spend on education, rather than considering other ways of funding education.
On Monday, Wilbanks will be in New York City. He’ll be at the Broad Foundation, which will announce the winner of the 2014 Broad Prize for being the best urban school district. Gwinnett is in competition with the Orange County, Florida school system for the honor. Winning the prize would mean $750,000 in scholarship money for the system’s students. Gwinnett schools won that prize four years ago, which made the district ineligible for the past three years. The fact that it is one of two finalists in the first year it is eligible again is in part because of innovative educational projects like those listed above, and is in part a testament to Wilbanks’ 19 years as superintendent.