Superintendent's Address: State of the School System 2008

Superintendent's Address: State of the School System 2008

On September 10, 2008, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks shared the following remarks with members of the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce during his annual State of the School System address.

I appreciate and value the collaborative relationships we have with the business community and the county government. It is true that Gwinnett is great and success does lives here. I see daily the commitment of those of you in this room and across the county who value the quality of life we enjoy in Gwinnett County, and are willing to work and sacrifice to keep it. I am glad to be in your company.

We would all agree that the current economic times make it ever more important that we keep economic development as a focus in the county. GCPS is keenly aware of how critical a role we play in the county’s economic development efforts. That is why we embrace the Partnership Gwinnett initiative and continually strive to improve how we deliver education so as to ensure that the K-12 system meets the needs of all students and is always responsive to the workforce needs of our community.

The current realities we face make what’s been done in GCPS over the 12 years the Board and I have been the governance team more and more significant today. To illustrate, let me begin by contrasting the school district of 1996 with the GCPS of today:

- 84,555 students enrolled in 1996 versus almost 158,000 in 2008; although with the economic slowdown we have seen a slowing of the growth in the last two years, we still are adding between 3,000 and 4,000 students a year;

- 73 schools in 1996 and 114 today;

- System was 81% White, 9% Black, 4% Hispanic, 6% Asian, and a fraction over 1% Other in 1996, compared to 36% White, 27% Black, 22% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 4% Other, as of May 2008;

- The FY96 total budget was $566 million, compared to $1.6 billion in FY08.

- In 1996, we had just developed a new rigorous, comprehensive curriculum, the Academic Knowledge and Skills or AKS, and were beginning to implement it in our classrooms. Today the AKS curriculum, reviewed and revised every year with citizen input, has stood the test of time and become a model for many curriculum improvements at the state level.

- Twelve years ago, the Gateway Assessment Program was just a concept. It would be four more years before it was fully operational. The Gateway tests were successfully implemented and are in use today as a reliable measure of what students know and can do.

- In 1996, we were in the early stages of crafting the Results-Based Evaluation System (RBES), our strategy to link school and principal evaluations to results primarily in student achievement. In 2008 RBES is being used with ever-greater effectiveness in assessing the impact of school leadership and the “school effect” on student achievement.

- Growth was still a challenge in 1996 because we had not yet reaped the tremendous benefits of having a sales-tax-funded capital program, and growth kept coming. GCPS was well on its way to becoming the state’s largest school system. We still have growth today but spend much less time and effort managing it because we can build and equip the schools we need thanks to voters’ support for SPLOST and bond referenda. We are moving steadily forward with “The Plan,” our strategy for addressing our capital needs looking out to 2014. We opened three new elementary schools this year, along with replacement facilities for Lanier Middle School and Benefield Elementary. Next year we will open nine new schools and one replacement facility for Dyer Elementary. Among those schools will be two new high schools, Archer and Mountain View, and the number of clusters will grow to 17. In 2010-11, another eight new schools come on board, including Lanier High School and our 18th cluster.

- With Atlanta hosting the Olympic summer games in 1996, we began to feel the impact of having a large international student population. People from all over the world came to Atlanta to work or to compete. They liked what they saw, and many stayed. Since then our diversity has increased substantially every year and that has called us to provide more targeted instruction to ensure we are providing all students what they need. GCPS became a majority- minority school district in January 2004, and today, close to 20,000 students are served in classes for students with language barriers.

- In 1996, there was no preparatory program for principals that offered the caliber of training and development we knew we’d need in future leaders. So we developed our own. Today we are preparing our future principals through our Quality-Plus Leader Academy to lead and manage schools in the 21st century and we are seeing the caliber of new leaders rise exponentially. The second class of the academy graduates in December, and I am highly impressed with their leadership talents, skills, and knowledge.

- 1996 was pre-No Child Left Behind so we still dealt primarily with aggregate test scores that camoflagued the achievement gap that existed among groups of students. Today we have a robust data collection and reporting system that puts crucial information about every subgroup’s and every student’s performance in the hands of those who must plan for each child’s success.

Looking back on the improvements that began in 1996, we see the enormous impact they had on what we are doing now in 2008 and the positive results we have achieved year after year. Since 1996 the district’s strategic direction has remained constant— our core business is teaching and learning and we intend to do it better in GCPS than anywhere else. We have stayed the course established a dozen years ago that has proven to be the right course for a large, dynamic, growing school system— and a course that has been worthy of the efforts of thousands of employees who have had a stake in making this school district what it is today, as well as community that has always expected quality education and has supported it.

Why all of this history matters, of course, is that it impacts student achievement— and that is the point. So in 2008, how is performance in this school district that is larger, more diverse, and more economically poor? There has been a lot about test results in the news lately so I will just hit some high points today.

- This year, all but four of our schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind, our best year ever.

- Our students’ performance on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests continues to be strong, as evidenced by the AYP results.

- At the high school level, Gwinnett students earned a record-high average score on the ACT college-entrance exam, topping the national average once again.

- Our students continue to be state leaders on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests, and we are seeing increased participation in Advanced Placement courses every year, with more and more students making a 3 or better on the rigorous AP exams.

- As happened with the state’s average, Gwinnett’s average composite score on the SAT dropped slightly for the class of 2008, although we still surpassed the scores for the state and the nation. The system average of 1521 topped the state’s score of 1466, and the national average of 1511. We continue to see the gap getting narrower between the average scores for our White students and for our Black and Hispanic students, whose scores have seen great gains in recent years.

In summary, student achievement in Gwinnett County Public Schools remains high, but we know we can do even better. In fact, we MUST do better. Public education has its shortcomings, and we are no exception. One major area for improvement— here and across the state and nation— is the high school completion rate, or graduation rate, whichever you prefer to call it. In this day and age, any student who does not finish high school is an economic liability. We know that to be a fact. The “Economics of Education” report by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education makes it clear that a student who does not graduate from high school will have a negative impact on everything from the economy to our healthcare systems to social services to the criminal justice system. A person who doesn’t finish high school is less likely to vote, volunteer, or participate in civic activities, and he or she is much more likely to be a single parent.

Society presents extraordinary challenges to our young people in the form of influences that undermine the discipline and sacrifice that are required for being well educated today. We cannot eliminate those distractions— we can only do the best we can with students in the time we have with them in school. For that reason we have to do all we can to engage them in their learning— both what and how they learn. We know the school effect is important, but we also have to look outside the classroom for assistance in meeting the community’s expectations and delivering the education every child, every future worker, needs. We also know that a child’s first teacher and best teacher remains the parent and we appreciate that. Our goal must be to put a high school diploma into the hands of every student we serve. And that means we must continually work on making our schools relevant and responsive to many different kinds of learners.

Over a year ago, the Gwinnett County Board of Education identified and affirmed in Board policy the school improvement strategy that we have been refining since 1996. I shared it with you last year at this event. It is called a theory of action for change, or specifically “managed performance/ empowerment.” Simply put, it is holding every school accountable for student achievement and allowing those that are getting the desired results to earn more flexibility and control over the factors that influence their work. We are moving to fully implement the theory of action this year. At the Board and system level, every aspect of the school system will be focused on our improvement strategy— meaning that we will be a “coherent organization” that is capable of implementing but more importantly sustaining our improvement strategy.

One concern I have is that external influences could make that coherent organization more difficult to create. I strongly agree with the recent findings of the “Public Education Leadership Project” out of Harvard University’s Business School and Graduate School of Education. The PELP study contends that the district office plays an essential role in supporting reforms and improvements in school districts. But the role must be redefined from what many perceive it to be— a bureaucracy that is a barrier to changes that can make schools more effective. That mindset is pervasive, especially among lawmakers in our country and here in Georgia. So policy decisions are made that seem to be intent on removing, or at least neutralizing, the impact of the district office.

But schools cannot do the work alone. Even the Edison Project, a major proponent of charter schools, has determined that something resembling a district office is needed after all to support the work that goes on in classrooms. Removing obstacles, providing resources, and offering assistance to principals as they lead their schools to improve— that’s what district office staff should be dedicated to doing. That is the role we are promoting and insisting on in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

I believe we are capable of having a successful improvement strategy that is implemented in every school and supported in every way at the district level. But we must be allowed the flexibility to do some things differently. That is why we are excited about the possibilities offered school systems this year through the creation of “partnership contracts” as recommended by the Governor’s task force on Investing in Educational Excellence or IE2. The contracts, authorized in the 2008 General Assembly, allow local school systems to request increased flexibility from state laws, rules, and regulations in exchange for achieving agreed-upon accountability measures for student achievement. We look forward to being one of the first systems in the state to enter into a partnership contract with the State Board that will free us up to implement our improvement strategy without some of the restrictions that currently keep us from being able to make the best use of our resources— from time to personnel to funding.

Absolutely essential in making this partnership contract work, however, is having the flexibility the law promises. I have been meeting in recent weeks with members of the Gwinnett Legislative Delegation to have candid discussions about what we need from the 2009 Legislative session, and, as importantly, what we don’t need. I initiated the conversations so that we both could understand that they can help education continue to improve across this great state— it needs to— without hamstringing the systems that are doing a good job and are on the right track. With the partnership contract, we would be freed from mandates and rules that have little to do with improving student achievement. And we would have the ability to direct our funding and other resources to the areas where it will do the most good. We believe we can make remarkable strides in increasing the performance of Gwinnett’s schools and students as a result.

What I heard in my meetings with delegation members is that some of the key issues in the 2009 General Assembly session will be familiar ones: tax reform, revenue caps, charter initiatives, vouchers, and choice, including universal choice as recently announced by Sen. Eric Johnson. It will be another interesting legislative session. I applaud the Chamber for launching the Public Policy Council this year as a means of communicating and working productively with the delegation to encourage legislative action that will be helpful to our schools and communities.

On a personal note, I want to thank so many of you who have expressed your support for me and the school system during the media hype of the past few weeks. I know for some of you, it was uncomfortable not knowing the full story or how I really felt. Let me assure you that I am OK and doing well. What really matters is that every child gets a quality and effective education. That is my agenda.

We aren’t perfect, never have been, and never will be. However, we are far better than we are given credit for in certain circles. I often reflect on a comment made by columnist George Will that in our country there is a growing number of people who weigh every word seeking to be offended. I think we see too much of that today. I think we need to concentrate on our work and our commitment to achieving our mission of becoming a system of world-class schools.

I take consolation in the fact that those who know about the performance of the school district are aware that we have made much progress dealing with a student enrollment that has not only grown in numbers, but also has increased in diversity at a phenomenal pace. Our achievement scores for African-American and Hispanic students surpass both the state and the nation. We are committed to their success academically and behaviorally, and are proud of the record we have amassed in those efforts. Frankly, I have been an educator for 45 years and have never felt the need to discriminate or to be insensitive to any individual or any group of people. All the attempts to make what I said to appear racist or insensitive will not make it so.

As I expressed to the parties making those accusations, if you really want to help students— all students or a targeted group of students— you need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Making divisive, incorrect statements and accusations is being part of the problem. I encourage these individuals to work with us, and we can make even more progress than we have in the last several years. At the same time, I do not intend to stop talking about the real issues confronting us as we try to ensure every child a quality and effective education. I will not be intimidated by those who are seeking to be offended. I will continue to focus on what unites us— a commitment to educating every child well– not on what divides us.

Again, I thank you for your support and your commitment to make Gwinnett a great place to live, work, raise your family, and educate your children. We look forward to welcoming many of you as participants in the fifth annual Principal for a Day Program in November. Check the Chamber’s web site for application information.

We are off to a great start in 2008-09 and expect this to be another excellent year of teaching and learning in Gwinnett County Public Schools. Our students deserve it, our parents demand it, our business community counts on it, and we will not fail to deliver. We have a remarkable culture of success on which we intend to keep building. Your support and involvement in our efforts to provide a quality and effective education to every child are deeply appreciated. Gwinnett IS great, and success DOES live here… and we all can be jointly proud of that fact.