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Alvin Wilbanks

When J. Alvin Wilbanks became superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools almost fifteen years ago, no one would have called the district “urban.” Many of the schools were nestled in semirural communities or suburban subdivisions.

But a tsunami was on its way. Gwinnett became one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. Today, its schools are 32 percent white, 29 percent African American, 25 percent Hispanic. More than half the students receive lunch subsidies. It is the nation’s fourteenth-largest school system. This fall, Gwinnett Schools won a $1 million prize for “urban” districts from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Gwinnett has performed an educational miracle: raising achievement within a growing and more economically disadvantaged student population.

Between 2006 and 2009, Gwinnett increased the participation of minority students in Advanced Placement classes, raised their SAT scores, and reduced the achievement gap. Wilbanks credits the district’s “rigorous and comprehensive” curriculum, professional development for teachers, and a supportive community. Many credit Wilbanks himself, though his strong leadership style has also sparked numerous controversies. Wilbanks began his educational career in 1964 as an industrial arts teacher, and after administrative stints, he helped found Gwinnett Technical College. The experience taught him what the business community needs from educators.

Gwinnett is building large schools, even while education experts tout the benefits of small ones. With growth of 5,000 students a year, the district simply has no choice. Gwinnett will also claim a share of Georgia’s $400 million Race to the Top funds—unlike Cobb and Fulton, which didn’t apply.

In 2009, Gwinnett was the first Georgia system to receive flexibility from state mandates, including class-size limits. It also sued the state, calling state-approved charter schools “an unconstitutional erosion of local control of the public schools.”

“We are not anti-charter,” says Wilbanks, noting that Gwinnett has three charter schools. Charter schools, he says, simply need good business plans.

The Broad Prize will provide college scholarships for needy Gwinnett students. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Gwinnett “an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students."

Illustration by James Carey