Growing school system gives students world-class education

DULUTH - Gwinnett County schools have never been larger or more diverse.

There are 152,044 students enrolled in the school system, now the 14th largest in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of the students are white, 26 percent are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are Asian.

Despite its size, the school system's people, performance and relationships are giving Gwinnett students a world-class education, Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said Wednesday during a Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Wilbanks said school systems nationwide face myriad challenges: limited revenue, increasing diversity, changing technology, international competition and "an erosion of the common agreement of what public education is and what it should do."

"Every student needs quality achievement in education," Wilbanks said.

Gwinnett's test scores continue to top state and national averages, and Wilbanks said the school system is making strides in closing the achievement gap, which is the difference in academic performance between different ethnic groups. Even a four-point increase in average SAT scores is significant, he said.

"Folks, the gap has always been there," Wilbanks said. "We are doing everything we can to close that gap."

Teachers use the Academic Knowledge and Skills curriculum and Quality Plus Teaching Strategies, Wilbanks said.

"It's not just enough that most teachers use them," Wilbanks said of the teaching strategies. "We want every teacher to use them in every classroom every day."

All of this is important to business leaders because the school system is a major driver of economic development, Wilbanks said.

The school system will continue to grow. By 2010, the school system is expected to have 174,000 students. The district also has "The Plan," which will result in the construction of 27 new schools by 2012 and a redistricting that will create three new clusters.

Most of "The Plan" plans to use money from the third education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which appears on the Nov. 7 ballot. Voters will be asked to renew the SPLOST, which is a 1 cent sales tax on every purchase made in Gwinnett County.

The school system is not allowed to spend money to support the initiative, but Wilbanks told the Chamber about the school system's need for the money.

"The school system has depended on you, the business community and the parents, for getting the word out," Wilbanks said.

Mike Levengood, the chairman of the 2007 Education SPLOST Renewal Committee, spoke at the Chamber on Tuesday to campaign for the passage of the referendum.

"We believe investing in our schools is important, and that it's a smart investment in our kids," Levengood said.