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Progress in Gwinnett: The Next Ten Years - Education

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Alvin Wilbanks, Sharon Bartels	and Dan Kaufman

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Alvin Wilbanks, Sharon Bartels and Dan Kaufman

Heather Darenberg: What direction do you think education in Gwinnett County is headed in the next decade?

J. Alvin Wilbanks: We have basically three initiatives that we're going to be looking at over the next three years. One of them is we're really going to address our leadership development issue. We're going to look at our teacher development issue, because those two positions have the greatest impact on student achievement -- the classroom teacher and the principal. We need to make sure that those two positions are well equipped.

Now that work of the class is changing to some degree. There's a lot of discussion today about national standards. We look favorably toward those. I know anytime you start talking about national standards, a lot of people get a little antsy about that. But I don't know how algebra can be any different in Georgia, California, Maine or Washington. Algebra's algebra. But ... if you're going to do national standards, you'll probably need to do national assessments. ... I do think ... national standards, national assessments are something to look at. The third thing we're looking at is to update our strategic priorities for the system. How should we, as an organization, be three, five, 10 years out? While no one really knows, I think there are some things that we have to plan for. You not only plan for the future, but you try to impact and influence that. Those will be some of the things we'll be doing.

Sharon Bartels: In our case, we have our Life Sciences building that is breaking ground in April. So that's the big project on our mind, is getting that up and built as soon as possible so we can serve more health science, life science students. ... We'll be able to serve about 1,700 more students when we get the new building open.

When we look at the people who are interested in taking health science programs with us, 92 percent of them we're not able to serve. The fact that we're only able to serve a very, very small segment of the population concerns us, so we are looking at most of our rapid expansion being in health sciences and life sciences in the next three to five years. ...

Really our next big goal, when we look out three to five years ... we see another campus. By that, I don't mean another satellite location, necessarily, but another full-service campus. When we finish the Life Science building and build a couple of decks, we may have room for one more building, but beyond that, the infrastructure will not support it.

Daniel Kaufman: We are trying very hard to respond to the notion that there's value added to going through one of our educational systems. What we're focusing on is student success. We're an access institution. As you know, we're basically open enrollment. And so it doesn't matter how many youngsters come in the front door. It's how many go out the back door. We have focused our student success programs on ensuring that those youngsters we're fortunate enough to get we keep or we send them along to other higher educational institutions. ...

We're standing up a couple of major programs. One is teacher ed. We want to be the teacher provider of choice for Alvin and his remarkable school system, and we've had a liaison committee working with the Gwinnett County Public School system that has helped us design our teacher ed program. ...

And we're working on the nursing program as well. As we work our way through those foundational and accreditational requirements, we want to partner with Gwinnett Tech, because as Sharon said, they've got an associate degree in nursing, and health care is huge for them and is going to be huge for us. We're going to provide a bachelor of science in nursing, and we're going to be complementary to the program that Sharon runs.

But really all of us are about preparing creative and flexible problem solvers for the next 20 and 30 years, so that this county can continue to be the really engine of growth for this part of the state that it has been for the last 30 years.

HD: What are some challenges you think you all will face as you move forward into these next 10 years and even beyond that?

DK: For us, as the new kid, we're still trying to become part of the DNA of the community. My colleagues are both recognized as the very best they do in the state and in the nation in terms of their respective domains. As we say around here, no one ever grew up saying they wanted to go to Georgia Gwinnett College. So we're still in the process of name recognition, as it were, and brand identity.

We're trying to create a quality product so that people say, "Even though it's new and doesn't have a football team, it's a worthwhile educational experience, and you really get value for your dollar."

AW: I think both short- and long-term, we are facing right now an immediate challenge. We unveiled in 2006 the 2007-2012 building program. At that time, we were growing 7,000 students a year. We're no longer growing 7,000 students a year. So we're in the process now of refining our building plan. Do we need to build 37 schools? If so, do we need to build them on the schedule that we had originally planned?

One sort of peep into that is the answer is no. We probably still need to build them; we just need to push them out a little further. We haven't taken a single project off that list. ... So we're beginning to try to get a handle on ... the scope of those. ...

Why that's important, we obviously fund that through the sales tax. We will have to have to have that sales tax renewed in, probably, 2011. ... One of the pieces of that is to just be able to communicate to the public that we are good stewards of the taxpayer dollar, which is getting to be less. ...

Another immediate challenge that we have is obviously how do you manage through this recession and come out at the end maintaining your good financial ratings? .... Every tax source is down. You begin passing things on to the user, and you can only do so much of that. While we want to, always, protect the integrity of the instructional programs, at some point in time, you just can't keep cutting and putting off without having an impact.

SB: I think all of us can say our operating budgets are of great concern to us. You can, as we've seen, get some capital outlay through bond financing, but the operating budgets are frightening. Dan and I have talked about it in higher education. There just doesn't seem to be as much support, federal and state, for higher education. ... Since community colleges have only been around about 150 years, people tend to disregard them very, very quickly.

Even before the recession, and it started on the West Coast, we saw a state start giving less and less of their dollars to their two-year colleges. There are some states right now -- Colorado, New Jersey, Michigan come to mind for sure -- I believe Colorado this next fiscal year will have no state money for two-year colleges. None. So even when the recession comes back, I think we may be looking at a very different model for funding based on what's happening across the country.

AW: I think, Heather, one of the things we often forget ... in education -- it does take money. I think we, the three levels, probably take up -- probably around 52 percent of the state budget. But if you think education is costly, you need to try to look at the opposite sometime. What does ignorance cost?

And I don't mean that everybody doesn't have a degree. It's the fact that education is the one thing that will allow us to be a player on the world scene. ... We do need to make sure that wherever we need to have people that can be a part of that creativity and innovation at the global level. ... When you begin backing off of that commitment, even just keeping up is a pretty good race, but when you start backing off, catching up becomes almost impossible in today's world.

DK: I mean, it really was universal education that made the United States the world's leading economic and political power. Sharon raises a good philosophical issue. ... In times of economic difficulty, the argument is, well, the user ought to pay. The levels of state support will be limited in that the families of the people who go to our respective institutions should pay more of the burden in terms of running our institutions.

And that's an interesting philosophical question. How much should the state pay versus how much should the individual pay? In our case, 64 percent of our students already get some form of financial aid. We've got youngsters who are already struggling to pay for their college.

The argument that I make is that cost should never be a reason not to go to college, that somehow we've got to figure out how to ensure that all the parts of society, as Sharon said, have access to the programs that we offer, so that we don't have a significant part of the population that is simply not competitive. That, as Alvin pointed out, is a losing proposition.

HD: Why do you all think it's important for you all to work together as you move forward in this decade?

AW: Education is cumulative. I'm not so sure the kindergarten teacher doesn't have about as much to do as what a student makes on the SAT as the high school teacher. You can say that at any level. If a student's having issues at third grade, unless that gets corrected, they're going to continue to have issues. ...

Most every job now requires some education and training beyond the high school level, as well as all of the other professional fields that really require graduate, postgraduate degrees. All that's important.

Plus, just the old American fundamental belief that we all have that we ought to be able to at least have the access and opportunity to be whatever we want to be. So you don't want to limit people; you want to provide people with options. Everybody that you see in the seventh grade doesn't necessarily know what they want to do, maybe not even in 10th grade, but we want to make sure they have the option once they do to do what it is they say want to do.

SB: I'm going to say in Gwinnett, we're really the only ones that really know how to do higher ed in the manner it should be done. It does not have to be that way. If there was a president at Georgia Gwinnett that was not of the character of my colleague here, they would be offering a lot of two-year degrees. ... We don't duplicate services. And I don't know if there's another county around that has that understanding and that lives by it.

So the programs that Dan starts, we talk about it. Yeah, our faculty committees work on the details of it, but I know that if we start a cardiovascular technologist program at Gwinnett Tech and it's a two-year program, then it's going to transfer into a four-year radiology program. We know that's going to happen. And Dan's not going to be trying to teach the same things we're teaching two miles up the road, because, my goodness, there's not enough public money as it is. So duplication of services is a real disservice to taxpayers. You know, we have to have each other to do what we're supposed to do.

DK: The very first person I went to see when I got this job was Sharon, and I said we're going to be teammates. We're not going to compete for students, we're not going to compete for programs. ... We have a very extensive articulation agreement for kids that come from Gwinnett Tech to us.

On the flip side, candidly, the director of admissions for both of our institutions is Superintendent Wilbanks. ... He is, obviously, the source of our overwhelming majority of our student body. ...

As Sharon pointed out, we spend a lot of our resources in our student success programs, getting youngsters ready to succeed. In an environment of restricted resources, those are dollars we'd rather spend somewhere else.

So, you can see that education is integrated. ... It's important for us to operate that way, so that the families and students of Gwinnett County really get the maximum benefit of the educational opportunities they have here.

HD: Do you think there's room to grow on both ends of the spectrum, both with early childhood education as well as graduate school, here in Gwinnett in the future?

AW: I think we have a golden opportunity to do that. Not all of it's going to be done in the public arena. A lot of it will be done in the private arena as well, early childhood. There's a lot of that that happens. But I think what we're talking about it making sure that there's access for all children. ...

I, for one, happen to believe the faith-based community is doing a good job but could do even a better job and maybe we need to work with them more closely to help them do that, particularly at the early childhood level. I also think they can offer things after school and at other times that can enhance what goes on.

Certainly, I think the future here is unlimited at the postsecondary level and I think, you know, we sit here with Georgia Gwinnett, a new college, and we have services on either side of us, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. It's a golden opportunity here that will be limited only by how well we're able to integrate and put things together.

DK: There are already graduate programs in Gwinnett County. The University of Georgia runs an extensive list of programs here. Of course, we have world-class universities within -- I'd say, easy driving distance, maybe easy helicopter distance, depending on traffic. The educational opportunities really are unlimited. We even have our own medical school here in Gwinnett County, PCOM. It's an extraordinary range of possibilities.

All of us as a community need to make sure people understand the opportunities that they have and take advantage of them. Ultimately, it's a shared responsibility. Our job is to provide the programs and the resources and the facilities. Our students' job is to the work. That's part of the shared responsibility that everyone needs to understand across the board in Gwinnett County. That's why the community is so important for the success of all of us in terms of helping our students really achieve what they can.

SB: That whole lifelong learning ... it's become trite, because people say it so much, but it really is something that I would like to see instilled in our county. A lot of people have been forced into realizing right now during the recession. Our second largest growing demographic at the college is those over 40. Of course, they've already had jobs, and many of them already have bachelor's degrees or whatever, but they're out of work. It's OK to realize ... it's even better to realize it before it's an emergency, but everyone owns their own educational development of their education. Unlike what we've had in the past, where you did whatever you were going to do and then you stop, everybody's going to have to keep going back over and over and over again if they are going to remain relevant in the work force.