MURPHY: GCPS an example for great school districts

Mary Kay Murphy

Mary Kay Murphy

We sat in the first row of the Gund Garden Lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In front of us, inches away on a raised stage, sat Philanthropist Eli Broad, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NBC anchor Brian Williams and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

To our left was Philanthropist Edythe Broad, who along with her husband has sponsored the Broad Prize for Best Urban School System in the Nation for nine consecutive years. Districts cannot apply or nominate themselves. They are judged on publicly available student performance data, site visits, interviews, and classroom observations and a stellar selection jury.

Each year, the Broad Foundation awards $2 million in scholarships to the five largest school districts that demonstrate strong student achievement and improvement while narrowing achievement gaps between income and ethnic groups. The money goes directly to graduating high school seniors for college scholarships.

Moments after 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Duncan took the podium and began the countdown for the 2010 Broad Prize for Best Urban School System in the Nation. A staff member brought an envelope to Duncan. He opened the flap and reviewed its contents.

At stake was $1 million in scholarships to be awarded to graduating seniors in the Class of 2011. Four of the finalist districts would receive $250,000 in scholarships. In 2009, Gwinnett County Public School system was also a finalist for the Broad Prize and received $250,000 in scholarships for 13 students in its Class of 2010.

Our Gwinnett delegation and the rest of the packed room were hushed as we heard Duncan begin the roll call.

"I will announce the name of the 2010 Broad Prize winner last." he said.

"Ysletta," Duncan began. Superintendent Mike Michael Zolkoski came forward.

"Montgomery County," Duncan intoned. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast advanced to shake the secretary's hand.

"Socorro." Again, Duncan spoke and another superintendent, Xavier De La Torre, came forward and shook Duncan's hand.

With only two names of school districts left to be announced. I said a silent prayer, "Dear Lord, please don't let him call Gwinnett's name."

In what seemed to take forever, Duncan looked out at the audience and called one of the two remaining district's names.

"Charlotte-Mecklenberg," he said. Superintendent Peter Gorman advanced and shook the secretary's hand.

That left only one to be called. "Gwinnett," Duncan said.

Amidst gasps, shouts, near screams, intense applause, joyous smiles and controlled revelry, we watched as our superintendent, Alvin Wilbanks, advanced to the stage in front of us, shook hands with Duncan and, with no notes, thanked those who had brought Gwinnett so very far on "The Road to Broad."

It was a time of great pride for all in Gwinnett, but for no one more than Wilbanks. This award was about leadership. It was about vision. It was about courage.

On that day in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, the moment was all about a native of Jackson, a school man through and through, a leader who loves his county and his country, a plain-spoken man who loves teaching and learning, with an emphasis on learning.

"Districts across the country should look to Gwinnett County as an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students," Duncan said.

Eli Broad said, "Gwinnett County's stable leadership and singular commitment to ensuring every student has the skills and knowledge to be successful in college and in life makes it a model for other districts around the country."

Mary Kay Murphy represents District 3 and is the chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Education.