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Wilbanks: GCPS will be state leader

DULUTH — Gwinnett County Public Schools will be a leader for the state as it works to implement Georgia’s Race to the Top plan, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said Wednesday.

The school system was one of 26 that partnered with the state on the plan. The districts will receive half of Georgia’s $400 million prize to pilot initiatives in four reform areas. The state will study the effectiveness of those practices and use the other half of the prize to scale up those that work.

During his annual State of the School System address at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce’s monthly meeting, Wilbanks explained why he partnered with the state in a federal initiative that critics have called the “race to the bottom” or the “race to nowhere.”

“Certainly, Race to the Top is something that I feel very good about,” Wilbanks said. “It’s something that this school district has been looking at doing for a number of years.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition is a competitive grant program created to encourage and reward states that are creating conditions for education innovation and reform, specifically implementing plans in four reform areas:

• Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the work place and to compete in the global economy

• Building data systems that measure student growth and success and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

• Recruiting, preparing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most;

• Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

Ultimately, Wilbanks said, all of those reform areas are things the school system was already doing or is interested in doing.

As for the first reform area, Wilbanks said Gwinnett County Public Schools has been a standards-based system for years. School officials believe all students should meet standards and that assessments are needed to measure how well students are doing so.

The second area deals with effective leaders, and Wilbanks said the two jobs in the school that have the most impact on what students do are teachers and principals.

The third area is a longitudinal data system that would allow schools to measure students’ growth in achievement from one year to the next. Currently, schools compare this year’s third grade with last year’s third grade, Wilbanks said.

“It’s not totally ineffective, but the only problem with it is that you hope last year’s third-graders are now in fourth-grade, so you’re making a comparison with different students,” Wilbanks said. “The data system will allow us to actually measure growth during a particular year. In other words, what has been the school effect? What has been the teacher’s impact on the students in that grade level?”

In the fourth area, Gwinnett doesn’t have any schools in the category of low-achieving schools under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

“However, if you can hear me and hear me well, every school district has its lowest achieving schools,” Wilbanks said, “and those are going to be the ones that we’re going to be working with.”

Additionally, Wilbanks said the school system is working on its strategic priorities for 2010 to 2020.

“We believe this document will be something that will allow us to continue to focus on the main thing,” he said. “The main thing is what we do to educate our children.”