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State's largest school district has 'small-town' feeling

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Moore Middle School principal Lamont Mays makes his rounds during an open house at the school earlier this week. Mays, a former assistant principal at Osborne Middle School will lead the opening of Moore Middle when classes begin tomorrow.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Moore Middle School principal Lamont Mays makes his rounds during an open house at the school earlier this week. Mays, a former assistant principal at Osborne Middle School will lead the opening of Moore Middle when classes begin tomorrow.

In a district where student population is higher than anywhere else in the state, officials with Gwinnett County Public Schools aim to keep their students from feeling like just a number.

When more than 162,000 students walk into class Monday morning for the first day of school, they can relax, said school board member Mary Kay Murphy. They’ll be “in good hands.”

“While we are the largest system in the state, it’s important that we meet the individual needs of every one of our students,” Murphy said. “That’s our goal, and I think special thought and care goes into building relationships with students and their families.”

BY THE NUMBERS

162,459: Projected number of GCPS students for the 2011-12 school year

1,700: Projected number of new students to GCPS

133: Number of GCPS facilities, including 77 elementary, 26 middle, 19 high and 11 special schools

The key to those relationships, Murphy said, is the cluster system.

For nearly 20 years, Gwinnett County Public Schools has used geographical boundaries, called clusters, to help determine attendance zones.

Twin Rivers Middle School Principal Linda Boyd is a firm believer in the cluster system, but she likes to think of them as communities.

“I believe it gives everybody a sense of identity,” Boyd said. “It’s a source of pride. It’s a way that parents and schools and students and teachers can come together as a partner and really have a successful area.”

Boyd’s school is part of the Mountain View Cluster, one among 18 in the district.

School board member Carole Boyce said the cluster concept is “a very, very powerful force.

“It supports the whole idea of a small-town atmosphere,” Boyce said. “This way, you have a number of small-town atmospheres, and it’s a good way to manage a system that big.”

Boyd agreed. As a former principal at Snellville Middle School, she has seen the system at work in two separate clusters.

“When the community is involved with the school, and the school is a natural part, a natural fiber of the community, you’re going to have a lot of success, you’re going to have a lot of pride,” Boyd said.

She said it also allows her staff to pay attention to the details, “the little things that make a difference to help people feel welcome, to be an inviting place, a place that’s safe for the children and one that’s focused on our core business of teaching and learning.”

When all the clusters work together, it makes a system as large as Gwinnett prosperous, Murphy said.

She’s seen the system at work for nearly 20 years in her time with the district.

“It’s a successful way to educate when you’ve got a system this large,” Murphy said. “In Gwinnett, students are more than just a number. We strive to look out for every one of them.”

In preparation for Monday, officials with the district have hired 534 teachers. There are 1,700 more students this year than last year as the system’s population continues to rise.

New schools this year include Moore Middle, Gwinnett County Online Campus and Ivy Preparatory Academy.