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Gwinnett school board officially hires Calvin Watts to be GCPS' new superintendent

Calvin Watts is officially coming back to Gwinnett County Public Schools — starting Monday.

Watts — who spent more than a decade working in the district as both an assistant principal, principal and central office employee — was unanimously hired by the Gwinnett County Board of Education on Friday afternoon to become the district’s new superintendent. The 52-year-old is also a history-maker for GCPS because he is the first African-American to serve as superintendent of Georgia’s largest school district.

Watts left GCPS in 2015 to become the superintendent of the Kent School District in Kent, Wash., and he continued to hold that job until Friday’s vote.

“It feels wonderful (to be back in GCPS),” Watts said. “I’ve shared this before that I grew up personally in Washington state, but I grew up professionally when I relocated to the southeast and served 13 of my 29 years in education in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

“I could not be more honored, more privileged to begin my tenure effective Aug. 2 as the next superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.”

The school board approved a two-year contract, with a base salary of $380,972, to have Watts serve as the district’s leader, but that figure increases to $413,372 a year once transportation and expense allowances are factored in.

“I’m super excited to have Dr. Watts here,” board member Steve Knudsen said. “I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Board Chairman Everton Blair Jr. added, “I’m looking forward to the work that we’re able to continue in this school system.”

Watts’ employment contract is structured so that his base salary will change Jan. 1 of each year to match the percentage increase in the average teacher’s salary from the previous fiscal year to the current one.

The district will also reimburse Watts for moving to Georgia, but the maximum reimbursement is capped at $29,500. This will cover packing and unpacking costs, storage costs, moving and transportation costs, as well as temporary housing costs for up to three months.

The contract is set to expire July 31, 2023.

Employment contract for new Gwinnett school Superintendent Calvin Watts

Watts will have a tall order ahead of him as the first new superintendent for Gwinnett County Public Schools in a quarter of a century.

He replaces outgoing Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who led GCPS for 25 years.

Friday was also Wilbanks’ last day on the job. At a farewell gala for Wilbanks on Thursday, the now former superintendent expressed confidence in his successor’s abilities to lead the district.

“He’ll do well,” Wilbanks said.

In addition to replacing Wilbanks, Watts will also be starting his new job two days before students head back to school for the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. GCPS will begin the school year with a staggered start for in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, while it may sound like Watts is jumping straight into the fire with such a major event happening in the district during his first week, he said he’s ready to get to work.

“I choose to look at it this way: I’m an only child, I grew up in a high reliability household and my dad was in the military and my mom was in the health care field,” Watts said. “If something went wrong in the home or something didn’t go as we planned, and my parents didn’t do it, it was probably me that needed to fix something or do something.

“So, I’ve always been able to take a look at a situation and not look at it from a deficit model, but to say ‘What is it that we need to do differently?’ “

Watts acknowledged that leading GCPS — which has about 180,000 students — won’t be easy, but he said it will take everyone, including the district’s leaders, staff and the community as a whole to make sure Gwinnett’s students are successful.

“My goal is to lead in the way that I always have, first with the motto that ‘We must all reach and teach our children as if they had our last name,’ and secondly that we lead with the understanding that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are what we aspire for, should aspire for, all of our students, our staff members and our families,” Watts said. “And, when we do this well, we’ll be able to show that our students will succeed and they will thrive.”

But, while Watts has worked in GCPS before, he acknowledged that six years have passed since he left the district to become the superintendent of the Kent School District.

As a result of that time passage, he said his initial priority will be to get reacquainted with GCPS and the area, and to learn about the changes that have taken place in the county since he left and what the needs are now in 2021.

“The reality is I am rejoining Gwinnett County Public Schools in a new role, as superintendent,” Watts said. “My first, and major priority will be to look, to listen and to learn. This is the tour that I actually be undergoing for the first 90 days of my tenure to make sure that I understand the context of what’s working (and) what areas need to be improved.”

And, people were already lining up Friday night to make their voices heard on what they think Watts should do as superintendent. Within minutes of the board formalizing his hiring, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a statement calling on him to make student discipline reform a priority of his administration.

The SPLC has represented students in several exclusionary discipline cases where the district’s discipline decision was overturned by courts of the State Board of Education.

SPLC staff attorney Claire Sherburne said Black students, for example, make up 32% of the student population but 46% of all disciplinary actions taken by the district. By comparison, she said White students make up about 21% of the student population but account for just 13% of discipline cases.

“Through his role, Mr. Watts has a crucial opportunity and obligation to reverse the district’s dismal track record on school discipline,” Sherburne said in the SPLC’s statement. “And, we echo the community’s calls to make it a top priority from day one.

“We also are counting on Watts to hold the Gwinnett County school board accountable to its promise to overhaul the student code of conduct, including eliminating policies that discriminate against students of color, LGBTQ youth and students with disabilities. The students and families of Gwinnett County have waited long enough for change. They deserve access to evidence-based discipline policies and practices in which all students can thrive and succeed.”

Gwinnett Daily Post earns top honors for Page One design, best Sports Section and education reporting in annual Georgia Press Association contest

The Gwinnett Daily Post earned three first-place honors in the Georgia Press Association’s 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, including top honors for Page One design, best Sports section and education writing.

The Daily Post, which won 15 awards overall, also earned a general excellence designation, placing third in that category. The awards were handed out Friday night during the GPA’s annual convention held at Jekyll Island.

Senior reporter Curt Yeomans placed first in education reporting and also won third-place honors for business writing, feature writing and for best photo gallery on the web.

Kristen Hansen placed second for headline writing, Sports Editor Will Hammock placed third for best Sports photo and Taylor Denman (education writing) and Chamian Cruz (breaking news) also earned third-place honors.

In addition to placing first for layout and design, the Daily Post placed second for both local news coverage and Community Service. The paper also placed second in the Best Website category and earned a second-place award for its Lifestyles coverage.

The Daily Post competes in Division A, for papers with a circulation of 8,000 or more.

The Brunswick News won the General Excellence Award in Division A, while the Valdosta Daily Times earned the General Excellence Award in Division B and the Walton Tribune placed first in Division C. The Valdosta Daily Times also won the prestigious Freedom of Information Award for the fourth time in five years.

Gwinnett Chamber fetes J. Alvin Wilbanks ahead of his last day as superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools

When outgoing Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks wakes up Monday morning, it will be the first time in decades that he hasn’t had to think about how his decisions will impact the education of students.

But, that doesn’t mean Wilbanks — whose last day as the superintendent of Georgia’s largest school system is this weekend — will be able to sleep in and relax when next week rolls around and GCPS is preparing for the start of a new school year without him at the helm.

“Monday will be that first day and I have a dental appointment at 8 o’clock, so I hope the dentist is easy on me,” Wilbanks said as he let out a laugh.

A parade of tributes and gifts were bestowed on Wilbanks on Thursday as the Gwinnett Chamber hosted a luncheon at the Gas South Convention Center to honor his career in education. It was also the outgoing superintendent’s 79th birthday.

Wilbanks has led GCPS for just over 25 years, a rare feat in an era where — according to a 2018 report from the Broad Center — the average length of a superintendent’s tenure in a “big district” is six years.

“Mr. Wilbanks got involved in the school system and it turned into the greatest school system in the United States,” Gwinnett Chamber President and CEO Nick Masino said. “I firmly believe that. If it’s a Gwinnett thing, I always say it’s the greatest, but it really is (in the school system’s case).”

The luncheon was one of the last functions Wilbanks participated in before his last day as GCPS’ top official. The county’s Board of Education voted earlier this year to terminate his employment contract 11 months early, setting Saturday as his final day on the job, although Friday will be his last day in the office.

“It was very humbling and very heartwarming,” Wilbanks said. “I’m very thankful that this many people would want to show up for a luncheon. They’re great people.”

Speakers at the event included former Gov. Roy Barnes, Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson, United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Denise Townsend and Gwinnett Municipal Association Executive Director Randy Meacham.

Hendrickson presented Wilbanks with a proclamation declaring Thursday to be J. Alvin Wilbanks Day in Gwinnett County while Townsend presented the United Way’s Child Well-Being Champion Award to him.

“Under Mr. Wilbanks’ leadership, Gwinnett County Public Schools — the 13th largest school system in the country — has repeatedly been recognized as one of the nation’s best,” Hendrickson said. “Our schools are a key reason for this community’s success and for the high quality of life we enjoy.

“I am grateful for Mr. Wilbanks’ service to this county and for the exceptional education that many of our children, my son included, have experienced in Gwinnett County Public Schools.”

A 13-minute video was played which highlighted Wilbanks’ rise in education, including teaching at Tucker High School, working for the Georgia Department of Education, serving as the first-ever president of Gwinnett Technical College and finally serving as GCPS’ superintendent and CEO for a quarter of a century.

In the video, former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and other people who have worked with Wilbanks over the years talked about his impact on education.

Isakson talked about how the Gateway program in GCPS helped served as a model for the federal No Child Left Behind program in the early 2000s. Isakson also said he considered Wilbanks to be a resource and said that former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama respected Wilbanks.

“When issues came forward, I’d go to Alvin,” Isakson said. “I considered him my resource to tell me what would really work and really wouldn’t work. He’s been an outstanding beneficiary to the entire educational process in Washington. George Bush respects him, Barack Obama respects him, the people of Georgia respect him and I respect him.”

Wilbanks was Georgia’s Superintendent of the Year in 2005 and GCPS won two Broad Prizes for Education — in 2010 and 2014 — under his leadership.

Wilbanks said the success that GCPS students have had over the last 25 years is what stands out to him about his time as superintendent.

“They go to schools all over the country or other countries (and) those that chose to go into a career after their K-12 education do well,” he said. “That’s the standard I think we have to measure — how successful are our students — and we have a lot of students that are super successful.”

Several speakers attributed the success of Gwinnett County Public Schools’ students to Wilbanks’ leadership.

“He has taken the fastest growing system, one of the fastest growing in the nation from time to time, (and) fashioned it into an educational institution,” Barnes said. “Not only that, he has confronted issues that many of us never had to confront.

“Who would have thought the largest school system would have to worry about whether the kids could come to school or not?”

Barnes added that Wilbanks was his “right hand in education reform” in Georgia when he was governor 20 years ago.

But, Wilbanks said he did not do it alone. He explained that the district’s staff — whether they be teachers, principals, other school-level staff or central office officials — also had a role to play in student outcomes.

“I’ve done my best and leadership is important,” Wilbanks said. “I’ve always tried to be a leader that people would be proud of and could follow. If people aren’t following you, you’re not leading. You’re out for a stroll.

“But, you know, we have a lot of great employees in this school district. They make a difference every day and I appreciate that.”

The outgoing superintendent said he hopes his legacy, the thing he’ll most be remembered for, is that “we had a school district that recognized the needs of students, the community, parents and we did a good job in most instances meeting those expectations.”

But, in meantime, with GCPS beginning the 2021-2022 school year on Wednesday, Wilbanks said will have to adjust to not having the burden of worrying if things are going well in Gwinnett’s classrooms on the first day of school.

“I’m sure I’ll have some degree of withdrawal pains, but other than that, I’m proud for our people,” Wilbanks said. “They’ll carry on ... You know you’ve got to prepare for the future and we have people that are ready to carry on.”

Gwinnett County schools to again require face masks in school facilities, on buses

More than 200 parents and community members — and a candidate for governor — gathered outside Gwinnett county Public Schools’ J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center Friday night to protest the district’s decision this week to reinstate a mask mandate for the system’s students and employees.

The district announced plans Tuesday to reinstate the face mask mandate after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance earlier in the day that said people should wear face masks, even if they are fully vaccinated, because of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

Gwinnett County Public Schools former Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, whose last day was Friday, announced masks will be required in GCPS facilities and on school buses. The requirement applies to all students, staff and visitors regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The facts and recommendations are clear… masks do make a difference and we must do all we can to keep students in school, in person,” Wilbanks said.

The decision to reinstate the mask mandate in Gwinnett schools reignited a debate that had seemingly ended with the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year and led to a stand off at the school board meeting in May when several parents refused to comply with the previous mandate.

One of the leaders of a group of Gwinnett parents who have been pushing back against mask mandates, critical race theory and other issues told parents gathered for an anti-mask rally at the ISC on Friday that district leaders have been served with a writ of mandamus explaining that parents will file a lawsuit against the district if the new mandate is not rescinded.

The parents are getting some support from officials in the political arena, including state Sen. Clint Dixon and Republican gubernatorial candidate Vernon Jones, who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp for the GOP’s nomination in 2022.

Jones, at one point, cited John Lewis’ “Good Trouble” slogan and said he was willing to get arrested.

“I don’t want these babies to be in a mask all day long,” Jones told the crowd. “It’s uncomfortable for them. It’s basically child abuse.”

Gwinnett parents are being given until Aug. 2 to decide if they want to change their reference for how their child will be taught this semester, meaning whether they want their children taught in-person or digitally.

The district is telling families to contact their local school if they want to make a change in how they prefer to have their children taught.

“We realize this does not allow families a lot of time to make this decision, but we must have this information by this date to ensure schools are staffed appropriately to serve students and student schedules are finalized prior to the start of school,” Wilbanks said.

The move to require masks in school comes as case numbers continue a sharp rise in Gwinnett County. The two-week new COVID-19 case rate in Gwinnett has more than quadrupled in less than a month, with steady increases each week.

On Friday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported that there had been 1,342 new COVID-19 cases in Gwinnett alone in the last two weeks. That was up from Tuesday — the day the mask mandate was announced — when the state reported 1,055 new cases in Gwinnett County in the preceding two weeks.

By comparison, Tuesday’s number itself is up from the two-week total of 642 new cases as of one week earlier, on July 20, 409 new cases for the two-week period ending July 13 and 304 new cases for the two-week period ending July 6.

Gwinnett leads Georgia in total cases since the pandemic arrived in the state in March 2020, with state health officials reporting a total of 89,765 cases, 5,397 hospitalizations, 1,136 confirmed deaths and 80 probable deaths in the county.

District officials said their primary concerns was the health and safety of students and staff. Other reasons why they chose to reinstate the mask mandate was that was they felt it was important for students to be in school but elementary and younger middle school age students are ineligible to get vaccinated at this time while several students and staff members who are eligible to be vaccinated have chosen to not do so.

The district also cited CDC and other health partners who have pointed to mask wearing, even by people who are vaccinated, as a key mitigation tool. There has also been a federal executive order that requires students wear face masks on school buses, GCPS officials said.

GCPS officials did say, however, that students who are in close contact with a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19 does not have to go into quarantine if both students have been wearing face masks.

If either of them have not been wearing a mask, however, and quarantine is necessary, the students have to remain in quarantine for up to two weeks.

“While disappointed that the school year will start with masks, GCPS is very happy that its students will be starting the school year in person,” district officials said in their announcement.

“Please know that district leaders will continue to monitor for new guidance from the CDC, health partners, and the state, using it to make updates throughout the 2021–22 school year.”

New GCPS Superintendent Calvin Watts said he is willing to hear the concerns raised by parents who do not want the mask mandate to be in place. Watts takes over the district’s leader on Monday.

“What I am hearing is that they are not appreciative of having their students, their children, to wear masks,” Watts said. “What we’re saying is that ... we need to rely on the expertise of those who are in the (epidemiology) field at CDC, that’s providing us the guidance that we’re following.

“At which time the guidance needs to change based on our metrics, our numbers, we will watch the signs, we will watch the information and the data.”

District officials said there will be mask breaks at the schools and the school leaders will be reaching out to their staffs about scheduling those breaks.

Kids will be allowed to take their masks off when they are outside, during lunch and during mask breaks and students who participate in band and physical education activities will be given times of the day when they don’t have to wear masks.

The district also said it will make accommodations for students and GCPS employees who cannot wear masks because of documented medical reasons such as sensory issues, asthma or other pulmonary conditions.

“A layered approach is needed to keep our students safe and in school,” Wilbanks said. “Masks are one of the tools proven to be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. It is time for us to mask up and take advantage of vaccination opportunities to help our community get past the pandemic.”