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Archer High School's Lee Allen named Gwinnett County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year

Algebra and TikTok.

They don’t necessarily seem like two things that go together, but that didn’t stop Archer High School algebra teacher Lee Allen from challenging his students to find a way to bring the two together. The result were videos of students dancing while they sang inventive songs that they wrote about algebraic equations.

And, it sprang from Allen just wanting to try something different and inventive to make them want to learn math.

“That was just finding a way to give the kids a creative outlet,” Allen said. “Georgia State University actually picked it up and using it as a creative writing thing for their doctoral students.”

It’s creativity like the merging of algebra and TikTok that Gwinnett County Public Schools officials cited as they named Allen as the district’s Teacher of the Year and High School Teacher of the Year during a ceremony at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center on Tuesday night.

All 139 school-level teachers of the year were recognized during the ceremony although only the top 25 candidates for the district-wide honors were recognized in person at the ceremony, culminating with the naming of Allen for the district-wide honor.

“I’m really just humbled and shocked,” Allen said after the ceremony ended. “I never thought I’d be here. I wasn’t sure I’d be the school-level teacher of the year just because there’s so many great people I work with at my school, much less representing over 12,000 teachers. It’s mind-blowing to me.”

When Superintendent Calvin Watts announced Allen was GCPS’ Teacher of the Year, the educator dropped his head in his hand for a moment as he tried to take it all in before he stood up, hugged his wife, Mia — who also teaches algebra at Archer — and walked up to accept the award.

“I started meditating,” Allen said. “I read this book called ‘5 a.m. Club,’ and I wake up at 5 a.m. and as part of my wake-up routine, I’ve been meditating, so I was trying to embrace the moment, recognize what was around me and do the things I learned in meditation to just kind of process the moment and also enjoy it.”

Allen has been a teacher for eight years, with the last three spent in GCPS. He began his career in education at Northwest Whitfield High School in 2014 after a career in the business sector and then arrived at Archer, where he teachers algebra to freshmen, in 2019.

Allen is also the assistant coach for Archer’s varsity wrestling team. As a coach, he has student-athletes participate in community service projects that range from building homes for Habitat for Humanity, cleaning a local animal shelter and sitting and talking to residents at a local nursing home.

Allen said he tries to teach his students and wrestlers that the most important thing they can do is to try and do the best they can in anything they attempt.

“When I walk through the door, I’m the best teacher I can be; when I walk in the wrestling room, I’m the best coach I can be; when I’m at home, I’m the best husband and dad I can be,” he said. “I challenge my students and my athletes to do the same: to do the best that they can in everything they are doing because otherwise, you’re just wasting your potential.”

As he accepted the recognition at the ceremony, he had a message for his fellow educators who may be struggling with stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic: hang on.

“If you work in education and you’re struggling, hear me, you’re not alone,” Allen said. “However, I’m still here. If you’re still in education, you’re still here. The good news is that while many of us considered leaving, most of us haven’t yet.

“The education system is being stretched, but it’s not broken. I believe, if we can work together as a community, we can improve many of the issues that we’re currently facing in education.”

Archer Principal Ken Johnson said it was no surprise to him that Allen earned the district-wide honor this year. In fact, he said people around the high school had been predicting their colleague would receive the honor.

Johnson praised Allen’s ability to come up with unique ways to teach kids about math — something Allen attributes to being married to an educator who he can brainstorm with. The principal said that played a large role in why it makes sense to him that Allen was a logical choice for GCPS Teacher of the Year.

“He’s super creative and engaging with his students,” Johnson said. “When you visit his classroom, you know right away that the kids are well aware of how much he cares about them and cares that they’re successful.”

In addition to Allen being named the district’s overall Teacher of the Year and the High School Teacher of the Year, Arcado Elementary School’s Jamie Garcia Caycho was named the district’s Elementary School Teacher of the Year and Berkmar Middle School’s Taniesha Pooser was name the Middle School Teacher of the Year.

Other finalists for the District’s Teacher of the Year award included Puckett’s Mill Elementary School’s Kelly Powell, North Gwinnett Middle School’s Jenny Stark and Brookwood High School’s Erin Thompson.

As the district’s Teacher of the Year, Allen receives a $1,000 annual award for as long as he is employed by the district, as well as a laptop, a crystal peach, a $500 grocery store gift card, a gift basket, a commemorative ring and a one-time $2,500 cash award. A $3,000 donation was also made to Archer High School.

Caycho and Pooser each received $750 a year for as long as they work for GCPS, and a laptop, for being named the elementary and middle school teachers of the year.

Buford state title centerpiece

Buford’s football team won its third straight state championship Friday night at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium, pulling out a 21-20 win over Langston Hughes. With the win, the Wolves’ Bryant Appling became the first head football coach in Georgia history to win a state title his first three seasons as head coach.

State Senate panel takes up nonpartisan school board elections

ATLANTA — Making school board elections in Georgia nonpartisan would help reduce the divisiveness that has roiled school districts in the pandemic era, a series of speakers primarily from Gwinnett County told state lawmakers Friday.

A Georgia Senate study committee is considering whether to support legislation to require school districts statewide to make school board elections nonpartisan.

More than 100 of Georgia’s 180 elected school boards are already nonpartisan, and a bill introduced in the Senate during the recent special session would switch the Gwinnett County Board of Education from a partisan to a nonpartisan board.

The Gwinnett parents who testified at the state Capitol Friday complained that the local board has become more partisan since the last election, when the board shifted from entirely Republican to majority Democrat.

Quarrels over mask mandates and curriculum have taken attention away from quality education, said Michael Rudnick, a North Gwinnett parent.

“Our school system has been hijacked by politics. It’s very divisive,” he said. “If we can take partisanship out of it, we could be more focused on success for our children.”

Two of those who testified Friday were arrested at a Gwinnett school board meeting last month at a security screening area outside the board chambers.

Brenda Stewart of Suwanee described herself as a fully vaccinated moderate who opposes mask mandates based on her research as a nurse.

“I think the pandemic is part of it,” she said. “The partisanship is not helping. … We are not coming together.”

Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association, said her organization has long supported making school board elections nonpartisan.

“Children are not Democrats or Republicans,” she said. “They’re children there to get an education.”

But Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, policy and outreach director for the group Public Education Matters and a former Atlanta Board of Education member, questioned imposing nonpartisan elections statewide. She said local school boards already have the legal right to switch from partisan to nonpartisan if they choose.

“Our local communities know our local communities the best,” she said. “This isn’t something that needs to be done at the state level.”

The study committee will hold a second meeting next Thursday at Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville.

Frustrations emerge among Gwinnett County commissioners over redistricting as meeting with legislators looms

Gwinnett County commissioners are heading into a meeting with local legislators on Monday under a proverbial gun.

Commissioners are still early in the process of drawing up a redistricting map, with only two of the four district commissioners having held public input meetings and some future meetings scheduled as late as January.

But, while the commissioners may have a variety of issues they want to talk to the Gwinnett legislative delegation about this week, their lobbyist, Joel Wiggins, said redistricting is the only topic the legislators have wanted to talk to him about.

“I think there’s no doubt in my mind that, at our delegation meeting on Monday, there will be a lot of focus put on the progress we’ve made (in drawing maps) and where we’re at,” Wiggins told commissioners this past week.

The commissioners discussions amongst themselves and Wiggins about redistricting revealed from frustrations among members of the county’s governing body about where they are in the redistricting process and where they need to be.

Wiggins told the commissioners that Republican leaders in the General Assembly want the legislature to prioritize the approval of redistricting maps early in the 2022 legislative session that begins next month. The goal is to have the maps approved, signed into law by governor and in place in time for qualifying week for the 2022 elections.

And, qualifying week will start at the beginning of March.

“That puts us on a timeline where they are going to address them at the front end of the session ... to try to get everybody’s local maps through as quickly as possible,” Wiggins said.

Gwinnett’s lobbyist told commissioners that most of the other counties in Georgia are on track to have preliminary maps ready for review by the end of this month.

The problem is that, as of early this past week, Gwinnett county had not begun work on even preliminary redistricting maps that used data from the 2020 Census to show how population growth over the last decade could impact new boundaries.

Half of the district commissioners said during their redistricting conversation this past week that they didn’t even know the county had received the new population data from the U.S. Census Bureau two months ago.

“This is a bunch of crap,” an exasperated Commissioner Jasper Watkins said. “I’m just going to put it like this. I’m getting so sick and tired of this not knowing, kind of, maybe we do or we don’t. What do we have? What can we do and why can’t we do it?

“If we have the data to do it, if we have everything we have, if we have the software and we have the new precincts, then why is it that we don’t have (a preliminary map). What am I waiting on?”

Commission Vice-Chairwoman Marlene Fosque said she too had not been aware, before Tuesday, that the county had received the population data.

“I never received confirmation from the staff that we had (received the data),” Fosque told Commissioners Kirkland Carden and Ben Ku. “I know you guys had worked on that, but I haven’t seen anything saying, ‘Let’s move forward on this.’ “

Ku said staff had been trying to get software that would enable them to use the data to draw maps. New voting precincts had to first be drawn as well, but Ku said those have been drawn by now.

The county is using its own GIS team to draw new redistricting maps, with the goal being to incorporate both population data and feedback from residents about what they want to see in new maps.

That differs from the process which is being used by the Gwinnett County Board of Education, who is working with the Georgia Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office to draw up a new map for school board districts.

By working with the reapportionment office, the school board is saving time because any redistricting map that is drawn up for county commissioners or school boards in Georgia would have to be approved by that office before it can be introduced as legislation in the General Assembly.

But, by drawing up the maps internally, Gwinnett County government is facing a more protracted process.

The process the county is using, including holding public input meetings that did not begin until mid-November, means those meetings have to be completed before a final proposed map can be drawn up. That map would then have to be submitted to the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office for review by its staff.

Once the map is approved by the office, the county could then get a member of the Gwinnett legislative delegation to introduce it in the General Assembly for approval.

The issue is that process will take some time to complete, meaning a map may not be ready to introduce in the legislature until some time in February.

If the county doesn’t have a map ready quickly, the delegation could decide the commissioners waited too long and decide to draw up maps themselves.

“Several members of the delegation have mentioned that they do have opinions on what they think it should look like,” Wiggins said. “I think most of them do want us to have the first opportunity, but there have been comments that if we’re not able to satisfactorily address it, then they will be assisting in that.”

There is already a proposal that state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, tried to float during the General Assembly’s special session that would have more than doubled the number of commission districts and redrawn the boundaries without input from the commission.

That effort stalled and has been sent back to the Senate’s State and Local Government Operations Committee for further review, but there is nothing stopping Democrats in the delegation from drawing up a map on their own if the commissioners drag their feet too long.

State Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, was in the room during the commissioners discussion on Tuesday. She said she felt the commissioners should have the opportunity to draw up the maps, but she also said the maps would ideally be ready soon.

“We should have something, some type of draft soon, at least I would say by January would be a good starting point,” Merritt said. “By the first of the year would be great. That’s just my opinion and as we talk in the delegation, some might have other ideas.”