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Gwinnett County Public Schools will retain full accreditation; two areas of improvement identified by review team

The report from a review team looking into Gwinnett County Public Schools overall had good news for the district — GCPS will retain its accreditation. But it has also identified a couple of areas where improvements are needed by the county’s school board.

Cognia, the district’s accrediting agency, launched an investigation into GCPS’ accreditation in March after it received complaints about the district, which were mainly aimed at the school board. The team visited the school system in June to conduct interviews and to look into the allegations.

The results of that visit and investigation were released Monday afternoon.

“As a Board governance team and as a school district, we are accountable to our students, families, staff, and community,” Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Calvin Watts said. “In Gwinnett County Public Schools, we believe accountability is a good thing. It shares with our stakeholders the progress we make toward fulfilling our responsibilities and meeting goals that we have set.

“We will use Cognia’s findings and recommendations to improve. We know that this commitment and work toward improvement will benefit the school district, which ultimately benefits our students, schools, and community.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools Special Accreditation Review Report

The district was found to meet the standards set by Cognia for three of its standards of accreditation, and exceeding a fourth standard dealing with the allocation of human, material and fiscal resources to meet GCPS’s needs and priorities concerning the improvement of student performance and organizational effectiveness.

There were just two standards the review team felt the district needed work in, and both of those categories were listed as being in the “initiating” phase.

The two areas where the review team felt improvements could be made are aimed at GCPS’ school board.

“Based on the findings of the Special Review Team, Cognia concludes that the district will retain its current Accredited status while it addresses the Recommendations, Directives, and Improvement Priorities outlined in this Special Review Report,” the review team wrote in its report.

“A Progress Monitoring Review will be scheduled during the 2021-2022 school year to examine the progress made by the district.”

Issues concerning conducting of board meetings, policy review exist

The team said the board needs to make improvements in the areas of establishing and adhering to policies that are designed to support system effectiveness. It also said the board needs to adhere to a code of ethics and function within defined roles and responsibilities.

In the first area, the review team said there were issues in two areas. One involved uncertainly of when some district policies were last reviewed and updated and the other dealt with how well the superintendent performed the job of a parliamentarian. The complaints were sent to Cognia and site visit was conducted while J. Alvin Wilbanks was still serving as the district’s superintendent.

“In interviews, the team learned that the superintendent was serving as the board’s parliamentarian,” the report states. “Observations of board meetings confirmed that the Board did not always adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order when conducting board meetings.

“Also, during board meetings, the chair frequently consults the superintendent about board meeting processes and next steps. Professional development and training on Robert’s Rules of Order would provide the Board with the proper guidance and support to conduct board meetings in a more effective manner.”

As far as the issues concerning the review and updating policies, the review team said the policies list a date for when policies became effective, but does not list dates for when those policies were reviewed and updated. Some policies are listed as being effective 20 or more years ago — 45 years ago in one policy’s case — raising questions about whether some GCPS policies have been updated in decades.

“As a result, several policies with the most recent effective date of 1998 (i.e., Federal Aid, Naming New Facilities, and Summer Activity and Athletic Camp), at least three with the date of 1980 (i.e., Board Meeting Agenda, Board Meeting Minutes, and Membership in School Boards Association), and at least one with the date of 1976 (i.e., Student Accidents) need to be revised or updated,” the team wrote in its report.

“The Board tabled eight policies currently undergoing a review to allow the new superintendent to provide direction and feedback and the public to provide input.”

Concerns raised about board members behaviors

As for the standard concerning the code of ethics and functioning within defined roles and responsibilities, the team said district staff raised concerns during the site visit that some board members asked for information without going through the proper chain of command earlier this year.

Board members are supposed to submit requests for information to the superintendent, who will then forward it along to staff members to collect the information. In some cases, particularly in January, board members were listed as going directly to staff members to request information. The report does not identify which board members took those actions.

On Jan. 13, an unidentified board member asked for human resources data by the end of the day but did not explain why they were requesting it, according to the report. The report also lists an incident on Jan. 8, in which an unidentified board member asked for 10 years of data pertaining to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints and charges, including grievances that were filed, information on part-time employees and their salaries, and raw staffing data, such as certification status, student-teacher ratios and the number of substitutes by school, grade level and class. The board member wanted to receive the information within two days.

“Staff interviews validated that these types of requests occurred frequently, and staff members viewed such requests as directives from board members,” the team wrote in its report.

Other issues included a member of the board calling for a meeting on Jan. 3, to discuss the district’s COVID-19 response, and a board member sending an email on Jan. 5, asking for additional meetings about COVID response, a pandemic task force, former Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ contract, board policy review and a vote on board leadership.

The team also said in its report that some board members had not completed their required annual training by the time the site visit was conducted in June.

A Local School Board Governance Annual Training Report for fiscal year 2020 was signed on Aug. 12, 2020, before two members of the current school board — Tarece Johnson and board vice-chairwoman Karen Watkins — were in office. The training report included individual board members annual hours of training and included places for board members to sign affirming they did not have conflicts if interest.

Those documents are to be signed by the superintendent and sent to the Georgia Department of Education.

“From the review of documents, the team discovered that not all board members had completed the FY21 required annual training by the time of the Special Review,” the accreditation wrote in its report on GCPS.

Another area highlighted by the team pertained to stakeholders complaints about Facebook, YouTube and TikTok posts created by or shared by a member of the school board. Several parents have raised issues with items posted on social media by Johnson in particular — although the review team did not identify the board member in question.

“In an interview, the board member shared that the postings express artistic talent and are replications of others’ work,” the review team said. “Nevertheless, one of the videos contained unprofessional language and another had racially offensive statements and connotations.

“Additionally, stakeholders expressed concern about the content of a board member’s Facebook post. Stakeholders reported that the posts were inappropriate and promoted the board member’s self-interest. The team reviewed recorded board meetings ... and Facebook postings dated December 29, 2020, which were submitted to the team as evidence. The team discovered supportive evidence of the board member marketing personal business and soliciting funds from stakeholders.”

Where the board goes from here

The board has until May 2022, when a monitoring visit is expected to take place, to show it is in compliance with those two areas. The review team did acknowledge the board has already been doing some work, starting as early as February, to go through training on areas where the team felt improvements are needed.

Recommendations for improvement from the review team include: finishing work on and approving board meeting norms which are already in development concerning conflicts of interest, board roles and responsibilities, ethics and parliamentary procedures; develop and implement an assessment tool to self-evaluate how well the board is meetings its role and responsibilities; review current policies for ethics and conflicts of interest while requiring board members acknowledge they understand and will abide by those policies; seek training to build collegiality; set up a way to collect, review and use stakeholder perception data; conduct a thorough review of all board policies and procedures to make sure they comply with current state laws; bring in a trainer to go over Roberts Rules of Order with the board; and develop and communicate a formal process for approving board policies and procedures.

“We are excited to see that the recommendations Cognia suggested are initiatives our Board is already working on,” school board chairman Everton Blair Jr. said in a statement. “We look forward to growing and learning together as a Board governance team with our new superintendent.”


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After a year off because of COVID, the Gwinnett County fair returns Thursday

A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed plans for the 2020 Gwinnett County Fair, but fairgrounds manager Dale Thurman believes it could inadvertently boost this year’s fair.

The fair will kick off Thursday at the county fairgrounds in Lawrenceville. When it does so, it will mark the first time since September 2019 that Gwinnettians have been able to enjoy the annual fall tradition.

“We’re excited to be able to do it again so we’re trying to get everything where everybody can come out and have a good time,” Thurman said.

The fairgrounds was not unlike other venues around the world that had to close and cancel all events for a while last year because of the pandemic.

But, once the fairgrounds could reopen and resume holding events again, with health precautions in place, Thurman said there was an overwhelming response that gives him hope for this year’s fair turnout. Fair organizers anticipate a turnout of about 200,000 people — depending on the weather — during the two weeks that the fair is taking place, which would be on par with pre-pandemic attendance numbers.

“Since we have opened back up the weekend events, every one of them has been at record capacity so I feel like that’s going to continue,” Thurman said.

“People just seem to want to get out. I think we all got cabin fever over that time frame when we couldn’t (go out), so I feel like we’ll have a good turnout.”

And if the other events held recently at the fairground isn’t enough of an indicator for the fair’s turnout, there’s also the phone call factor.

“Just basing it on the phone calls we’ve been getting since the spring, every time there was some carnival in a shopping center or something, they thought we were in operation and they wanted to come right back,” Thurman said. “Just listening to phone calls, we think people are ready to get out and pre-sale tickets has gone real well so all of the early indications are good.”

The fact that the fair is returning this year became physically evident on Tuesday as workers were busy installing the rides, games, food and exhibit booths.

While large crowds are expected, Thurman said precautions will be taken to limit the chances of spreading the disease.

These precautions include recommending attendees wear face masks — although they won’t be required to do so — and also reducing the number of indoor exhibits to allow for social distancing in the exhibit halls. Seating will also be spread out at the Miss Gwinnett Pageant on Saturday night to allow for social distancing and keep people separated from each other.

“Everything else will be outdoors so that will keep people separated too,” Thurman said.

The exhibit area is also being changed out this year in partnership with the Georgia Department of Agriculture to highlight products grown in Georgia. This will be the first the Grown in Georgia exhibit has been seen outside of the Georgia National Fair in Perry.

“If we had to go through all of this, we’re glad we have something different to show folks,” Thurman said.

Thurman said the new exhibit will give fair attendees a chance to learn more about the foods grown in Georgia, essentially offering a lesson in what “farm to table” in this state looks like.

“It’ll be a bit educational and points out a lot of things that most people don’t know is part of the Grown in Georgia thing so we should create some interest with that,” Thurman said.

As tradition, admission to the fair will be free on Thursday for opening day festivities, but attendees will still have to pay for ride tickets, games and food. A $22 unlimited ride stamp will be offered on opening day, but the cost can drop to $20 if attendees bring a non-perishable food donation for local cooperative ministries.


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Residents begin to weigh in on their visions for future of Gwinnett Place Mall

Duluth resident Grace Pyen remembers a time when Gwinnett Place Mall was the big mall to visit in the northeast metro area.

She and her husband moved to the Atlanta area 40 years ago, and began shopping at Gwinnett Place not long after it opened in 1984. At the time, they lived in Dunwoody, but Gwinnett Place was the mall where they did all of their shopping.

“It was a very nice place,” Pyen said. “There was no place to park. (It was) jam-packed ... Then time passed by and it was dying. It was so sad.”

Pyen was one of dozens of people who went to the now shuttered mall on Friday to offer their opinion on what they’d like to see Gwinnett County government do with the mall site. The county purchased much of the mall, except for four anchor store spaces, earlier this year and is seeking public input as it works on plans for redeveloping the site.

The mall had been in decline for years with stores moving out and few tenants moving in to replace them. There were about a dozen stores left in the mall when the county closed on the property and shut down access to the interior of the shopping center.

These days only three of Gwinnett Place Mall’s anchors, all of which had their own entrances directly from the parking lot, are still open.

When the county purchased the majority of the mall property, elected officials pledged to solicit public input before deciding on a redevelopment plan for the property. An event in the mall parking lot on Friday night — which included food, bounce house games for kids and a viewing of the film “Minari” as well as public input stations — was the beginning of the public input process.

“This is really step one, this is kind of the first publicly-facing event that we’re hosting for this project,” said Eri Furusawa, the deputy project manager from HR & A Advisors, which is the firm working with county on a developing a plan for the site. “We’ve been preparing for this event for the past two months now.”

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said the county offered the free event, with children’s games and a movie, as a way of attracting a crowd to weigh in on the mall’s future.

“The goal really is to get a diverse range of voices and input and feedback to help us to craft a plan for this site,” she said. “We really want citizens to help drive and guide us as we make decisions on what the future of the mall is going to be.”

Some of the ideas that attendees at the public input event suggested for the mall property included a performing venue; a high tech business incubator; multifamily housing; affordable housing; a sports complex; a community center; an amusement park; an upscale local, non-chain dining district; a Dave and Busters-type entertainment business with a movie theater; teen spaces; green space; a museum; sensory exhibits; a gallery; and a cafe among other suggestions.

Pyen said she would like to see the bottom floor of the interior of mall continue to be used for retail, restaurants and live music spaces, but she would like to see the upstairs floor converted into apartments.

“People who live there could come downstairs and shop, and then they could invite people,” Pyen said. “That would be wonderful. Lots of people will line up for that.”

Pyen’s suggestion is somewhat similar to what was done with the nearly 200-year-old Arcade Providence, which is located in Providence, Rhode Island, and was America’s first shopping mall. A few years ago, the former shops on its top two floors were converted into micro-apartments while the first floor was reserved for shops, bars and restaurants.

Pyen said the business lineup, or at least the dining lineup, in such a set-up at Gwinnett Place Mall should reflect the diversity of the county. The Gwinnett Place area, in particular, is home to several restaurants that feature international cuisine.

“(It should have) international food, like Indian food, Korean food,” she said. “That way, we’d be able to attract more diverse people.”

Like Pyen, Lawrenceville resident Ron Skeete also remembers when Gwinnett Place Mall had seen better days. His family moved to the area in the mid-2000s and he recalled there still being many stores still operating in the mall.

“We came down here in 2004 and when we first got here, we were like, ‘This place is huge.’ It was bigger than most of the malls that we were familiar with in New York City,” Skeete said. “It was nice, but then we saw the decline.”

Skeete said he would like to see a mixture of different uses for the former mall. For starters, he would like to see part of the space converted into a community center for young people. He would also like to see part of the space used to create affordable housing and an international center where visitors could enjoy foods from around the world.

One thing that is for sure, Skeete said, is that it can’t be used to try to replicate what Gwinnett Place Mall had been in its glory days.

“If it stays a mall, if we keep the mall mentality, then I think we’re missing an opportunity,” he said. “You have, like, Atlantic Station right? (It takes) thinking a little bit differently about how we use this much space.”

Another public input event is expected to take place later this month, or in early October while a third event expected to take place sometime in October. The details of either event have not yet been hammered out.

Information about the Reclaim Gwinnett Place Mall effort can be found at reclaimgwinnettplacemall.com. Residents can also reach out to county officials by sending an email to outreach@gwinnettcounty.com. Residents can get updates on the planning process by texting “YES” to 678-605-9932.

County officials are also encouraging residents to share their ideas for redevelopment of the property on social media, with the hashtag #ReclaimGwinnettPlaceMall.


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Georgia Gwinnett College named south's most ethnically diverse regional college for eighth consecutive year

Georgia Gwinnett College is once again the most ethnically diverse regional college in the south, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The magazine gave GGC the top spot in its ranking of ethnically diverse southern regional colleges in its annual college and university rankings, which were released on Monday. Smaller schools, like GGC, are considered regional colleges as opposed to larger public and private schools such as the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, which are counted in the magazine’s rankings as “national universities.”

The rankings are based on data from the fall 2020 semester.

GGC had 11,627 students last fall, with 33% of the being Black, 27% white, 25% Hispanic, 11% Asian, 4% multi-ethnic and less than 1% listed as either Native American, Pacific Islander or unknown. This is the eighth year that GGC has ranked No. 1 for ethnic diversity among southern regional colleges.

The school said 75% of its students last fall were from Gwinnett County, with the remainder coming from 32 U.S. states and 120 countries.

But, diversity was not the only area where GGC was ranked high by U.S. News and World Report.

The school was ranked No. 3 in the Top 20 Public Schools category, as well as No. 3 among southern regional colleges in the area of innovative approaches to curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology and facilities. Last year, GGC ranked No. 4 in innovation. GGC officials also said the school was named a “top performer” for social mobility and it ranked No. 58 among the best public and private regional colleges across a 12-state region in the south. It was the highest ranking school from the University System of Georgia in that category for regional colleges.

There was one new ranking for GGC this year. U.S. News and World Report began ranking nursing bachelor degree programs for the first time this year and GGC was ranked No. 12 among 23 programs in Georgia.


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