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.”