Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Willbanks, right, shakes hands with Bruce Reed, the Broad Foundation Present, during the Gwinnett County Public Schools Broad Award celebration at the newly renamed J. Alvin Willbanks Instructional Support Center on Tuesday in Suwanee. (Staff Photo: David Welker)
SUWANEE — When Celeste Wilbanks, the five grandchildren and great-granddaughter showed up, it was officially a big deal.
A big party reached another level at the very end of an evening celebration that turned out to be unscripted for almost all of the 1,400 attendees. In a suprise announcement on Tuesday evening when the latest Broad Prize was awarded to Gwinnett County Public Schools, the Gwinnett County Board of Education named the Instructional Support Center in honor of CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.
Wilbanks, who has led the school district since 1996, knew it was coming at some point, but the timing was a surprise. Most of the senior district leaders were not aware. Only Chief of Staff Berney Kirkland and Chief Operations Officer Danny Jardine were aware that the naming would happen on Tuesday.
“I was thrilled,” said Celeste, Alvin Wilbanks’ wife of 50 years, who doesn’t attend many public functions. “This kind of sums up every thing about him. … I thought it was just perfect.”
The Board members said they considered naming a new school after Wilbanks, but chose the ISC because it represents the district overall — a sort of umbrella effect.
Wilbanks said he was honored and humbled by the honor.
“I love this school district, I love this county,” said Wilbanks, who called it a ‘wow evening’ even before his naming announcement was made. “My family means everything to me. I didn’t know my wife and my two daughters were here. I should have realized that when the grandchildren were here. When you get to be a grandparent, grandchildren are special, and they know they’re special to me, and I certainly appreciate them being here.”
Before the Wilbanks announcement, the evening featured remarks from an alumnus, teachers, administrators, local and state elected officials and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
State School Superintendent John Barge called Gwinnett a “shining star for the state of Georgia,” and the best thing he could do at the state level is, “get out of Alvin’s way.”
State Rep. Brett Harrell read a commendation from Gov. Nathan Deal before a video message from Isakson was played for the crowd.
“I’ve never known a more dedicated, committed, humble public servant than Alvin Wilbanks,” Isakson said. “I think winning this award is a tribute not just to him, but the entire public school system, the community and Board of Education.”
It was a celebration not often seen in the Board Room at the ISC. Some said they’ve only seen the room converted to serve appetizers and light refreshments when the school district wins the Broad Prize.
It was the second time since 2010 that GCPS won the award, and it was also named a finalist in 2009.
The Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation annually awards the Broad Prize for Urban Education, considered one of the largest education prizes in the country, to honor school districts that demonstrate educational improvement, especially for low-income students and minorities.
This was the first year since the prize’s inception in 2002 that the review board named only two finalists, instead of either four or five. Districts cannot apply or be nominated for the award, and winners are not eligible for three years following a win.
Gwinnett is the second two-time winner of the Broad. The Houston Independent School District won in 2002 and 2013. It was announced last month that GCPS would share the $1 million in prize money for college scholarships for graduating high school seniors with Orange County (Fla.) Schools.
Gwinnett’s total prize winnings since 2009 is now $1.75 million toward college scholarships.
The scholarships pay $5,000 a year for four-year schools and $2,500 a year for students attending two-year schools and are aimed at students who have shown improvement in their grades over time. When GCPS was a finalist in 2009, 13 Gwinnett seniors received scholarships, while in 2010 that number was 52.
Members of the selection jury in September said Gwinnett was chosen because of steady, sustainable gains. Some of the main reasons that Gwinnett was in the running were achievement and college entrance exam participation by low-income and minority students.
The foundation determines 75 of the nation’s largest urban school districts based on Census data of urbanity. At least 40 percent of students in those districts must be low-income, meaning they receive free or reduced lunch. In Gwinnett this school year, 57 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“This is your prize, you’ve earned it and you deserve it,” said Bruce Reed, president of the Broad Foundation. “You make it look easy, but let me tell you it’s not. You’re competing against the biggest cities and districts who spend twice as much per student as you do. This is a victory that means something, and it means everything to the students you teach and families you serve.”
In 2013, 88 percent of Gwinnett’s seniors participated in the SAT, including 90 percent of the district’s African-American students and 70 percent of Hispanic seniors. This compares to an eligible district average participation rates of 43 percent for African-American students and 40 percent for Hispanic students.
A greater percentage of low-income students are reaching advanced academic levels in Gwinnett than in other districts in Georgia. In 2013, the percentage of Gwinnett’s low-income students at all education levels (elementary, middle and high school) performing at the highest achievement level (Exceeds) in reading, math and science ranked in the top 20 percent statewide compared to other low-income students.
For example, 33 percent of Gwinnett’s low-income middle school students reached the advanced academic level on the state math assessment compared with 19 percent of low-income middle school students in the rest of the state.
School Board Chairman Dan Seckinger credited the students for making the event possible, and also said the board members were in awe and humbled about the accomplishment. Then he looked ahead.
“While today is truly incredible, tomorrow is another day,” Seckinger said. “We can’t rest on the successes of the past. Yesterday is in our rearview mirror, and while we would be foolish not to enjoy this moment, likewise we would be foolish to think we have arrived.”