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GA: District fares well in weathering change

Summary: Bracing for a change in demographics before it actually happened helped this district plan accordingly. As a result, community involvement is at an all-time high and student achievement levels are consistently raising.


Gwinnett County Public Schools didn't need a weather vane to know which way the wind blows. A decade ago, the district anticipated that major demographic

District characteristics
Name: Gwinette County PS
State: Georgia
Type: Urban
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 135,392
Students per teacher 15.7

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 34%
English language learners: 8.1%
Students with disabilities: 11.5%
White: 46.6%
Black: 22.8%
Hispanic: 17.5%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 9.8%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.1%
Other: 3.2%
Source: School Matters.com
changes would take place in the largely white, upper-middle class district. By getting in front of the challenges right from the start and involving the entire community, Gwinnett County school leaders kept achievement levels high and positioned the district to meet new performance measures required by state and national policy.

Big changes in enrollment, diversity

The changes in Gwinnett County Schools are indeed striking. Compared with 1995, the student population is much larger, poorer, and ethnically diverse.

School enrollment is growing at an ever faster rate. The district added 5,000 new students in 2,000; the number increased to 6,000 a couple of years later. With an additional 7,000 students expected to enroll for the upcoming school year (2005-2006), the district estimates that its enrollment will reach 143,000.

From 1996 to 2004, the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in the school district jumped from 11,350–32,821. The number of students whose primary language was not English was 5,385 in 1996, but by 2004 it had more than quintupled. Currently, 54.4 percent of the district’s enrollment is minority—in 1996, it was 19.4 percent.

District forms community committee: What should students know and be able to do?

To prepare for the anticipated changes, in 1995 the school district created the Gwinnett Educational Management System oversight committee, or GEMS, comprising 24 parents and community members and 24 participants from the school district. The group's charge was to identify the academic knowledge and skills (AKS) that students would need to be successful after they graduated. The group also came up with a structure for what is now known as Gwinnett County's Gateway Assessment program.

The initial effort included input from 3,300 parents, community members, and teachers. By 2000, that total had increased to about 6,200 participants. The most recent count: 10,500.

The AKS spell out the essential things students are expected to know and be able to do in a particular grade (or subject, at the high school level). Gwinnett's Gateway tests assess how well students are learning the AKS so that teachers can determine how best to meet a child’s needs. The Gateway tests are used in certain grades to determine whether or not students are prepared to go on to the next grade level. In addition, high school students must pass the high school Gateway to earn a diploma.

Groundwork prepares district for state, federal performance requirements

With this foundation in place, the district was ready when the state (and later the federal government, through the No Child Left Behind Act) established additional measures of performance and accountability.

When the state started phasing in tests based on its mandated Quality Core Curriculum, some districts struggled to align their curriculum with the state assessments. But the implementation "was very smooth for us," said Cindy Loe, associate superintendent.

In addition to aligning with the state assessments, AKS ensures that GCPS students are well prepared for such indicators of performance as the SATs and AP exams, Loe said. The district’s 2004 SAT scores were 11 points above the national average, an all-time high for the district. “That’s with 87 percent of (eligible) students taking it,” Loe says.

Efforts boost achievement for white and minority students

The district continues to focus on closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. For example, from 1999 to 2004, the average scores of white students taking the SAT rose 18 points, while average scores for African-American students increased by 29 points. During the same period, GCPS student participation on AP exams increased 120 percent overall and 277 percent among GCPS African American students. In 2003, GCPS students averaged 3.01 on a 5-point scale on AP exams—higher than the global average of 2.96 and the state average of 2.86.

In the 2003-2004 school year, Gwinnett County K-8 students average scores on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) were above the state average at all grade levels and in all subjects except first grade reading, which was the same as the state average. Also, when compared with state data, a higher percentage of Gwinnett County students exceeded the state standards at all grade levels and in all subjects tested.

Input from community on curriculum takes place annually

To date, the AKS process has been completed in all subject areas and grade levels, with input from more than 10,500 teachers, parents, and community members. The process is repeated each year as new courses are developed or changes are recommended for existing courses. Each year, the GEMS oversight committee studies the input gathered from community members, parents, and faculty as they review the AKS.

The AKS curriculum and standards are now available on the school’s web site and parents are encouraged to learn precisely what it is that their children are learning and expected to learn. The process cuts down on the mystery that too often surrounds parents’ direct knowledge of what is going on inside classrooms, Loe says.

School boards must be a part of such efforts, says Mary Kay Murphy, a Gwinnett County school board member. “I would suggest that other school boards define carefully what their interest is in such a structure and then work closely through their superintendent with groups of key community leaders to determine if there is interest in forming such a community-based curriculum committee,” says Murphy. “I would urge school board members to delegate work on this initiative to their superintendent, while remaining interested and involved.

Visit the Gwinnett County Public Schools web site for more information about the district's programs.

Lessons learned
  • Monitor the demographics of your student population and the community to identify emerging trends.
  • Put a long-term framework in place for community involvement. As your community grows, continually reach out to bring newcomers into the process.
  • Establish clear standards for what students should know and be able to do and communicate those expectations to students, parents, and community members.
  • Implement high-quality tools for assessing student, school, and district performance in terms of established standards to support continuous improvement and address any gaps in achievement among different student populations.


Cindy Loe
Associate Superintendent
P.O. Box 343
Lawrenceville, GA
Phone: (770) 963-8651
E-mail: cindy_loe@gwinnett.k12.ga.us

Posted: July 20, 2005

©2005 Center for Public Education

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