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20 Under 20, for 2019

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Peachtree Corners GA 20 Under 20

Peachtree Corners is home to extraordinary families and schools which are nurturing bright, talented and community-minded young people. We sent out requests for nominations of students who find the time to make the world a better place despite their busy school schedules.

Not surprisingly, we were flooded with responses. So in addition to our “20 Under 20” selection, we’re including a list of “Up and Coming” teens who are making positive differences in peoples’ lives.

Cem and Alp Altikulac

Alp and Cem Altikulac

“Cem and Alp volunteer their time through countless service projects and fundraisers to support autism awareness,” wrote Carolyn Tully, a volunteer coordinator who works with the brothers. “They serve as peer models, demonstrating the skills that teenagers and young adults with autism need to be successful in the community and play pivotal roles in motivating and mentoring. … Even in their busy lives as teenagers they have canceled plans with friends or returned from trips early to uphold their commitments to those in need.”

 Cem, who’s 18 and a freshman at Georgia State University, and Alp, who’s 16 and a junior at Norcross High School, work with teens on the spectrum to master life skills such as how to manage a shopping trip or how to play a videogame.

“There was one kid who was 14 and I was teaching him to play [the videogame system] Wii because his mom wanted him to play Wii to connect with his brother, like other siblings, which is a natural skill for any other 14-year-olds,” Alp wrote. “But for him, it took two months of hard work and one broken TV screen to learn to play one simple Wii game. This memory always reminds me how we take everything for granted which we should not.”

Cem recounted teaching a teen who was on the spectrum how to go shopping. “We started with Walmart to teach him to shop for his basic needs and wants. The skills we planned to teach were reading off a list, finding the right aisle, identifying different brands, finding the price and paying at the cashier. He had a lot of difficulty to perform any of the skills at first, but after weeks of repetition of going to Walmart … he can go shopping for any groceries and find it in the store without much hesitation now. This memory gave me a warm heart because I impacted another person’s life who sometimes doesn’t get the same opportunities as me.”

Aubrey DeAugustinis

Aubrey DeAugustinis

Aubrey DeAugustinis, a 17-year-old senior at Wesleyan School, serves on the Teen Council at Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities and was named Top Fundraiser for the Teen Council in 2018. She also interned with the organization in the summer of 2018, supporting the marketing, finance and management services departments. Aubrey has worked with another Wesleyan student, her cousin Lizzy Stainback, to lead after-school enrichment classes, where lower school students learned about Ronald McDonald Charities.

“In our Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Enrichment club, we got the opportunity to visit one of the houses and take a tour,” Aubrey recalled. “I loved seeing the faces of the kids in this club as we entered the house that they had been learning about all year. We had taught them about the mission of ARMHC and done various service projects, but it was so special to see the mission in action.”

At Wesleyan, Aubrey has participated in high school theater productions, as a varsity cheerleader, on the prom committee and she has served as a Wesleyan student ambassador working with prospective families. In ninth and 10th grade, she served on Wesleyan’s honor council. She also has volunteered to play with lower school students before school every other Wednesday morning and will take part in a mission trip to Guatemala this spring.

Aubrey has been awarded the bronze medal on the National Spanish Exam and was awarded the Female Overall Achievement Award at Wesleyan in both ninth and 10th grades.

Braden Thorne

Braden Thorne

Wesleyan School senior Braden Thorne has excelled in school as a National Merit Semifinalist and member of the National Honor Society and in the community as an Eagle Scout. Also, Braden, who’s 18, and a friend recently pitched an online retail business concept to Atlanta Tech Village, a startup community in Midtown, and they will be launching the concept in the coming months.

At school, Braden is a member of the National Honor Society, has won two National French Exam awards and is a member of the math team. He is a member of the Wesleyan marching band, where he is serving as the drum major for the second year; has participated in multiple productions in the Wesleyan theater department; is a member of the high school chapel band; serves as a student government representative; and serves as a Wesleyan student ambassador working with prospective families considering Wesleyan each year.

This spring, Braden will serve on a Wesleyan mission trip to Costa Rica.

For his Eagle Scout project, he organized construction of two picnic tables at the trail by Tech Lake Park. “It was such an awesome experience to lead nearly a dozen other scouts in the construction and installation process,” he recalled. “I was so humbled to see many others jump in and unify with the common goal to serve the community.”

Camille Hollier

Camille Hollier

Camille Hollier is passionate about art and service. A student at Greater Atlanta Christian School for 13 years, the 17-year-old Camille recently won a Scholastic Art Silver Key National Award and is creating an AP Art portfolio called “Unexpected” to show everyday objects in unusual ways to demonstrate the people shouldn’t be judged on appearances.

She also is planning her third mission trip to Honduras through Honduras Outreach Incorporated, which addresses the physical and spiritual needs of the residents in order to have a long-term effect on the lives of people in that country.

“I can honestly say that one of the most memorable experiences of my life has been the opportunity to serve the Honduran people in their community,” Camille wrote. “This has impacted me on so many levels that it’s difficult to even put into words. Graciousness, kindness, gratefulness, dedication and love were just a few of the things I observed and experienced while there.

“Understanding the impact this has had on me makes me cognizant of the fact that there’s always a place where I can and must help and serve others—whether it’s down the road in Peachtree Corners or halfway around the world.”

Charlotte Burts

Charlotte Burts

Charlotte Burts, who’s 17 and a junior at Norcross High School, plays violin, rides horses, serves as a vice president of the Spanish Honor Society, is a member of the school color guard and is working on her Gold Award through Girl Scouts. She is an active member of Simpsonwood United Methodist Church and has taken part in five weeks of mission trips.

“One of my most memorable moments was when I had the opportunity to help Peachtree Corners Baptist Church and the Norcross Co-op with the Merry Market,” Charlotte recalled. “This program allows countless underprivileged families to give their children a nice Christmas free of charge. Many of these families do not primarily speak English, so it was also an amazing experience to be able to use Spanish to do something good for my community. This allowed me to contribute in ways that I normally wouldn’t be able to and see the kind of impact I had on the lives of others.”

According to Cathy Loew, a parent volunteer with Norcross High band, she always noticed the same girl helping at band events. “She helped at the band registration table, she helped with food at band camp, she helped with the uniforms. She seemed to be everywhere and happy!

“My daughter was new to color guard and she informed me that the girl was Charlotte Burts. When I asked if she was always so helpful, my daughter replied, “Yes, she helps me all the time in guard.” As the season progressed, my daughter informed me Charlotte continued to help the freshman and was always positive and affirming. Charlotte is exactly the type of person who will make the world a better place.”

Cimone Jefferson

Cimone Jefferson

At age 17, Norcross High senior Cimone Jefferson already has seen success in business. She founded and owns a skin-care product business (GloKit)—featuring a line of natural body scrubs—that came in First Runner Up in the inaugural 3DE program’s Business Creation Simulation.

According to Cimone, her most memorable moment so far has been creating the skin-care business in her 3DE business class at Norcross High School. “This opportunity has helped me uplift young ladies to be confident so that they can feel they can accomplish anything they put their mind to,” she said. “This brings me great pride in helping my community!”

In her junior year, Cimone was appointed Vice President of Media Coordination for the Future Business Leaders of America. She attended the National Student Leadership Conference for Business and Entrepreneurship at Yale University in the Summer of 2019. At the conference, she pitched an idea that won the award for best usage for technology.

Also in 2019, Cimone was named Norcross High’s Homecoming Queen. Active in cheerleading throughout high school, she acted as Cheer Captain and earned a spot as an All-American Cheerleader all four years and represented Norcross High at the Disney World Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Cimone has also served as a Junior Coach for the Freshman Cheer Squad since her sophomore year.

“Cimone has been a terrific ambassador for Norcross High School (and Peachtree Corners) and will continue to do so in the future,” Norcross Business Education teacher Twoey Hosch wrote.

Elle Dougherty

Elle Dougherty

Elle Dougherty has been curious about the ocean since she was little. She has other interests—competitive swimming, the Norcross High Band band’s color guard and Girl Scouts among them—but she has been so committed to ocean conservation that during a family vacation to the beach she spent time working at the Jekyll Island Turtle Sanctuary.

The 16-year-old now volunteers regularly at the Georgia Aquarium, and she was chosen to work summer and fall internships there. Elle’s favorite experience at the aquarium, she said, involved a family with young daughters.

“It was a quiet morning, so not many guests were in the building. I was in Ocean Voyager, the largest exhibit, with the whale sharks, … and a family of four came through. … The family was awestruck, which made me smile because I feel the same way every time I see it. …I began to talk to [the] daughters, who told me that they were interested in sharks and had never seen whale sharks up close before. They quickly began asking me questions about all of the animals and about the aquarium itself.

“One question that I vividly remember was when the youngest one asked me how big they get. When I told her that they could get to be about 13 times her height she was shocked. … I love being able to give people unique experiences as well as provide interesting information and awareness about the oceans.”

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson

As drum major of the Norcross High School band, Evan Johnson does more than merely keep the beat, according to Jen Elliott Ehrhardt, a neighbor and friend who calls herself “Evan’s other mother.”

“His legacy to the marching band transcends the podium,” she wrote. “Evan promotes inclusion, leadership, and connection by living it. He praises band members for taking initiative, solving problems, and elevating standards. ‘We’re creating future leaders today,’ he explained of the culture he’s establishing. Evan’s vision for excellence extends beyond his immediate experience to future marching bands at Norcross.”

The 17-year-old senior’s leadership extends beyond the band. “As junior class president, then student body president, Evan’s platform has been inclusion,” Ehrhardt wrote. “Anyone can be kind, and Evan makes compassion cool.

“Scouting offered another context to prioritize engagement and giving back, Ehrhardt wrote. Evan honored servicemen and servicewomen, as well as first responders, through a letter-writing campaign culminating in his Eagle Scout ranking earlier this year. “Evan’s detailed list of activities and accolades spans two pages and is so extensive, I’m not sure when he slept,” she wrote. “But here is his essential message: ‘You belong.’ ‘You matter.’ ‘Let’s help.’ …

“I asked Evan why he’s spent so many hours volunteering. ‘Two reasons,’ he explained. ‘First, I love to help people. It’s a huge passion of mine. I’ve been given so much, and I want to improve other people’s lives. And second, I want people to feel like they matter. I belong to a family—biologically, community-based, and culturally. I want others to experience that belonging, too—it’s life-changing.’”

One of Evan’s memorable moments happened at a fun activity called Reverse Trick or Treating hosted by the Norcross High Student Council, he said. “We visit an elderly home in our community to give them candy and chat. As we were leaving the home this year, an elderly woman pulled me aside and thanked me profusely, telling me how this event made her entire week. It brought me joy to know that we were able to bring them a bit of happiness. I strive in everything that I do to make the lives of those around me better.”

Georgia Whitmer

Georgia Whitmer

Georgia Whitmer’s teachers rave about her. The Norcross High School senior draws high marks from her mentor on a summer research project as a NASA intern, who praised her “outgoing and confident personality” and predicted the 17-year-old will be successful “through her work ethic and willingness to learn and contribute.” Her physics teacher calls her one of the Top 10 students he’s taught in a 30-year career that has included about 3,500 students.

“I am excited about her future and hope to see her destination in 10 years because she will make an impact wherever that is,” Jonathan Crymes, her International Baccalaureate Physics Higher Level 2 teacher wrote. “Her grasp of physics is extraordinary and difficult problems prove little challenge for her work ethic. But she does not get by on just her mind. She works hard and she works tirelessly, and she is self-motivated and self-reliant. Her future focus is laser tight and she will put forth whatever effort is required to get her there. I’ve never said this before: she’s the perfect student.”

Georgia is active outside the classroom, too. She is on the community swim team, made the USA Swimming Southeastern Sectionals when she was 12, tutors other students voluntarily, is president of a service club called Dumbledore’s Army and participates in Technology Student Association Projects, Crymes wrote.

“My goal is to encourage others to go after their dreams and aspirations,” Georgia said. “I do this through leadership. As president of the Technology Students Association at Norcross High School, I help others to go after their goals in technology. Dumbledore’s Army gives others the opportunity to develop their own ideas about the world by offering them unbiased information.”

Her internship project, titled The Urban Green Space: A Habitat for Mosquito Breeding All Across the United States, incorporated NASA satellite imagery, GLOBE land cover and mosquito habitat data and her citizen science data observations, wrote Cassie Soeffing, her mentor on the project. “We were impressed with her timely completion of assignments, thoughtful and articulate analysis of the comparative study assignments, collaborative nature during this virtual project and her final project presentation,” Soeffing wrote.

Heather Flanagan

Heather Flanagan

Heather Flanagan helps younger girls find joy through dance. The 17-year-old Norcross High School junior helps host free weekly after-school ballet classes for first graders at Beaver Ridge Elementary who might not be able to take dance instruction otherwise. “At the end of the school year,” writes Cheryl Flanagan, Heather’s mother, “they join in a recital with Perimeter Ballet to perform a dance and show off their brand-new ballerina costumes.”

Heather says one of her favorite memories of the program was the day of the recital, when the young girls performed for an audience of several hundred people.

“One of the girls started to cry right before she went on stage, so one of my co leaders took the time to kneel next to her, give her a hug, and encourage her until she was ready to go on stage,” Heather said. “She went on to dance beautifully. The smiles on all of the girls’ faces, after they finished the dance, were so joyful. I love being a part of something that brings that kind of joy to people.”

Dance isn’t her only interest, her mom says. Heather’s also active at church, is an officer in two clubs at Norcross High, started a ballet exercise class for her peers, and is writing a book.

Kaitlyn Williams

Kaitlyn Williams

After researching food insecurity, Kaitlyn Williams proposed that her school, Greater Atlanta Christian School, could find an outlet to donate excess food from lunch to those in need. She and a group were tasked with making the idea a reality, which required school and food services administrative approval, health department criteria and transportation options.       Since formally launching and partnering with Food for Thought/Second Helpings in August 2017, GAC has continued to donate surplus food every week to the metro Atlanta area.

The 18-year-old senior has contributed to her community in other ways, too. She organized a candy drive for orphans in the Ukraine, has tutored elementary age students who speak English as a second language and has been a team member for mission trips to Guatemala and Ecuador.

During the past two summers, Kaitlyn was a volunteer coach at Tavani Soccer Camp, a camp she attended when she was younger and where she shares her passion for the game with younger players. “I not only loved to coach the kids during the summer,” she said. “but when I see the kids during the fall season and they say, “Hey Coach Kaitlyn!” then I know I have made an impact on them.”

Kate Fuhr

Kate Fuhr

Kate Fuhr started figure skating at age 8. After a year and a half, she switched to ice hockey.

Now, at age 14, the Cornerstone Christian Academy eighth grader has been a member of the Atlanta Fire Ice Hockey Developmental Team for the past three years. She is one of only a handful of girls in the organization, and one of only three girls playing at “14 and under” Bantam level at the Cooler in Alpharetta. Kate is also starting her second year on the Junior Atlanta Thrashers, the Women’s Travel Ice Hockey Team.

“I’ve been part of the coed ice hockey team for three years,” Kate said, “and one thing that I’ve learned from Cornerstone Christian is how to get out of my comfort zone and make new friends.”

She’s interested in music, too. She has studied piano for five years, taken voice lessons for the past year and started playing the guitar and writing songs this past summer. She’s been a member of the Cornerstone Chapel Band for four years and a member of the Cornerstone chorus for two.

“I learned the importance of service from my parents, grandparents and other influential people in my life,” Kate said. “When trying to recall a memorable moment of service, the people around me stand out more than any one event. I think about one very special teacher at Cornerstone Christian Academy, Mrs. Katie Trapani.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Trapani passed away in 2018 after a courageous battle with cancer. “She took us to the Ronald McDonald House, an organization that was very dear to her,” Kate remembered. “I learned first-hand what an impact we, even as kids, had on the lives of families supporting seriously ill children in the hospital.”

Kate said that she has been blessed with the chance to fill a number of leadership and servant roles in both school and church. “I see being of service to others as a privilege and try to get involved and give back whenever I have the opportunity.”

Lizzy Stainback

Lizzy Stainback

Lizzy Stainback, a senior at Wesleyan School, serves as president of the school’s chorus leadership committee, takes part in the high school chapel band and has participated in plays and musicals with the school’s Wolf Players.

Her interest in music continues off-campus, too. The 17-year-old recently volunteered as a counselor with Camp CreARTive at the George Center for Music Therapy. And every week, Lizzy volunteers with the Salvation Army Church in Lawrenceville as an assistant choir director. She works with children aged 6 to 12.

“As I started working at the Salvation Army, I didn’t know what to think,” she recalled. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be accepted by the kids and parents as I was a late addition in their chorus season. I was pleasantly surprised as I was welcomed with open arms, literally.

“Every Thursday after a long drive to Lawrenceville, I’m greeted with glowing smiles from 30 kids all shouting ‘Miss Lizzy! Miss Lizzy! I missed you.’ They are always interested in the events of my life and the cool things I’ve learned in school. I only hope that I bring as much joy to their lives as they bring to mine, and I’ve made as much of an impact on their lives as they’ve made on mine.”

And her community and school activities extend beyond music. She’s a member of the National Honor Society, the Teen Council and serves as a board student leader with Atlanta Ronald McDonald Charities.

Melina Jackson

Melina Jackson

Melina Jackson’s father suffered with Parkinson’s disease for many years before he passed away when she was 10 years old. As a fifth grader, she decided to take action to honor her father’s memory.

The first year, Melina’s goal was to raise awareness about Parkinson’s. She arranged for a representative from the PD Gladiators, a Norcross foundation that helps people cope with the disease, to speak to students at her school on April 11, 2018, World Parkinson’s Day. Students were offered an “out-of-uniform” day if they wore Parkinson’s colors, grey and blue.

Melina surveyed the students to find out what worked best. She then arranged for a school-wide Parkinson’s awareness event called “Pancakes for Parkinson’s.” She also arranged presentations so students could learn about Parkinson’s and what they could do to help friends or family who are suffering from a serious disease.

This school year, the 12-year-old seventh grader at Cornerstone Christian Academy plans to build on that, continuing to raise awareness, not just at school, but in the community, and possibly add some fundraising for Parkinson’s Research.

“The most memorable moment that I have of serving in my community was seeing how I had influenced my classmates,” Melina wrote. “After discussing with my school about different ways people could raise awareness to less-talked-about diseases such as Parkinson’s, a few of my close friends hosted a fundraiser for the disease at a local park. This encouraged me and my drive towards my goal for Parkinson’s because it showed me that what I had provided to the people around me was positive and impactful. That was 100 percent a moment in my life where I felt like I had done something and it meant, and still means, a lot to me.

Her work has impressed people around her, including Helen West, a teacher at Cornerstone Christian Academy. “If you spend any time at all talking with Melina, you will immediately be impressed by her poise and intelligence,” West wrote. “Although she has experienced great grief, she has demonstrated great initiative and maturity, far beyond her years.”

Myra Wu

Myra Wu

Although she’s just 11 years old, Myra Wu has built quite a resume. She’s an A student at Pinckneyville Middle School, performs on piano and French horn, and competes in the swimming pool and on the tennis court.

“Myra’s drive and ambition to compete individually and with her teammates is outstanding,” family friend Tanya Ayers wrote. “Her dedication during the school year and through summer vacation shows her passion and drive is unwavering as she sacrifices her time to practice and help others.”

Myra, who started playing tennis at age 5, according to robotics coach Hayley Hanson, ranks 35th in the G12 USTA Georgia standings.

She recently volunteered to be a ball girl at a Special Pops Tennis tournament, a competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. “It was great to help those with disabilities play the sport that I love—tennis,” Myra said. “Seeing their smiles made the experience well worth it.”

Nadia Jones

Nadia Jones

Nadia Jones is passionate about helping and encouraging others. The Norcross High School student has collected blankets, hats and gloves for the charity Hosea Feed the Hungry. She’s collected new and gently worn shoes for recycling and provided Socks 4 Seniors. She led a coat and toy drive with donations going to Norcross Cooperative Ministry.

She started a Girl UP Club in her middle school to build self-esteem, fight against bullying and encourage girls to be great. At 16, Nadia has been a Girl Scout for 11 years and now is serving a two-year internship with Girl Scout USA. She has committed hours to working on G.I.R.L. 2020, a conference expected to bring thousands of girls and their supporters to Orlando, Fla. next year for inspiration and to encourage their empowerment.

Bernina Jones, her mother, says Nadia said has been sharing her Christian faith with others in the local community and in downtown Atlanta through prayer, play and by spending many Saturdays visiting neighborhoods to deliver fresh bread and pray for strangers. She’s also sung carols at homes for senior citizens.

“A moment I will never forget is visiting a senior citizens home while on Christmas break,” Nadia wrote. “The holidays can be a difficult time of year for many, so to lighten the hearts of senior citizens in the community, who often don’t get to see their families, I visited them. It was an amazing time of fellowship and in those few moments, I shared smiles, laughs and prayers with many people who often didn’t get to experience them. As a small gift for the seniors, I gave them new fuzzy socks and I will never forget the bright smiles and a few teary-eyed responses of the people who received them.

“That glimpse of joy sparked from giving back to a community that so willingly embraced me is an incomparable experience that I will carry with me as I continue to faithfully serve my community. You never know how much of a change you can make in the world until you understand that just a little bit of service has the potential to change the lives of people around you forever.”

Riley Keller

Riley Keller

Riley Keller, a 17-year-old junior at Wesleyan School, plays varsity softball, basketball and lacrosse. She has played on two state championship softball teams and has been a counselor at Wesleyan summer camps for her three sports.

But ask her favorite memory and she recalls a birthday snow cone that led to an off-the-cuff effort to help people in need.

Her story goes something like this: “My parents rented a snow-cone machine for my birthday. It wasn’t due back until after the weekend, so we gave out free snow cones to kids in our neighborhood. All of the kids could have purchased a snow cone, but it was amazing how much joy it brought to people that we gave them away for free.

“This sparked the idea to give away snow cones in exchange for canned goods to stock the summer shelves at the Norcross Co-op. The number of Peachtree Corners families that participated in our Cans-4-Cones over the years is unknown, but there were a lot of smiles and we collected hundreds of pounds of food from a simple snow cone.”

That wasn’t her first charity effort. Through the National Charity League—which she has served as president, vice president of programs, attendance coordinator and chair of the Caring for a Cause event committee and other committees—she has worked with various philanthropies.

Riley is a member of Wesleyan’s Omicron Service Team, where she and other students serve organizations throughout the community, and she has been involved with mission trips to Alabama, Tennessee, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. Riley also volunteered with Hope Heals Summer Camp to support families affected by disabilities.

“I have worked with Children Restoration Network over the past 10 years. We have collected, sorted and distributed school supplies, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas presents to some of Atlanta’s most vulnerable children and teens,” she wrote. “I love that I’m doing work for children and families in my community and it reminds me of how fortunate I am, but also that learning, giving and expressing gratitude are three essentials to life.”

Savannah Whitmer

Savannah Whitmer

Savannah Whitmer, a 17-year-old Norcross High School senior, is an award-winning member of the Technology Student Association, captains the school swim team and is percussion section leader in the Norcross High School Band. “Savannah’s work ethic and care for her peers makes her a standout from those around her,” Assistant Band Director and Percussion Director Corey Fair said.

She also is a Harry Potter fan. With her mother, Marilyn Whitmer, and her twin sister, Georgia, Savannah helped create the Harry Potter Garden at Peachtree Elementary School, which was inspired by the magical books that have attracted millions of readers. “Savannah and her sister designed and laid out a plan for the garden, including creative scenes based on details from the books to keep students interested,” Fair wrote.

“They relied on community members for donation of materials: Many people gave fence posts for bordering, used Realtor signs that could be painted and displayed, an old owl figurine to add a magical element to the garden. To know that Savannah was one of the masterminds behind this amazing service project shows her passion for education and for people.”

Savannah herself says she’s proudest of her work with the school marching band. “These past four years I have learned how to be a strong leader for my peers,” she wrote. “I had the privilege of being the one to make them smile when they were feeling down and to watch them grow into leaders themselves. Together we are a family, strong and unbreakable. I’m proud of all that we have accomplished together. But the amount that I’ve helped the band grow could never compare to how much they have helped me grow.”

Smit Patel

Smit Patel

Lee Conger, local school technology coordinator at Paul Duke STEM High School, recalled the first time he met Smit Patel. Smit, then a sophomore, was interested in drones.

“Smit walked into my office, introduced himself with a firm handshake and a steady gaze, and asked if I was helping to launch a program [at Paul Duke] focused on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). I told him I was … After speaking with Smit for just a few minutes, I found out he was heavily involved in JROTC and the Technology Student Association, and he served in a leadership role in both of those organizations. I realized how passionate and knowledgeable he was about UAVs, so I told him that if he attended Paul Duke STEM, I would love him to become a student leader.”

Smit took a flyer on the new STEM school. Now, as a senior, Smit has become one of the leaders of his class, Conger says.

“He is one of only 11 students participating in the joint cybersecurity venture between Mercer University and the FBI. In addition to being on the First Robotics team, Smit has been a student leader on the team which provides free aerial photography to schools in Gwinnett County Public Schools. He also led the team responsible for the unique drone ribbon-cutting ceremony at Curiosity Lab of Peachtree Corners last month.”

Smit plans on attending college and then the Air Force where he can use his knowledge of UAVs and robotics to serve his country. “It’s important to me to help other people. The drone club has helped us—me and my classmates—to begin to realize the opportunities that drones have for us,” Smit said. “I’d like to pursue a career in drone technology, most likely in the Air Force where I could fly drones on missions to assist and protect troops. The club has also been able to help two fellow students who are looking to start their own drone business.”

Conger said that when he thinks of students who will make Peachtree Corners proud, “Smit Patel is certainly at the top of my list.”

Trey Dixon

Trey Dixon

Trey Dixon sets the bar high for himself. The 18-year-old Greater Atlanta Christian School senior is a runner who helped lead the school’s team to the state meet. He’s a musician who plays piano and guitar. He shoots photographs of campus activities and helps devise sets and lighting designs for school events.

Trey also leads worship on Sunday mornings, tutors underclassmen and runs extra laps to encourage younger runners.

“One of my most memorable moments giving back to the community was through running the Peachtree Corners’ “Light Up the Corners” race along with my entire family,” he said. “I have run the race every year for the last three years, but I especially enjoyed this year because I was able to bring my friends to run the race with me and it supports a great cause right within our community.”

Contributing Editor Kathy Dean has been a writer and editor for over 20 years. Some of the publications she has contributed to are Atlanta Senior Life, Atlanta INtown, Transatlantic Journal and The Guide to Coweta and Fayette Counties.

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Cobb Global Outreach Grants 3 Scholarships to Duluth High School Students

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Non-profit Cobb Global Outreach (CGO) Inc., has announced the recipients of three scholarship to exceptional students at Duluth High School.
(left to right) Cassandra Norris, Neev Seedani and Anh Loan Vu

Cobb Global Outreach (CGO) Inc., a prominent non-profit organization dedicated to community empowerment and educational support, has announced the recipients of three scholarships, each valued at $1,000, to exceptional students at Duluth High School.

The winners are Cassandra Norris, Neev Seedani, and Anh Loan Vu. These scholarships symbolize CGO’s commitment to fostering academic achievement and nurturing the future leaders of society.

The scholarship recipients, chosen for their outstanding academic performance, exemplary leadership qualities and significant contributions to their community, embody the spirit of perseverance and dedication. Each student has demonstrated remarkable potential and a strong commitment to positively impacting their local community and beyond.

“We are thrilled to award these scholarships to such deserving students from Duluth High School,” said Bobby Cobb, Founder and CEO of CGO. “Education is a cornerstone of empowerment, and we believe in investing in the next generation’s success. These scholarships represent our organization’s dedication to supporting youth in pursuing higher education and their dreams.”

The $1,000 scholarship awards will provide invaluable financial assistance to the recipients as they continue their educational journey beyond high school. CGO remains steadfast in its mission to provide opportunities and resources for individuals to thrive and succeed, regardless of their background or circumstances.

For more information about Cobb Global Outreach and its initiatives, please visit cobbglobaloutreachinc.com.

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Gwinnett County School Board Race Determined in May Elections, Q&A with 4 District 3 Candidates

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There are many candidates on the school board ballot. District 3, which includes Peachtree Corners, has five contenders for the seat.
Photo by Freepik

Five candidates vie for District 3 School Board seat this May 21

If you decide to sit out the May primary and instead wait for the “big” election in November, you’ll be doing yourself and your community a disservice.

Although Congressional seats and the next leader of the free world will be decided, many local races will have a greater impact on day-to-day lives.

During a town hall meeting on March 24, Peachtree Corners City Councilman Eric Christ reminded residents that if they don’t vote on May 21, they’ll have no say in who represents them on the Gwinnett County Board of Education.

There are many candidates on the school board ballot. District 3, which includes Peachtree Corners, has five contenders for the seat vacated by long-time board member Dr. Mary Kay Murphy.

Christ pointed out that the nonpartisan race will be decided during the primary without endorsing a party or a candidate. County judges will also be elected.

Another unique aspect of this election is that there is no Republican candidate for county district attorney. So, those who show up on May 21 and request a Republican or independent ballot will have no say in who the next Gwinnett County district attorney will be.

“Some people think that if they say, ‘I’m nonpartisan,’ they’ll get to vote for either party,” said Christ. “It doesn’t work that way. They will only see judges and the school board on their ballot.”

So, in this particular race, if you have a strong opinion for or against someone in the county district attorney race, you will only be able to vote if you have a Democrat ballot.

For those looking to cast their votes on or before May 21, Southwest Gwinnett Magazine has sent a set of questions to all the school board candidates in District 3, asking their opinions about matters of education and school system governance.

Four of the five candidates replied.

Question #1: Why do you want to be a school board member?

Yanin Cortes: I am running for school board because I want a bright future for our communities and future generations. The reason why I moved to Peachtree Corners and decided to raise my family here 18 years ago was because of the school system and its reputation for providing a world-class education.

Gwinnett, for many years, has been a beacon of light for world-class education in the state of GA. Lately, however, we have seen our differences divide us. Our county is a mosaic with a diversity of appearances, opinions, and visions for the future.

I believe that our strength lies in our ability to unite for a common purpose. There is no greater purpose than the education and future of our children. I’m committed to becoming the bridge connecting the school board and our communities, amplifying our voice, fostering consensus and constructing a world-class school system.

As your representative on the school board my commitment will be to seek common ground not a political agenda. I will always prioritize our children and teachers over personal ambitions, concentrating on the essentials: student achievement, school safety, teacher support and community involvement.

Yanin Cortes

Domonique Cooper: Having lived in Gwinnett County for the past twelve years, I’m passionate about giving back to our community by serving on the school board. My goal is to build a strong, unified team where the school board and community work together. 

I’m committed to excellence in Gwinnett County Schools, and I believe my experience can be a valuable asset to our students, staff and stakeholders.

Domonique Cooper

Steve Gasper: I’m running for school board to do what I can to help restore our faith and belief in our public schools and to continue the great work I’ve done so far at GCPS over the past nearly four years.

Steve Gasper

Shana V. White: As a third-generation teacher, I’m running because I believe it is time for an educator with K12 pedagogy experience and instructional knowledge to serve on the board to better meet the changing needs of K12 public schools and classrooms to support the creation of equitable, inclusive, safe and quality learning environments district-wide to meet the diverse needs of Gwinnett County students.

Shana V. White

Question #2: Besides a desire to serve and help further the education of local children, what skills, experience, etc., do you bring to the table that makes you qualified?

Yanin Cortes: I am a mother, a former teacher in Gwinnett County Public Schools, and a small business owner.

As a teacher at Shiloh High School, I experienced and witnessed the same concerns and issues that our students, teachers and faculty still encounter every day.

As the owner of three restaurants here in Peachtree Corners and Norcross, I understand the level of hard work and dedication it takes to achieve success. I have learned through serving a diverse workforce and customer base that it is necessary to come together and find common ground to achieve success.

I believe that my experiences as a teacher and a business owner give me a unique, yet valuable skill set tailored to the job of a school board member.

Once elected, I will work to build consensus on the board to ensure that we, as a school board, are a productive and functional governing body that puts the interests of our students and staff first. I will put my breadth of experiences as a GCPS educator, local business owner, and an engaged and concerned parent into every decision I make on the board.

Domonique Cooper:  From my time in the Federal Government, I possess expertise in data management, policy planning and fiscal development – skills crucial for navigating school board budgets and ensuring efficient operations.

As a Gwinnett County Public Schools substitute teacher, I honed my classroom management skills, effectively interpreting lesson plans and crafting reports to benefit student progress. This experience gives me invaluable insight into the daily lives of our teachers and students.

My entrepreneurial experience fostered strong communication, salesmanship, and strategic thinking.  I can leverage these skills to build relationships with parents, advocate for our schools, and find creative solutions to educational challenges.

Additionally, as an educational strategist, I am a champion for parental involvement, policy improvement, and a more positive educational environment. I am skilled at evaluating achievement gaps and developing strategies to ensure all students thrive.

Steve Gasper: I am a former elementary school teacher who grew up in an education-centered home, as my mother is a retired, 30-year first-grade teacher.  I am a graduate of the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in business management and organization. 

My wife and I are owners-operators of a vacation rental business and I’ve been a corporate sales and management leader for over 23 years.

I’ve also been intimately involved in GCPS over the past nearly four years, speaking at numerous BOE meetings, meeting with the previous as well as the current Superintendent, meeting and collaborating with senior district leadership, working with several current BOE members to build working relationships, and participating in district committees such as the Instructional Resources Review Committee (IRRC), the Discipline Task Force and the Superintendents Transition Planning Team.

I’ve also collaborated with several State Elected Officials to discuss ways we can create positive education policies for not only Gwinnett County but our entire state.

I’ve been the voice for teachers, parents and our community during this time.  I’ve had my “thumb to the pulse” of our community, gaining insight on topics that are most important in real-time. 

Shana V. White: I have been a K12 public and private school educator in Georgia for over 15 years.

I have been a varsity basketball coach at The Paideia School, Pace Academy, Peachtree Ridge HS,and Wesleyan School.

At Peachtree Ridge HS and Pace Academy, I was the varsity head coach for a total of 5 years combined. I have been both a classroom teacher and LSTC (local school technology coordinator) in Gwinnett County Public Schools for over 10 years, working at Creekland MS, Peachtree Ridge HS, Summerour MS, and Sweetwater MS.

I currently work with a national philanthropic organization (Kapor Foundation) that supports equitable computer science implementation and resources for K12 public school districts.

Additionally, as a part of my role, I currently directly support Muscogee County Schools (GA), Early County Schools (GA) and Oakland Unified School District (CA) with their computer science implementation as well as lead and facilitate professional development for teachers and school district leaders across the nation in K12 computer science equity, culturally responsible and sustaining computer science, ethical artificial intelligence and computational thinking.

Question #3: Lately, there has been a lot of press about school boards being pressed to eliminate or massage history lessons that may make some students and/or families uncomfortable. What is your reaction to this? And what would you do in similar situations?

Yanin Cortes: I believe that history is a vital component of a well-rounded, world-class education. It is necessary for us to learn from our mistakes and to understand how we got here to prepare our students for the world stage.

That said, the school board should be able to reasonably accommodate those who might find certain materials distressing. We must always take into account maturity and grade level when it comes to all learning materials.

Domonique Cooper: It’s concerning when efforts are made to remove or downplay uncomfortable aspects of history. History, by its very nature, isn’t always rosy. 

Sanitizing the past prevents us from learning from mistakes and hinders a complete understanding of the present.  Schools have a responsibility to teach history accurately and comprehensively, even the difficult parts.

What I would do:

  • Focus on historical context: Uncomfortable events should be presented within the context of the time period. Explain the prevailing social norms, biases, and limitations in understanding of the past. This allows for a more nuanced discussion.
  • Multiple perspectives: Show history from the viewpoints of different groups involved. This fosters empathy and critical thinking skills.
  • Open discussions: Create safe spaces for students to discuss sensitive topics and grapple with complex issues. Encourage respectful dialogue and guide students towards evidence-based conclusions.
  • Acknowledge the discomfort: It’s okay for students to feel uncomfortable with certain historical events. Use that discomfort as a springboard for deeper learning and critical reflection.
  • Transparency with parents: School boards should involve parents in discussions about curriculum but emphasize the importance of a complete historical picture. Offer resources and open communication channels for parents who may have concerns.

By teaching a comprehensive and inclusive version of history, we can empower future generations to be informed, engaged citizens who can work towards a more just and equitable society.

Steve Gasper:My feeling is that history is our history and should be told exactly how it was.  If we eliminate or massage history lessons, how can we learn and possibly improve upon our past to make us better people in society?  I would support teaching history lessons as they are written and not altered.

Shana V. White: In an increasingly polarized climate, a variety of emotions come to the surface for individuals or groups. Any time discussions or topics are polarizing in nature, our first response should be always to listen to understand.

Students and families are stakeholders in our public school system and have the right to be heard at school board meetings. As a teacher, I believed in teaching students the grade-appropriate truth as it relates to the history and current events of the United States as well as the world in a facts-based manner.

As educators our job is to demonstrate respect for all students as full human beings by providing them accurate information from a historic or current context and then give them the time and space to ponder, discuss and interrogate information.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said in an article in 1947, “education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from fiction.”

Question #4: In Gwinnett County, students come from diverse socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. What strategies would you implement to ensure all students have equitable access to educational resources and opportunities?

Yanin Cortes: We need to ensure that we provide all students with a pathway to success and to do this, we must double down on what works.

This starts with early learning and school readiness. The Play 2 Learn initiative, which helps prepare infants through 5-year-olds for kindergarten and beyond, has been a great resource for families in our district.

The results of this program have been a massive success, and I believe that its expansion will benefit all students in our county.

Furthermore, Gwinnett County has received tremendous praise for its successful schools and programs, specifically in areas of STEM and other technical education areas. A safe learning environment goes hand in hand with making quality education possible.

Schools that create a safe learning environment have been more successful in our district. We must ensure the presence of at least two safety resource officers at all times in all of our schools. Further investment in these successful programs and initiatives is key to ensuring that we provide a pathway to success for all students.

Domonique Cooper: Here are some strategies I would use to ensure equitable access to educational resources and opportunities for all students in Gwinnett County’s diverse student body.

Addressing resource disparities:

  • Needs-based funding: Allocate resources to schools based on student needs, ensuring schools with higher populations of low-income students have the necessary funding for qualified teachers, updated materials, and smaller class sizes.
  • Technology equity: Provide all students with access to high-speed internet and up-to-date devices at school and home. Offer training and technical support to bridge the digital divide.
  • Multilingual resources: Ensure textbooks, assignments, and support materials are available in multiple languages to remove language barriers for non-native English speakers.

Supporting diverse learners:

  • Culturally responsive teaching: Train teachers in culturally responsive pedagogy to create inclusive classrooms that value diverse perspectives and learning styles.
  • Early childhood education: Invest in high-quality early childhood education programs, particularly in underserved communities, to ensure all students enter kindergarten with a strong foundation.
  • Targeted academic support: Provide targeted interventions and support programs for students who are struggling academically, including programs for gifted and talented students, ESL learners, and students with disabilities.

Expanding opportunities:

  • Advanced Placement (AP) for all: Expand access to AP courses and provide targeted support to help all students, especially those from traditionally underserved backgrounds, qualify and succeed in these rigorous programs.
  • Career and technical education (CTE): Ensure all schools offer a variety of CTE programs that expose students to different career paths and provide valuable job skills.

Fostering a culture of equity:

  • Data analysis and transparency: Regularly collect and analyze data to identify and address equity gaps in student achievement and access to resources.
  • Community partnerships: Collaborate with community organizations to provide wraparound services such as after-school programs, healthcare access, and mental health support.
  • Student and parent voice: Actively solicit feedback from students and parents from diverse backgrounds to understand their needs and concerns, and ensure they have a voice in shaping educational decisions.

By implementing these strategies, Gwinnett County can create a more equitable learning environment where all students, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed.

Steve Gasper: The diversity of Gwinnett County is what makes this a great county to work and live in, and that should be celebrated.  No one should be singled out, excluded or denied access to any educational resources and opportunities.  These are our future leaders and need all that we can offer them to be prepared as such.

Shana V. White: Improving educational equity, which meets the needs of diverse racial, cultural, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds of all, first requires all stakeholders to be on the same page.

We must have hard conversations with students, parents/caregivers, teachers and school/district administration to truly set collective strategies and goals, as educational equity work will look different at each school if it is done correctly.

Broadly, equity in schools should include providing opportunities, access and resources that help all students with diverse needs obtain success. One overall strategy to improve equity in schools involves first assessing the opportunity gaps that exist that are hindering success for all students.

One strategy I used when I was a teacher was making an intentional effort to understand the variety of intersecting identities of our students and how to make the learning environment one where all students and their identities belong.

Additionally, explicitly listening to the voices of students as well as their parents/caretakers and asking them what they need to be successful is an often-overlooked strategy for improving equitable student learning.

Finally, providing teachers with quality training and resources to build equitable learning environments in their classrooms.

Some of those tools include Universal Design for Learning and translanguaging to better meet the needs of students with disabilities and emerging English language learners.

Question #5: Gwinnett County, like almost every other school system, has struggled in the past decade or so to retain personnel — teachers, school bus drivers, etc. Do you have thoughts on how to attract and retain qualified candidates?

Yanin Cortes: We, as a school board, need to project a stable, forward-thinking and forward-planning culture within our school system.

We must utilize the existing support systems in our district to provide support for educators and faculty who are the lifeblood of our district.

As a former teacher, I understand that teachers and staff need support and transparency from administrators and district leaders to feel that they can effectively teach and do their jobs. Teachers need planning time, they need a heads-up when we, as a board, decide to implement a shift in policy.

I know that teachers do not want to bounce from school to school and district to district. Teachers desire a stable and safe teaching environment.

As a school board, we must be there not to micromanage them but to support them. On the school board, I will make it a priority to show our teachers and staff that we are there to support them, not just through words but through our actions as a school board.

Attracting and retaining talented staff is a multidimensional approach. There is a variation of strategies for both aspects.

Domonique Cooper: Attracting personnel, teachers, school bus drivers, etc., is a two-pronged approach.

  • Showcase Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) brand: Develop a strong reputation that highlights GCPS company culture, values and unique perks.
  • Offer competitive compensation and benefits: Salary and benefits are a major draw. Research what’s competitive in a similar sized district to attract top talent.
  • Retaining Qualified Candidates requires a variety of solutions to support stable staffing.
  • Prioritize company culture: Create a positive work environment that fosters collaboration, growth and work-life balance.
  • Invest in professional development: Offer training programs, mentorship opportunities, and support for employees to develop their skills and advance their careers.
  • Recognize and appreciate employees: Make them feel valued for their contributions. Public recognition, rewards programs and promotion from within go a long way.
  • Monitor employee engagement: Stay on top of employee sentiment. Conduct surveys and have open communication channels to address concerns and foster a sense of belonging.

By focusing on these aspects, Gwinnett County Public Schools will be able to attract and retain qualified employees and high-caliber candidates by keeping them happy and productive for the foreseeable future.

Steve Gasper: Our district personnel (teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, cafeteria workers bus drivers, etc.) are the lifeblood of our school system. 

Without them, we would cease to exist. 

It should be our main focus to make sure they feel happy and fulfilled in their jobs.  Over the past several years, GCPS has lost many great administrators, teachers, and those who support them. 

We need to provide a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment for them by creating effective staff retention programs (competitive pay, benefits, growth opportunities and support services). 

We must work to remove any roadblocks that prevent them from being successful.  This is one of the areas that is extremely important to me and will be a main focus for me when elected.

Shana V. White:Teaching as a profession nationally is undervalued and under respected. One of the things I would like to see improved as a former classroom teacher in Gwinnett is the quality of school site-based leadership.

School site leadership must clearly understand the school’s culture and climate is largely based on how teacher, staff and students are treated daily in the building daily. All school district leadership must better equip school site leaders with the training, resources and decision-making ability to make their schools a place where all teachers can thrive.

Making intentional efforts by school administrators to support teachers with duty-free planning, increased agency in their classroom, supporting all diverse learners’ needs in the building, making collective decisions on school policy and implementation, collaborative lesson/unit planning time, as well as uplifting teachers on a regular basis, are all items that would really go a long way in retaining teachers and making them feel valued.

As it relates to other school personnel, similar ideals of making them feel valued and an important part of the success of a school system is key. One way to value other educational personnel (bus drivers, office staff custodians, etc.) includes having leadership in place with clear and consistent expectations that are communicated.

Additionally, humanizing the work environment as much as possible and having personnel leadership open to feedback and ideas from staff go a long way to validating employees.

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Education

The End of an Era: Dr. Mary Kay Murphy’s Final Term on The Gwinnett County Board of Education

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Dr. Mary Kay Murphy's legacy on the Gwinnett County Board of Education; 28 years of fostering excellence in Georgia's largest school district.
Dr. Mary Kay Murphy at the meeting room of the Gwinnett County School Board // Photos by Tracey Rice

December 31, 2024, will mark the conclusion of the distinguished, seven-term service of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy on the Gwinnett County Board of Education — District III. Until then, Dr. Murphy remains actively engaged and dedicated to the important work of Georgia’s largest school district.

The pivotal role the community plays in identifying thoughtful candidates of ethical conduct could not be better highlighted than by Dr. Murphy’s 28 years on the board.

Reflecting on the impending end of her tenure and her involvement in setting the goals of the school system, which she has relished being a part of Dr. Murphy stated, “I’m sorry it’s coming to an end. There’s an attachment that comes with these experiences. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed it and will miss it.”

An illustrious career

The many important roles Dr. Murphy will cherish include chairing the Gwinnett Board and the Georgia School Board Association, serving on the Seventh District Advisory Committee for local school board governance and the Governor’s Advisory Committee on school boards.

Her multi-faceted career provided valuable insights into public school education and state-level funding, benefiting both rural and urban Georgia. A rather extraordinary woman herself, Dr. Murphy humbly treasures memories of having worked with many remarkable individuals.

Dr. Murphy’s journey began amid fears surrounding the system’s decision to embrace Outcomes Based Education (OBE). OBE is a student-centered learning model which focuses on what students know without relying on rote memorization. As the community geared-up for the 1996 elections, worried citizens rallied to prevent what they felt would be a lowering of academic standards in favor of social promotion, where students might advance to the next grade without meeting proficiency levels.

It was a pressing issue casting a shadow of concern over the future of public education when Dr. Murphy began her first term in January of 1997. She commended the community’s united front, emphasizing their collective concern for the well-being and educational outcomes of all children, not just their own.

A perfect fit

This grassroots movement spurred the need for change and the election of new board members including Dr. Murphy, who shared the community’s vision for a robust and equitable education system. Recalling her entry into the role, Dr. Murphy revealed that initially her husband, Michael Murphy, was the intended candidate due to his extensive legal background.

However, he declined because he wanted to focus on his practice, recommending they consider “someone he knew at home” who’d be perfect. Dr. Murphy stepped into the role, supported by her husband who served as her campaign manager throughout her seven terms. She joked that they had only themselves to blame for nearly three decades of many cold or late dinners.

Dr. Murphy emphasized the importance of honest leadership, with a deep-seated commitment to prioritizing public education. During her initial victory she secured 63% of the vote, underscoring the community’s trust in her capabilities.

Throughout her tenure, community feedback played a significant role in shaping her decision to seek reelection. Recognizing the value of introducing a fresh perspective to the board is what guided her choice not to seek an eighth term.

Professional highlights

Dr. Murphy values the magnitude of each board member’s role and broader impact. Every vote affects over a million people — residents, students and neighbors — as it applies to the entire county’s population, not just to their respective districts. The responsibility of shaping educational policies and initiatives is one she has always taken very seriously.

According to Dr. Murphy, Gwinnett County found a beacon of hope in Mr. J. Alvin Wilbanks, when the former president of Gwinnett Technical College assumed the role of superintendent. Under 25 years of his leadership, the school system witnessed significant innovations aimed at addressing students’ academic, social, physical and emotional needs.

One of the most notable achievements during Mr. Wilbanks’ tenure was the recognition of Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) by the Broad Foundation as the Best Urban Public School System in the nation in 2010 and 2014. This acknowledgment, accompanied by $1,500,000 in scholarship awards, highlighted the strides made in closing the achievement gap and ensuring educational excellence for all learners.

Dr. Mary Kay Murphy’s many accolades

Academic knowledge and skills

To combat fears of social promotion stemming from OBE, GCPS pioneered the specialized Academic Knowledge and Skills (AKS) curriculum. This approach led to the school system developing its own standards of excellence which many deem to be higher than those set forth by the State of Georgia.

GCPS teachers are required to teach their academic programs incorporating the AKS component of their discipline. Dr. Murphy is proud of the access teachers have to professional development, allowing them to make the AKS curriculum their own.

International Baccalaureate

Dr. Murphy highlighted various initiatives aimed at meeting diverse student needs. Some of the work of which she is most proud includes being present at the onset of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs offered at Norcross and Shiloh High Schools, Pinckneyville and Summerour Middle Schools, and Peachtree Elementary School.

The IB programs, with globally recognized standards, are designed to be academically rigorous while promoting intercultural understanding, inspiring young minds to work towards a better world. Never has a cross-cultural approach to creating a just and peaceful world been more important than now.

“It took the vote of five and the leadership of the superintendent to bring that to fruition. It also took insight from the community that thought this was a good use of taxpayers’ money,” Dr. Murphy explained.

Dual-Language Immersion

The Dual-Language Immersion (DLI) programs coincide with research — the time to learn a second language is during the formative years of childhood. GCPS’ 50/50 Model means at least 50% of the day is spent learning in the target language.

Trip Elementary School (ES) offers French. Baldwin ES offers Spanish. Students study Korean at Parsons ES. The New Life Academy of Excellence Charter School provides instruction in Mandarin Chinese. Every year it is a leader in student performance.

DLI has been a great investment, in Dr. Murphy’s view. “It’s an amazing thing to see little folks taking on the responsibility and being alert to the benefits of learning a second language,” she shared.

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

Philanthropy is key in District III

Dr. Murphy lauded the community’s philanthropic efforts, citing the Norcross High School Foundation for Excellence as an exemplary model of parent-led initiatives. Through events like annual galas, the foundation has raised funds to support teacher grants, after-school programs and infrastructure improvements, enriching the educational experience of scholars for over 20 years.

As Dr. Murphy reminisced about her own experience as a board member, she underscored the profound impact of community engagement and collaboration in shaping the trajectory of public education in Gwinnett County. Through shared vision, advocacy and tireless dedication, stakeholders have transformed challenges into opportunities, ensuring that every child receives a quality education and the support needed to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Many parents participate in the good works of local schools by donating their time and talents even after their kids have gone to college. “It’s been an amazing thing to see their spirit of philanthropy continue,” Dr. Murphy remarked.

“I think District III is in extremely good shape. We’ve got tremendous principals, community members who truly care about these schools and a variety of schools to meet student needs,” she observed.

SPLOST

According to Dr. Murphy, the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) has greatly enhanced school system facilities. The community’s unwavering support for SPLOST referendums has enabled rapid growth and expansion through the construction of 76 new schools since 1997. Norcross High School, funded in part by SPLOST revenues, stands as a testament to the community’s commitment to investing in public education infrastructure.

Under the leadership of the Superintendent, the board works to balance the yearly budget, thereby steering the course of property taxes and allocations. Dr. Murphy revealed this year’s budget to be approximately $2.8 billion dollars and was happy to announce the 19.2 school millage rate would remain the same.

“Even though some of our housing properties have increased in value, our millage rate will not increase. We’ve been able to keep it steady for almost seven years,” Dr. Murphy shared.

The Great Recession

During the economic downfall of 2008, Governor Nathan Deal’s Austerity Cuts included $100,000,000 out of the state budget for public education. Dr. Murphy is proud that GCPS, through the leadership of the superintendent and his staff, made certain that teachers were able to keep 190-day contracts.

“This did not happen in many school systems, where the funding of the property tax would not allow for it. We saw teachers’ salaries cut to 140 days,” Dr. Murphy said.

Extra large

It’s difficult to fathom the logistics of the largest school district in Georgia — the 11th largest in the U.S. GCPS includes 144 schools. When Dr. Murphy first started there were nine schools in District III. Today, her district comprises 30 schools.

Calling attention to the remarkable high schools, some of the largest in the country including Norcross, Duluth, Peachtree Ridge, North Gwinnett and Paul Duke STEM, Dr. Murphy celebrates the options available to students.

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

“The Norcross cluster was the first to provide two high schools for students so that they and their parents could have an opportunity for school choice. That took place approximately five years ago, when Paul Duke opened,” Dr. Murphy beamed.

Paul Duke

Paul Duke STEM High School on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard was named after the Georgia Tech graduate who founded Peachtree Corners. Dr. Murphy recalled the day of dedication with an auditorium bursting at the seams with Duke’s Georgia Tech colleagues and people who built Peachtree Corners.

Opening two high schools was the solution as Norcross could no longer increase its enrollment to accommodate the rampant growth in District III. Norcross High School maintained its important niche with the IB program from kindergarten through senior year.

Paul Duke became a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) school — in keeping with the purpose behind the founding of Peachtree Corners — to provide technology jobs that would keep Georgia Tech graduates and engineers from moving out of state.

The GIVE Center West

Just down the street from Paul Duke is an alternative school, The GIVE Center West or Gwinnett Intervention Education serving grades 6 through 12. It aims to prepare students for graduation and transition back to their home school if they wish, with improved academic and behavioral skills.

Academics and the arts

Since 2014, The North Metro Academy of Performing Arts has brought a new dimension for elementary school families craving something beyond the standard curriculum by integrating it with the performing arts. Instruction at North Metro fosters collaboration, imagination and confidence.

They can’t all be golden

One regret Dr. Murphy expressed was the board’s unfortunate 2023 decision to change the GCPS discipline policy. She readily admits that she initially went along with it believing teachers and principals would receive the professional development needed to make Restorative Justice work with students.

Restorative Justice is defined by Dr. Murphy as a commitment to the relaxation of the initiatives that would punish a student for behavior. “The relaxation was felt from the top of the organization to the bottom. We had unbelievable student unrest, students fighting one another, bringing weapons to school, losing their mooring, basically,” Dr. Murphy recounted.

The aim of Restorative Justice is to have students understand their inappropriate behavior and be self-motivated to change it. A restructuring of student relationships with teachers and counselors is a component of the lighter discipline model.

As a former teacher, I could not refrain from wondering aloud, “How did this happen?” I learned it was the election promise of some board members.

“Elections have consequences,” Dr. Murphy warned. Not far into the process, Dr. Murphy rescinded her vote to support the change in discipline and insisted on a mid-course correction.

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

New leadership

Crediting Superintendent Dr. Calvin Watts for finding a pathway, Dr. Murphy believes things are moving in the right direction now. “It was a hard lesson and I’m confident our board has learned from it,” she stated.

After Mr. Wilbanks was Superintendent for 25 years, Dr. Watts has risen to meet the challenge of managing both changes and stability.

Yet she remains positive and hopeful about what the coming months will bring.

“There’s an awareness and we have every benefit of some awfully good minds. If there’s one thing we have, it’s a lot of brain power throughout 183,000 students and 25,000 teachers and principals,” Dr. Murphy remarked.

Funding

A generous allotment of federal money, approximately $1,000,000,000, was contributed to the school system by the federal government with the stipulation that it must be spent by September 2024. The money has been instrumental in easing students back into school after extended absences due to COVID.

“It has helped us employ counselors in larger numbers than we’ve had before, social workers, people who can help us face the challenges from COVID. With budget season ahead, the board is now challenged with providing those services without federal funding,” Dr. Murphy said.

Continuous improvement

While school board members are evaluated at the ballot box, as Dr. Murphy pointed out, principals and teachers are evaluated by parents and their students. Dr. Murphy feels the online evaluations provide meaningful feedback.

Weekend warrior

Aside from her day job, Dr. Murphy spent three years traveling in the name of institutional advancement. Fulfilling her role as adjunct professor was important to her. Traveling to Nashville on weekends, Dr. Murphy taught English at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. For three additional years she did the same at LaGrange College near Columbus, Ga.

At Vanderbilt Dr. Murphy had about 15 students from all over the country keeping the same weekend schedule. Directing the programs at both colleges, she was glad to follow her students over the course of their three-year programs.

After her final term

After wrapping-up her school board endeavors on December 31, 2024, you can find Dr. Murphy enriching the community from the board of The Georgia Humanities Council.

Championing the humanities, which have added value to the lives of so many besides her own family, Dr. Murphy shared, “The humanities have a historic role to play in creating critical thinkers engaged in community life. I’m looking forward to being a part of this organization and meeting people from all over the state. I’m thinking how appreciative I am of the humanities teachers and professors in GCPS and in the state.”

With her husband, Dr. Murphy looks forward to creating memories and spending quality time with their 11-year-old twin grandchildren — one boy and one girl. They’ll be cheering for them on the baseball field and basketball court.

In the same breath that she expressed the desire not to get too regimented, Dr. Murphy confided, “There’s nothing like a good project to work on.”

Courtesy of Dr. Mary Kay Murphy

A lasting impact

Despite her decision to step down, Dr. Murphy remains steadfast in her dedication to education, acknowledging that the work is far from finished. Looking back on her impactful career, she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve her community through the advancement of public education.

Although she’s been recognized in many ways for her steadfast service, two awards hold special meaning for her: the Paul Duke Lifetime Achievement in Education award and the Boy Scout award.

Dr. Murphy concluded, “I’ll always have a great place in my heart for the work on the Gwinnett County Board of Education. It’s given me so much joy and a sense of continuity. There’s always something to learn and it’s important to remember to bring others along.” Preparing to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders, Dr. Murphy’s legacy of integrity, dedication and passion for education will undoubtedly leave a lasting imprint on the Gwinnett County School System.

Find more Peachtree corners education stories here.

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