Connect with us


Local Schools Continue Serving through Crisis with Digital Learning



Brooke Skelton, Paul Duke STEM High School teacher
Career and Technical Education teacher Mr. Brooke Skelton practices social distances from his home office while helping Paul Duke STEM High School students complete their video projects. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Skelton)

In an effort to stall the spread of COVID-19, most businesses and organizations have closed temporarily or curtailed their activities in some way. Many have found innovative ways to adapt and meet the needs of clients.

Few people would argue that schools across the nation — including Peachtree Corners area schools — have made the necessary changes quickly and efficiently. With short notice, they moved from classroom to digital learning.

Teachers are connecting online with their students while offering support to the parents working from home. Administrators and school support staff are making sure that teachers, pupils and parents get everything they need, and providing free, nutritious meals for students who need them.

Local schools, public and private, have found ways to keep students learning, families involved and everyone connected so they can weather the storm together.

Publisher’s Note: This article was written for the April/May issue and submitted March 31 for publication. Since then Gwinnett County Schools have moved to a 4-day school schedule which ends on May 20th.

Paul Duke STEM High School

Ms. Candace McRae, a counselor at Paul Duke STEM High School, works with students from home.
Credit: Candace McRae

Dr. Jonathon Wetherington, principal at Paul Duke STEM High School, explained that the teachers and staff are always prepared for Digital Learning Days as an emergency possibility. “As the COVID-19 concerns increased, we gradually began to ramp up our readiness the week prior to school moving to digital learning,” he said. “Given our regular digital learning on Fridays, we were well prepared for this experience, and I think we are getting better every day that goes by.”

He reported that the digital learning is going well. The students and teachers are highly engaged, he said, and students are checking in and continuing their learning every day. “We appreciate our parents pitching in and helping our students on a daily basis because we cannot be there for them like we are used to.”

Dr. Wetherington admitted that some students were reluctant to complete their assignments, so teachers and staff call to check on those individuals. “Also, our students are struggling — just like many of us — with the realities of our current situation, and we are reaching out more and more with phone calls and conference calls to provide some routine normalcy and support,” he said. “Our teachers love our students, and many of our students are worried about their future.”

For one of the weekly advisement lessons in March, the Gwinnett Student Leadership Team focused on helping the students learn how to handle their stress better. “Our students and teachers are truly amazing!” Dr. Wetherington said.

It’s just one example of the many Paul Duke STEM success stories. Another is the French teachers who were able to connect with their students to share musical moments with French songs. “I think our biggest successes are when we are able to connect with our students directly through a phone call or video lesson,” he said. “These human moments help sustain our digital efforts, and they remind our teachers and students that we teach students, not subjects.”

Schools belong to the communities they serve, Dr. Wetherington noted, and “at times like this, it is wonderful to lead such a caring and passionate group of teachers committed to our students’ success.” He added that he truly appreciates all the support that the parents and students have shown, as well.

“I say to the students often that ‘We are learning together to lead tomorrow,’” he continued. “I just never knew that tomorrow would come so soon, so I am grateful for how we are all learning together each and every day.”

Cornerstone Christian Academy

“Cornerstone families: for those of you who have been around Cornerstone for a little while, you know me well enough to know that I desire to keep our doors open if at all possible. While digital learning is worthwhile, we all know it cannot replace face-to-face interaction.” This is how the first communication regarding the Coronavirus situation to the Cornerstone Christian Academy community began.

After rolling out digital learning plans, Headmaster Colin Creel closed with this: “I am so grateful for all of our staff and their willingness to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the integrity of our students’ education is not compromised. In addition, thank you to our parent community for supporting our efforts to achieve this goal. We are blessed beyond measure. Onward and upward!”

Under the leadership of school principals, Cornerstone implemented digital learning protocols on March 16. Parents were asked to pick up textbooks, journals, binders and other resources from the school.

Chromebooks were made available to students. Teaching teams collaborated to devise the best plan for close to 400 students in Kindergarten through Eighth Grade.

During the Coronavirus quarantine, students continue to check for uploaded assignment documents which include links to video and textbook resources, as well as online assessments. Middle School teachers are hosting live Zoom classes on a set schedule each morning and recording those classes for any student unable to attend.

Lower School teachers assign work through a nightly email to parents. Plans include detailed instructions for the students as well as links to several online resources including videos and activities.

Teachers are also keeping it personal with sweet daily welcome videos encouraging their students to have a great day. There are many opportunities for the teachers to assess their students’ work and provide support when it is needed.

In addition to daily required assignments, enrichment lessons and activities are provided. Physical Education (PE) videos keep the students active and have even included a fun video unit on juggling. The fine arts department is utilizing FaceTime to provide live piano and voice lessons.

In an effort to keep families connected, Cornerstone posts daily family challenges, jokes of the day submitted by students and dinner table topics on our digital learning parent resources page. Families especially have enjoyed submitting their video answers to the school’s Family Feud game. Everyone gathers, online, on Friday mornings to worship God together in Chapel; it’s a favorite part of each week for families.

Since they aren’t able to interact with the school community, non-teaching staff members have formed a Care Team, praying for families, writing notes of encouragement and making phone calls to see how to serve families.

A parent recently sent this note to Cornerstone: “Through our nine years at Cornerstone, we have been reminded again and again of something that was said to us by a parent when we first toured the school: “Cornerstone is like an extension of our family.” Never has that been truer than it is now. In this time of adversity, we are all sharing the same fears, uncertainty, challenges and disappointments, but we are facing them together offering each other the same encouragement, hope, faith and love that a family does during difficult times.”

Norcross High School

Principal William Bishop of Norcross High School said that NHS students and teachers have done an outstanding job moving over to learning and teaching digitally. This isn’t surprising, since the teachers have been growing their skills in using digital tools to teach students over many years.

“Our Norcross High School Foundation for Excellence has assisted the work in using digital tools by increasing the amount of technology that our students and teachers have access to at school,” he explained. “In the last few years, when we have been out of school for weather reasons, we have had Digital Learning Days, so this is not new to us.”

Still, Bishop added, learning digitally over a longer period of time is an adjustment for everyone. “In the past, if we are out of school two or three days, test dates or learning certain skills might be delayed until students returned to school,” he said. “As we look at the possibility of students learning digitally over a longer period of time, we have had to make a few adjustments in how we teach and how we assess student learning.”

One challenge the school faced was a handful of students who were not participating in some of the classes. The teachers and other staff members reached out to them and their families, and “we have made great progress in the participation of our students,” Bishop reported. That kind of focus on success is nothing new, he stressed, since NHS teachers and students are constantly making adjustments to ensure students are learning, whether in a classroom or online.

Digital Learning Days also brought an opportunity for some students to catch up on their classes. “Early in the semester, we had a few students who were behind in their work and needed to get caught up on their learning,” Bishop said. “With the support of their teachers, many of these students have not only learned new material online, they also caught up on the knowledge and skills they were missing before digital learning began.

“Our society values people who have knowledge and skills,” he continued. “It is key that our students continue to learn and grow whether it is in a traditional classroom or learning digitally.”

Greater Atlanta Christian School

When the school year went to digital learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Greater Atlanta Christian School (GAC) had a ready solution and pivoted to its online learning platform. Launched two years ago, GAC’s online Ethos School has been adapted to support the current need for digital learning for the school’s 1,600+ student body.

“Based on research and the demand for digital skills in the workplace, education systems are moving toward more online options,” said Director of Academics Dr. Betty Morris.

“Top tier colleges are leading the trend by offering higher educational degrees via an online platform.”

GAC was already educating more than 200 students across the globe through its Ethos School program before the current health crisis. Therefore, “our administration and highly-qualified teachers fully understood the online learning setting and were prepared to quickly transition the GAC educational experience into an online learning environment,” said High School Bible teacher Derek Wilson.

With modalities adapted to the age and needs of the students, GAC teachers are ensuring that learning continues and and that students and families feel supported during this challenging time. The response from parents and students has been overwhelmingly positive, for both the way in which GAC has supported students and families emotionally and also for the way in which students are adapting to the new learning environment.

With daily videos going out from its president, Dr. Scott Harsh, and frequent, uplifting messages going out through email and social media, GAC is making the most of the situation.

“Maybe the biggest difference-maker so far that I see is the tone of normalcy and excitement GAC has created for the kids during this time of online learning,” said parent Sandra Onal.

GAC students continue with their regular school day, with interactive instruction given in every class period. Teachers are using digital tools to fully engage students during class and are available to help before and after school as well.

Teachers are also finding creative ways to make class time fun and engaging. One teacher, Joann Waldrop, asked all of her students to bring their pets to class. Students are also scheduling lunch via Zoom together. The opportunities for connection are endless.

“There are many valuable lessons in all of this,” said Dr. Harsh. “Students are learning to adapt and make the most of the challenging circumstances. Even when so much has come to a halt, our students are continuing to learn, connect, laugh and grow, even though school looks different. An essential element for personal growth is adapting to change and learning resilience and I’m so very proud of the way our students are responding.”

Wesleyan School

Wesleyan School students, left to right, Anslee and Jamarcus Davidson enjoy working at their own pace with distance learning. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan School

Wesleyan School was scheduled to begin Spring Break at noon on Friday, March 13. As the global and national reality evolved that week, the administration and academic leadership had approximately 48 hours before Spring Break to craft a plan, notify families of the shift to distance learning upon return from the break, and to train teachers.

During the break, the division principals, associate head of school, technology team and other administrators worked to prepare, and students began distance learning from home on March 25.

“While this certainly is an adjustment for everyone – students, parents and teachers – things seem to be going well,” said Wesleyan Associate Head of School Ramona Blankenship. “Our principals created a distance learning plan that started out gradually in terms of pace and workload. They did this intentionally to lay a strong foundation and to give families as much bandwidth as possible to adjust to this new normal of students and parents working from home together.”

Blankenship said that, overwhelmingly, the feedback has been positive as parents are sorting out how to oversee schoolwork from home while many are working remotely themselves.

Bethany Davidson, mother to Jamarcus, 12th grade, and Anslee, 9th grade, as well as two Wesleyan graduates, said she thinks the school did an exceptional job rolling out the distance learning model. “As a parent, I’m very grateful for all the hard work our administrators and faculty have done to help things go as smoothly as possible. It’s fun to be able to do things together that we don’t normally get to do, like have lunch on the porch.”

Davidson added that the family has decided that they enjoy this form of learning — with the exception of the social aspect. “That’s the hardest part — being disconnected from our Wesleyan community which is so very important to us!”

According to Wesleyan Lower School Dean of Counseling and Student Services Nancy Jones, one of the big challenges everyone is facing — not just schools or students — is managing emotional health during this time. “We believe that as a school, we are not just responsible for the academic well-being of our students, but also for their social and emotional well-being,” Jones said. “To that end, we are working hard to provide resources to families to support them as they navigate this unprecedented time.”

Counselors in each division — lower, middle and high school — have curated articles for parents on how to talk to their children about the pandemic and provided links to activities and resources for student use.

“Middle and high school have started a Weekly Wellness Guide that is sent directly to students each week,” Jones continued. “This includes a suggested daily schedule of activities students can do to clear their minds, relieve anxiety and stay healthy during this time of uncertainty. We are using Wesleyan’s digital platforms to provide check ins with students, and to provide light-hearted video moments for our whole Wesleyan community!”

Ninth grade student Anslee Davidson said that she’s enjoying the freedom to work at her own pace. “I finished before lunch today and then was able to work on my music and then enjoy some time out on the lake,” she said. “The biggest negative is not being with my friends and my teachers. I miss them all so much.”

GCPS Delivers Education and Nutrition to Students

As of March 16, Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) has shifted to digital learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis. According to the GCPS website, “students and classroom teachers continue teaching and learning at home through Digital Learning Days.”

Teachers post assignments on their eCLASS C&I course pages during Digital Learning Days. Students use the MyeCLASS student portal to log in to their course pages where they access assignments, resources and other materials.

If a student does not have access to a computer or device, teachers can provide alternative ways to access assignments, such as email. Teachers may also support student learning through other means, including phone calls, discussion boards or online conference tools.

An important factor of successfully switching to Digital Learning Days is making sure students stay healthy by supplying meals to students. Many GCPS schools are providing lunch for pick up, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., for anyone 18 years of age or younger.

These lunches are provided at no cost to the individual through the federal School Nutrition Program. The student or child must be present to receive the meal; a child does not have to be a student at the school site to receive a meal.

Through the week of March 16-20, there were 138,371 meals provided to students: 23,004 at 68 school pick-up sites and 115,367 at bus stops.

“The number of students participating has grown since the first few Digital Learning Days. Our school nutrition and transportation teams have done a wonderful job continuing to make and deliver meals to our students,” said Norcross High School Principal William Bishop.

Schools in Peachtree Corners where meals are available include Berkeley Lake Elementary School, Peachtree Elementary School, Stripling Elementary School, Duluth Middle School, Pinckneyville Middle School, Summerour Middle School, Duluth High School, Norcross High School and Paul Duke STEM High School.

That’s not all. School buses deliver meals at bus stops in select clusters — Berkmar, Central Gwinnett, Discovery, Meadowcreek, Norcross, Shiloh and South Gwinnett — and for several schools, including Berkeley Lake Elementary School. The buses make stops at their regular bus stops between 11 a.m. and noon. To get a meal, the child must be at the stop when the bus arrives.

“In GCPS, we talk about the two types of employees who serve our community — those who teach and those who support those who teach,” the GCPS website says. “We are so proud of the hard work that both types of employees have done and will do in coming weeks to ensure that learning continues for Gwinnett schoolchildren, and that lunches are provided to children who need them.”

For the latest information on student meals and GCPS Digital Learning Days during the Coronavirus crisis, visit the GCPS website, gcpsk12.org.

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.

Continue Reading


Cobb Global Outreach Grants 3 Scholarships to Duluth High School Students



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.

Continue Reading


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



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.

Continue Reading


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



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.


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.


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.

Continue Reading

Read the Digital Edition


Peachtree Corners Life

Topics and Categories


Copyright © 2024 Mighty Rockets LLC, powered by WordPress.

Get Weekly Updates!

Get Weekly Updates!

Don't miss out on the latest news, updates, and stories about Peachtree Corners.

Check out our podcasts: Peachtree Corners Life, Capitalist Sage and the Ed Hour

You have Successfully Subscribed!