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Wesleyan’s Chris Cleveland Talks About the Challenges of Distance Learning [Podcast]



Chris Cleveland, Wesleyan School

Wesleyan’s Head of School Chris Cleveland talks about distance learning in this time of COVID19 and the stress and challenges families have right now. Streamed socially safe from the City of Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

[00:00:30] – Intro
[00:02:19] – About Chris
[00:05:05] – The Switch to Remote Schooling
[00:13:52] – Learning Challenges
[00:17:19] – At Home Counseling
[00:20:08] – How Sports and Arts are affected
[00:25:51] – Silver Lining
[00:31:44] – Closing

“The biggest blessing out of all of this is that it has forced their family to slow down. Many of
them have said, I’d never realized how busy and how hectic our schedule had become, and now
that we’re forced to be at home, and many of the extra things that we’ve done have been
canceled. We now have more time together as a family.”

Chris Cleveland

Podcast Transcript

Rico: [00:00:30] Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me. This is Rico Figliolini, host of Peachtree Corners Life in the City of Peachtree Corners. Been here, resident since ‘95. And these podcasts to me over the last three plus years have been a great way to meet and talk to people in the community, subject experts and just average people that they may be doing extraordinary things or certainly people that are doing the work that we all, you know, need and done in this community of, of the city. Today, I have a great guest and the head of school of Wesleyan, and his name is Chris Cleveland. Hey, Chris. How are you?

Chris: [00:01:10] How are you doing today?

Rico: [00:01:11] Great, thank you. Before we get into our interview though, I want to be able to just thank our sponsor, Hargray Fiber. They are a company in the Southeast here that deals with fiber-optics, deals with communities and business, and is very much involved actually in community outreach. And they’ve been doing a great job throughout the Southeast and certainly here in Georgia and in the Metro area and places like Valdosta and other cities. Their latest promotion is free business internet for 90 days for new customers. And for those current customers, they’re actually doubling the bandwidth because God knows we all need that. I think right now to make sure we’re streaming everyone, there’s 200 million people on zoom versus 10 million. So we’re all teleworking in one function or another, whether it’s school or business. So I want to thank Hargray Fiber for being our spot so you can find more information about them on HargrayFiber.com. So now let’s get into introducing our guest, Chris Cleveland with Wesleyan school. Hey Chris, give us a little bit a background of who you are and stuff.

Chris: [00:02:19] Great. Well, thanks Rico, and I appreciate the opportunity to be streaming live with you and the chance to talk with you a little bit. I am the head of school at Wesleyan school. It’s my 18th year as an employee of the school. I came to Wesleyan as the middle school principal and have served in a variety of administrative roles. And then now in my sixth year as head of school, my wife and I are also parents at the school. We have two sons, one who graduated last year in the class of 2019 and as a freshman in college this year. And our second son is a sophomore at Wesleyan. So we are all in on Wesleyan and we’re also proud residents of Peachtree Corners. We love living in this area. So not only do I work in Peachtree corners, but I’m a resident. I am proud to say that I’m from Peachtree Corners, love this community and the great people who live in this area. I’m actually a native of Atlanta. There’s not very many of us left, it seems like. But, born and raised here. I love this city, love this area. And, I’m so thrilled that I’ve been able to raise my boys in this area, and live here as an adult as well.

Rico: [00:03:38] Cool. It’s, certainly, you know, I think we share some of that right now. Except for the being born in Atlanta. I think most people would know from my voice. The transplanted New York in a, in a Brooklyn I had at that. But my family has grown up here. All my kids, my first of the three was nine months when we moved here. So everyone’s pretty much a Georgian to a degree. And, all through different, right. All through the public school system is where they’ve, they went through. So they did Simpson Pinckneyville Middle, Norcross High school. But, you know, with Wesleyan being right across the way, and right across the street from Norcross high
school, you know, there’s just lots of friends that kids have made along the way, and everyone either went to a public school, Cornerstone, Wesleyan didn’t matter. it’s just a great community, right, that we live here.

Chris: [00:04:33] That’s right. Yeah. We think there’s a lot of great schools in Peachtree Corners. We hope that we are one of them, but whether children go through the public school system or avail themselves of any of the other private schools in the area, this is a great place to raise children because there’s great schools and there’s tremendous community support, and that’s such a critical factor in school success. So, being a resident of Peachtree Corners provides you with a lot of great options when it comes to education.

Rico: [00:05:05] For sure. And in these challenging times too, I mean, we, I know my son has been doing digital learning days on Fridays at Paul Duke STEM high school. So he’s somewhat prepared for a five day a week digital learning. But not every school was set up that way. And, and even still, even doing it one day is way different than trying to do this five days. So I’m sure you guys have challenges that you’ve had. So maybe you can share a little bit about what that was like the first, the first week of trying to get this off the ground. How did that go?

Chris: [00:05:38] Yeah. I think for all of us who work in education, clearly this is a tremendous challenge because we’re taking a product that we deliver best face to face. And we’re trying to do it remotely. So certainly it’s been a huge transition for our teachers, but also an equally huge transition for our students and their parents. And, and I think that’s probably the first challenge is we’re dealing with. Families whose parents may be working from home now. So you could have everything from internet issues with multiple people trying to access the internet at the same time, to just simply have you establish family routines. When people are home at times they aren’t normally at home. We also have families where the parents are continuing to work. And so children are essentially getting themselves out of bed and they’re having to monitor themselves and manage their time. They might even be having to care for younger siblings. So just the change in the home life alone is a tremendous disruption too. The normal process of education. Obviously we’re trying to address technology issues. We have a fully staffed technology team that serves as our own help desk. And so they have been monitoring and working with teachers and students and parents on various technology issues and trying to address those. We’re grateful for our tech team and, and the great work that they’ve done. But I think the biggest challenge is, it’s certainly at Wesleyan school we try to pride ourselves on the personal relationship that we try to build with our students. And we’re of the belief that instruction, no matter what the subject is best delivered in the context of personal relationships. And so we’re now trying to do something that’s very personal in a format that is impersonal. So how do you do that? How do you speak into that? And I think that’s probably been our greatest challenge as an institution, is to continue to maintain strong personal relationships between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, and between students with their peers. And at the same time, still deliver education from a distance. And, I wouldn’t pretend to say that we’ve gotten it all right. We’re learning, in this process as we go. We are on our 12th day today
of distance learning, and I think we’re well ahead of where we were a week ago, and I’m confident a week from now we’ll be further ahead than where we are today.

Rico: [00:08:30] Interesting. So, you know, teaching, teaching, like anything else, learning really is a social thing, right? That’s how we look at mentors. We look at rivals within the classroom. We look at making ourselves better. Translating that online though, is that challenge, right? Do you find that there has to be more, maybe? Do you even, I mean, at this point it’s only 12 days into it, but do you see the value of one-on-one, online attraction with teacher student?

Chris: [00:08:59] Yeah, we’ve tried to have a mixed approach, certainly for students in grades 5 through 12, which for us middle school starts at fifth grade. We lean a little bit more on independent work and providing assignments for students and giving them the most flexibility we can give them to complete assignments on their own time. And to not have to do it in a timed classroom period. It’s a little more difficult with younger students, and that’s where the parents have to lean into the process more. We do things like, we have mentor groups for all of our students, and so those are not really academic groups. They’re really just meant to be times to discuss whatever the issue of the moment is. Obviously, right now, the issue of the moment is COVID-19, and the disruption to our society. So we’ve been working hard for our teachers to be able to carve out that time to meet with their mentor groups online. Our teachers offer, what we call office hours, which is an hour block at the end of the school day from two to three o’clock. Where students can check in online with their teacher and chat live with them. That sometimes is a one on one. Sometimes it’s multiple students who want to get in those chat rooms who might have the same questions. So we’re trying to go at it from a number of different angles. But Rico, one thing we’re really concerned about is too much screen time and the, the problems that can arise when children are staring at a screen all day. And so we started off our distance learning program slowly and we started more with teachers posting assignments, giving students maximum flexibility to complete those assignments, and then following up with that office hour block towards the end of the day. And as time goes on, we’re going to incorporate more and more, what we call live screen time options where teachers and students can interface at the same time with each other. But we want to do that cautiously. We’ve tried to learn from other schools who are a week or two ahead of us in the distance learning process. Because of our spring break being earlier than most schools. We were out the first week that most schools unrolled their distance learning programs. So we had the benefit of learning from people and the challenges that they faced. And one of the early challenges was that a constant screen time for teachers and students really leads to a very high level of fatigue and burnout and shut down. And so we’ve, we’ve approached it in a different way. We’ve started by slowly getting into the assignment and, and teaching process. And then over time we’re incorporating more and more live interaction, and we hope by doing it that way, we’ll be able to create a balance between live, FaceTime, and also flexible time in which students can complete their work on their own.

Rico: [00:12:10] Sure. There’s so many different options, right? You look at young kids, maybe not the sixth grade and under, or maybe some of them, but certainly the middle school and the
high school that are used to being online for a variety of reasons, right. So whether they’re, playing Minecraft and collaborating right in the process. Cause I’ve seen my kids, you know, they’d be playing Minecraft, chatting on discord, they’re collaborating about what they’re doing to build something. Not the school mix, but still right. Still part of that. So they’ve learned a little bit of how to deal with collaboration. They might be a little more ahead than we think, but you’re right, I can see the screen burnout being an issue. Bring on the too long if it’s not gamified at least.

Chris: [00:12:51] Exactly. And I think, for any of us who have been in, a series of video conference calls for, for a part of our job over the last few weeks. You know that being on four or five back to back video conference calls is exhausting in its own way. It’s hard to explain, but it leads to a level of tiredness and fatigue that is difficult to understand until you’ve gone through it. And we have the advantage of being adults. We have life experience. We have more coping mechanisms on how to deal with our own stress and anxiety and fear. children through no fault of their own because of their age. They don’t have those coping mechanisms. And so we need to be careful how much we’re pushing onto children early on in this process, and make sure that we’re not doing more damage unintentionally, of course, in the process of trying to maintain our academic standards.

Rico: [00:13:52] Yeah. I think you hit on it. I think you hit on it before a little bit and we talked about it too before we went live on this, that kids that are doing digital learning, at least in the school system, Gwinnett County school systems, the first few weeks they were putting out so much stuff that was actually more work by far than if they were right in the classroom doing, they would never cover that much work. And it took them a little while to evolve to realize that. So I’m sure this, this is somewhat of what you were touching on just before.

Chris: [00:14:24] Absolutely. I think workload is a huge issue. And, you know, Rico, one of the most important aspects of classroom education is the ability of the teacher to differentiate their instruction based on who’s in front of them. So a classroom teacher can look at a group of students and by reading their facial expression and their body language, they can figure out pretty quickly who is understanding what they’re teaching and who is not getting it. And that affords the teacher of the opportunity. In the moment to differentiate their instruction, to maybe press the pause button and allow children who clearly understand a concept to continue to work ahead and at the same time go work with a group of children who may be struggling with that concept. When we do digital or remote learning, you lose that opportunity to differentiate, differentiate your instruction. You have to, by nature of the media you have to treat all learners the same. And obviously all learners are not the same. So that is one of the great challenges and I think that’s why it’s been a struggle for all schools. Wesleyan included to find that balance point of enough work for there to be a challenge for students and to advance students and to progress through the coursework, but also not to overwhelm children with busy work in an effort to occupy their time that that’s really not the approach that, that any school is looking for at this point.

Rico: [00:16:03] I wonder, if you found that anecdotally speaking, that kids are more willing to participate online, but you might have kids more that otherwise wouldn’t in the classroom because they’re surrounded by other kids, but online because they’re in the wrong place.

Chris: [00:16:18] Yeah, I think certainly, there, there’s a level to that of, you know, without the, the social pressures of looking around and seeing who’s around you and who might be, you know, giggling if you raise your hand or who might be trying to pass you a note while you’re trying to pay attention. Certainly some of those distractions are taken off the table, but I think at the same time, what you’re seeing in this distance learning process is students who know how to manage their time and work independently. I think they’re doing much better than students who struggle with those skills. And again, some of those skills are developmental. Some of them are just how we’re born and how we’re hardwired. So students who don’t have those skills, again, that’s, that’s not a criticism or a fault or a shortcoming of theirs. It’s just that I think this remote learning brings those issues more quickly to the surface. And so I think that’s something we have to be aware of.

Rico: [00:17:19] I can see that. I mean, certainly, kids that, you know, like if my son had said, like when he, when they went to five days there where he was like, I don’t learn well this way, I’d brought be in the classroom and do this. I can’t, I can’t read third. But then again, it’s like some kids learn well by just reading the stuff and some kids don’t. So kids would rather be in the mix and doing it, and they learn and he’s a straight A student. So it’s, every child has a different way of learning and in this could be detrimental to some, but better to others, right? To manage that process, I guess. How, how does Wesleyan effect run the, you know, what’s going on in the home life? How are there any, you know, how do you, how do you work with that?

Chris: [00:18:05] Yeah. Well, certainly, we’re trying to leverage all of our resources of our counseling office, to be communicating with parents on a regular basis about the social emotional needs that children have during this time. So we’ve built a page of information for our parents where they can access all a whole host of counseling resources. Certainly our, our teachers individually, we’re encouraging them to be, checking with children and how they’re doing on a personal level. Of course, families that communicate with us, with their various struggles, whether it be with establishing a routine or if they have a family member who’s ill. We’re trying to speak into those as much as we can, but I think that one of the challenges in this process is that we’re all so focused on the delivery of quality academic instruction, that we have to be careful. You have to be intentional to give equal time and effort to the social emotional needs of children. And you know, let’s not forget if, if you’re an elementary age child. You’ve gotta be wondering, how did we jump from, I need to wash my hands more regularly to my school is closed, my church is closed, and my parents are at home with me all day. That is a massive change in the life of an 8 to 10 year old, much less, for us as adults. And, as much as we want to get it right on the academic front, I think long term, we’ve got to get it right on the social and emotional health front. to make sure that children come out of this crisis healthy and ready to go back to, what we would call normal society. And, it’s just a, it’s a huge piece of this puzzle, but it’s really difficult to navigate from a distance.

Rico: [00:20:08] You know, and it’s interesting, Chris, now that governor Kemp decided to extend, which made sense, to extend the stay at home ‘till the end of the month until the end of April school ends usually for most kids, somewhere at the beginning of may, depending on the school system, County and private, public. So for, you know, for argument’s sake, it’s pretty much the end of the school year for most people. How do you deal with, you know, the, you have, kids then that are not doing what they would love to do, you know, at the end of school, your main, certainly seniors, let’s say not doing the prom, kids that are baseball, soccer, volleyball, volleyball, that might’ve been to go into a championship and not going to be able to make, that might be the last year of school to be able to do that. And they’re gonna miss out on that. Or arts programs and music. How, how is Wesleyan dealing with those? Which is really more hands on then the book learning, if you will, of it. How do you deal with that?

Chris: [00:21:13] Yeah. Rico, it’s a huge aspect of school life at any school, but I can certainly speak to it for Wesleyan. All those things that you mentioned. I feel like just tremendous losses, for our families and our students, whether it’s athletics or fine arts or all of the capstone events that you want to hold with your graduating class. Including graduation itself. All of those things are now in jeopardy. they’re certainly in jeopardy of occurring at their scheduled time. Some of those events, we will have the ability to postpone and to hopefully hold, later on in the calendar if the social distancing guidelines are, decreased from where they are today. But well, I think what we’ve tried to do at this point, first and foremost is to give people permission to, to grieve. So to mourn the loss, if you’re a senior baseball player and you’re not going to get to finish your senior baseball season with your teammates. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be disappointed. It’s okay to go through a grieving process. I think we’ve got to give people permission and space to feel the weight of losing those types of mile marker events in their lives. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think we’ve also got to be honest with people. And be candid and say, here are things that we can’t make up. You know, with the governor’s executive order for schools to remain closed for the rest of the school year, the Georgia high school association, the governing body for athletics in the state for high schools, they have suspended all play for the remainder of the year. So, obviously we can’t make up for the last baseball season or a lost soccer season for our athletes. So what do we do in response to that? You know, we don’t have all the answers now. But I think it’s important for us as a school to say. To those families that we’re sorry, we’re sorry for the loss or sorry for the memories that they’re going to miss out on that it’s okay to be upset and, and then, and in places where we can reschedule or postpone events, we’re gonna work hard to do that, to make sure we can provide those things for our families.

Rico: [00:23:51] Sports is one thing where it’s difficult to do that remotely.

Chris: [00:23:55] That’s right.

Rico: [00:23:56] But you got to send that to that as well.

Chris: [00:24:01] So, absolutely. We have an annual middle school, high school student art show that we put on for a month in the spring and we’ve pivoted and made that a virtual art show so that people can go online and see our students work, through Instagram and, and we’ve encouraged people to, to view student work and to, to comment on it, to send words of affirmation to our students for the quality of their artwork. Obviously we have two plays, a middle school play in a high school play that we’re supposed to take place during this time period. You know, we’ve chosen not to do a remote or a video version of those plays cause we don’t feel great about putting a cast together. Because the cast for both plays is more than 10 people for health and safety reasons. We’ve had to let go of those events and it would be great if we could make those up at a later date. But well, we’re not sure what that later date would look like. And, if we spill into next school year. We have a full calendar in the fall. And so it’s challenging from a calendar standpoint as to when to find the time to do those things. That’s right. Obviously they’ve got to turn the page and go on to the next step in their life, which we want for them. So, you know, we’re just going to have to wade through those issues as they come and we’re trying not to forecast too far into the future. We’re trying not to promise people things we can’t deliver. But at the same time, we want to give people hope that there could be opportunities for lost events, to be made up if the schedule would allow for that.

Rico: [00:25:51] With all, with all that is going on, you know, the exams are being changed, you know, normal, more multiple choice. You have essay writing now you also have the option, kids have the option to take it, not to take it, to wait until next year, to take it. Although I can’t see it taking an AP exam a year later, you all gone out of their heads. So that’s a difficult choice right? And this whole seed generation that I want to call it is, is dealing with this and how colleges will look at them. You know, do we redo the semester? It’s possible to use and they’d like to do that. Right? Who would want to do that? So it’s going to be what it is. Classes are going to be done. We move on to the next grade. And I hope that. We can move it along a little bit. Do you see a silver lining anywhere in this to see something that might come out of this?

Chris: [00:26:45] You know, I do. As I talked to our families and I talked to my colleagues, many parents have commented on that for them. The biggest blessing out of all of this is that it has forced their family to slow down. Many of them have said, I’d never realized how busy and how hectic our schedule had become, and now that we’re forced to be at home, and many of the extra things that we’ve done have been canceled. We now have more time together as a family. I’m hearing about more families eating dinner together. I’m hearing about more families having movie night and game night. And so the parents that I talk to, that, that has been the one positive that they have clung to. Is this increased gift of family time that they would not have gotten otherwise, and many have commented that they hope when they come out of this crisis. That they won’t just immediately revert back to being over-scheduled and being so busy, but that they will take the time to spend more time together as a family. I also, the second thing I think people have commented on is, is how many simple things they have taken for granted. And, their hope that they won’t take those things for granted anymore in the future, the joy of being able to come to school, the joy of being able to go to work. But the chance to go to the grocery store to go to a restaurant whenever they choose to and, and how they had just become
accustomed. So those things being automatics in their life. And once they were taken away, they realized how much they missed them. So I do think people are taking stock of the importance of family time and the joy of the simple pleasures of life that aren’t so readily available anymore. And I think they long for the day when those things will come back.

Rico: [00:28:45] Interesting Chris. I mean, I agree with you. I see it in my family, even though. You know, I work at home for part of the time, but it also, I’m a creative director for a group of newspapers. I’m gone for like 30 hours a week. my kids are out working, although even the two college kids, they’re at home. But they’re at their own schedule and stuff. I found that we have eaten together more, that we are more concerned about each other. That where we can get on each other’s nerves a little bit too. So, you know, everyone’s like in a, like a frat house almost, and everyone’s doing their thing, but then we all get together and do our thing together. So I can see where you’re coming from and certainly I think we, we step away from this, hopefully some, you know, there, there is light at the end of that tunnel. We just don’t know how long that tunnel will keep going. Do you, do you have anything else you’d like to share with Peachtree Corners, community or community at large? That Wesleyan, anything upcoming, anything different that’s happening.

Chris: [00:29:48] Well, you know, Rico, I think, I appreciate your questions. You’ve allowed me to, to answer some things in a very open ended way, and I’m grateful for that. I think, you know, for the Wesleyan community, and I think I see this in Peachtree Corners as a whole, I’m proud of the way that our community has responded. I’m proud that our community wants to be good citizens of our city and of our state, and I feel like our families have taken on an attitude of a willingness to do their part to help slow the spread of this virus. I do think that coming out of this, in addition to the things we just talked about, I get a sense that people are doing a better job of caring for each other. People are taking the time to ask. How are you really doing? And just with the pace of life slowing down, I think people are realizing, you know, I need to slow down more regularly on my own and I need to ask my, my family and my friends and my coworkers how they’re really doing. And, and my hope would be that as a school community, but also just as a city and as a community, as a whole, that we would be people who were more caring and more interested in each other in a personal way, as we come out of this crisis and that we don’t revert back to. What has been a very busy, suburban life that we have all lived and all been victims of the trappings of that life. And, I hope that we don’t forget these difficult times once we come out of this crisis and that we won’t just jump back into business as usual.

Rico: [00:31:44] Yeah. I hope that’s the case. I really do. I think we’ve learned a lot. I think someone out there really slowed it down for us, if you will, to be able to be where we are right now and to be able to get closer to the families that we love dearly. I want to thank Chris Cleveland, head of school at Wesleyan. Chris, you’ve been really good at sharing a lot of stuff about what’s going on at Wesleyan school and in general education and the challenges. So I appreciate you being with us doing that.

Chris: [00:32:18] Well, Rico, thank you for having me. I’d love to come back anytime, really enjoyed this conversation and, just, hope and pray that this crisis will pass soon and that our community can go back to, go back to normal, but hopefully with some lessons learned in the process.

Rico: [00:32:38] Definitely. Hang in there with me for a minute while I sign off.

Chris: [00:32:43] Great.

Rico: [00:32:44] Everyone. Thank you again. This is Rico Figliolini host of Peachtree Corners Life with our guest, Chris Cleveland from Wesleyan school. We have more coming. I’ve learned, if anything, I’ve learned over the last few weeks, some more podcasts than I normally do. My family’s like, do you want another podcast? I’m like, I love to talk to people. You know? It’s just like getting to know them. I mean, we had a Congressman on, a Candidate that had to find new ways to reach out to people in this COVID-19 environment. We had pastor Jay Hackett from PCB, Peachtree Corners Baptist church, coming on to talk about how he’s outreaching to his community. So having someone like Chris out here talking about the school also and how they’re reaching out, everyone’s online. So you can find, by the way. Let me just pull my magazine up here. Peachtree corners magazine. You’ll find it in your mailbox in a few days, but you can also find that online at Living in Peachtree Corners stockpile. I’m hoping to do more of these podcasts. And I appreciate you guys hanging out. Thank you.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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