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What are the challenges of digital learning, with Jonathon Wetherington [Podcast]



Jonathon Wetherington

As we continue to move through this global pandemic, schools across the country are having to re-learn and re-imagine what their curriculum looks like. Join Rico Figliolini, Alan Kaplan, and our guest on today’s podcast, Jonathon Wetherington, principal of Paul Duke STEM High School as they discuss how education can work during this time.

Website: https://www.gcpsk12.org/pauldukestemhs
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PaulDukeSTEM/

“And I think the silver lining is that we’re discovering, we’re learning more about our students and how we can better meet their needs at all times. So typically a teacher thinks about how they can meet the students’ needs in their classroom. And now I think that we’re facing the reality of getting to know our students better so we can meet their needs at home as well. And that’s a two way street. The students value the fact that knowing the teacher cares, the teacher’s reaching out. And I think we’re building bridges between parents and teachers and parents and students that will pay dividends for years to come.”

Jonathon Wetherington


[00:00:30] – Intro
[00:02:55] – Facing the Challenges of Online Learning
[00:07:22] – A New-Normal
[00:10:30] – Technicalities and Social Interactions
[00:13:39] – Hands On Activities
[00:16:25] – Staff on Campus
[00:18:50] – Finals
[00:20:18] – Providing Structure
[00:28:15] – Other Staff
[00:29:59] – Silver Linings and Social Media
[00:33:07] – Graduation in 2020

Podcast Transcript

Rico: [00:00:30] Hi everyone. This is Rico Figliolini host of the Ed Hour this week with Alan Kaplan, my cohost. We’ve been gone for a little while, but we’re back and Alan’s going to be introducing our guest in a little bit. Before we get there, I want to be able to introduce our sponsor of this family of podcasts, and that is Hargray Fiber. They’re a fiber company that’s working B2B in the Southeast and successfully in Peachtree Corners and the metropolitan Atlanta area and throughout Georgia. They provide bundle services for enterprise solutions. They are a company that gets your internet done on a very local community basis. They’re not the cable guy, if you will. They’re out there, they’re involved in the community. They involved in everything that we’re doing out there, being active members, good members of the community, and they’re there for the business community as well. In fact, they’re running a promotion right now that is I think it’s 90 days free internet for those that sign up with them. You can find out more information about Hargray Fiber by going to HargrayFiber.com and check them out. Alan, introduce yourself again and what we’re doing here, and then Jonathon, right?

Alan: [00:01:43] Hi, welcome back again, everybody. This is Alan Kaplan. Great to be with you again. It seems like a, we’re all on video more these days, and I hope everyone, this finds everybody well, healthy and happy. I’m thrilled today to have our guest Jonathon Whetherington with us. Some of you may recall that we had Jonathan with us once before when he opened up the Paul Duke STEM high school. Jonathan Whetherington is the principal of the Paul Duke STEM high school serving students of Peachtree Corners, Norcross and the Norcross cluster in the greater Metro Atlanta area for those outside of this area. So, and here with us today, he’s going to talk to us a little bit about, digital learning, the challenges that are facing all of us and all of our students these days. And particularly how Paul Duke STEM high school is addressing the needs of our students through this current new, new challenge of, of learning. So, with that Jonathan, if you could, kind of, you know, talk to us a little bit about what’s happening there and what, what’s some of the challenges are currently.

Johnathon: [00:02:55] Well, Rico and Alan thanks for having me. And so, Paul Duke STEM high school opened, in the fall of 2018 and we opened in a unique model that has positioned us well for the current context. But, I’ll talk some more about that. But when we opened, we were basically serving students face to face every, four days a week. And then on Fridays, we’ve been doing digital learning for the last year and a half. Which has prepared our teachers and our students for an online learning environment. But where we find ourselves today, in a continuous state of online learning, is different than where we started. We feel like we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last 18 months that have helped our students be successful today. We’ve also shared the things that we’ve learned with our sister high schools in the, in Gwinnett County and have really worked together with district leaders and other school leaders to help come up with the best, best options to support students at not only Paul Duke STEM, but all of our high schools. So thinking about some of the challenges that we face. So I would say some of the challenges that we currently face are just the reality of teaching online in a continuous basis. So one of the things that exist when you teach students is you, you convey information, right? We’ve all been there. The teacher tells us what, what they want us to learn. We read the assignments, we do the practice problems. But sometimes we find ourselves in a situation
where we’re making little mistakes, things that the teacher couldn’t prep us for, and we get stuck in those ruts. And there are some nuances in teaching that are more difficult to deliver digitally. And so that’s some work that we’re doing right now. Other challenges we face are around student access. Some of our students don’t have reliable access to technology or the internet. And so it becomes a challenge to work with both those contexts.

Alan: [00:04:50] So, so Jonathan, so initially Gwinnett County and Paul Duke STEM high school did have something in place to be able to learn digitally. Tell us a little bit about how, what that was set up for and then how that has transformed into what you’re doing today.

Johnathon: [00:05:07] That’s a great question. So really over the last, over 10 years, honestly, Gwinnett County public schools has been gradually transitioning to more and more digital learning. And so almost a decade ago, we launched our E-Class initiative, which is an electronic digital not only platform, but experience by which our students take tests. They learn, they engage both at school and at home with their teachers and with content in a powerful way. And so we started that journey almost a decade ago. And over the last few years we have used digital learning days to get through some weather situations where the weather prevented students from being able to go to school. We didn’t have to cancel school. We were able to have school digitally. And so Gwinnett has engaged regularly over the last couple of years in digital learning days.

Rico: [00:06:01] Now, is that the case, that’s not really the case throughout all of Gwinnett County, or is that select schools?

Johnathon: [00:06:07] No, all of Gwinnett. It started with a few schools back in I think 2011 and so gradually over the last eight, nine years. We have all progressed. We’re all schools that had at least one or two digital learning days due to weather in the last two years.

Rico: [00:06:23] You know, and I probably would ask you the question a little. This is far a field for you. I mean, the lower grades, obviously the high schools are doing it, but I’m not sure how has the middle schools or the elementary schools dealing with it. But certainly I would think it’s a challenge for them even more.

Johnathon: [00:06:39] I think the, when you look at digital learning at lower grades, and even at high school, it becomes a partnership with the, with the family. So you have to remember that the child’s first teacher is its parents. And so parents are playing an important role. And the younger the student is the more important role that parent plays. But even at the high school level, parents are important. We interact with parents a lot as we support and encourage students. So really at the lower, lower grades, you’re talking about being a really tight partnership with parents. And then over time, those local school assumes more of that responsibility. And in a digital environment, that partnership is really emphasized. And I think you are both parents. You’ve seen that. And live that reality as well.

Rico: [00:07:22] What, what does it look like for a normal, for a child to be doing digital learning on a day like today? I know some schools are using zoom, but not everyone does that. And then some have portals like Gwinnett County has a portal system. So how does a typical day look like for a student at Paul Duke STEM high school?

Johnathon: [00:07:42] So that, no, that’s a great question. So today is actually a gold day. We use our school colors to designate what goes on on a given day. On blue days, students have assignments from their language arts, social studies, science, and health PE classes. And on gold days they have their math classes, their technology classes, fine arts and world languages. And so we don’t have the students doing assignments for every class every day. Over the last 18 months, we’ve learned that the students needed some sort of balance. It’s hard to figure out the right dose of learning to give a student, and if they’re doing learning in all seven, six classes. It can sometimes overwhelm the student.

Rico: [00:08:22] Do you use a lot of videos or being, you know, everyone’s familiar with like zoom, especially if you tele-working, you get a dozen people on the screen. Is that the same thing from Paul Duke or is it different? Is it more document based?

Johnathon: [00:08:36] We do recorded videos so that the student can watch the video, stop it, play it back, record it, and then we do independent activities. And then our teachers have three hours of office hours per week at designated times so the students can check in with the teachers if they’re struggling. Cause sometimes you just need to hear it explained a couple of different ways.

Alan: [00:09:03] So with, with that, you know, so one of my questions was about lesson planning. So you said that there’s prerecorded videos that the students watch. Tell us from a teacher’s perspective, what are they facing in terms of lesson planning? What, what are their challenges in planning these lessons differently than they had to before?

Johnathon: [00:09:25] I would say the first thing is, is that. Teachers love what they teach, but they love the students that they teach more. And so I think there’s an emotional toll that this plays on teachers where they, none of them, very few of our teachers got into this to do teaching this way. So they’re often, there’s an emotional undercurrent to this, to where the teachers want to be there for their students. They want their students to be successful. They want to help their students learn and maximize their success. So teachers have some stress from that, and so they’re really trying to figure out creative and interesting ways to deliver the content to students. So they’re oftentimes working with their peers to design the lesson and then record some of the video based instruction that’s necessary. I was talking with a teacher today and she was explaining that she started off just kind of giving the directions on the screen in bullets. Now she still does that, but she records a little video of herself reading the bullets to the kids because students are used to people doing that. They’re used to those adults guiding them along the way, and she found that really helped her students.

Rico: [00:10:30] Do you find the technical part of being a teacher, the, the administrative part. Has that changed? I mean, are we still taking attendance? I know that some school systems worry about you have to take attendance or you don’t have to take it. Is the parent calling in to say, yes, my child’s doing the work, or how do you handle that aspect of it?

Johnathon: [00:10:51] So we don’t take attendance. What we do is we look for student work completion. So we give assignments to students, and then we expect them over the course of a couple of days to complete those assignments. So in some of the case of some of our students, they’re out there working and the current situation has given them a greater opportunity to work. So they’re working in grocery stores, fast food restaurants. So some of our students are actually in more essential jobs than our teachers are because their students are going out into the world working and then coming home and doing their learning.

Alan: [00:11:25] Is there any opportunity, Jonathan, for, you know, one of the things that kids, most kids like about school is their opportunity to socially interact with students and to see their friends as well as their teachers that they’ve made, they’ve, they’ve created bonds with. Is there that any live opportunity for them to engage as a group of their classmates and or teachers?

Johnathon: [00:11:50] Yes. So every student has at least three hours that they can engage live with their teacher. Of course, with all seven teachers at our school, three hours that they can pick throughout the week to engage with their teacher. And we built a master schedule that prevents the math teacher from having office hours at the same time as the language arts teacher in the same time science teacher. Which allows teachers to check in with different students at different times without creating scheduling conflicts. That gets to be a big issue when you get to large numbers of students.

Alan: [00:12:20] With one teacher though, is there any type of group video that can take place with multiple students and the teacher?

Johnathon: [00:12:27] Actually, those teacher office hours, oftentimes multiple students will jump in. And we see that going on. We see it really powerfully with our world language teacher. So our French teachers have done some great job, have done a great job with bringing multiple students together at the same time so students can interact in French or Spanish. And so those, those language teachers are really good at. The other thing, really with just our seniors. We actually have a senior play date every day or every week at 3:30 on Wednesdays. And with our seniors, you know, losing some of the other things to their senior year, to help mitigate that and to help them stay emotionally connected with each other. We do a Google meet where. All of them actually come in. And last week we actually had 80% of our seniors joining into that group.

Alan: [00:13:17] Wow. Wow. That’s amazing participation.

Johnathon: [00:13:21] Yeah, it is. And so they’re chit chatting with each other. They enjoy seeing each other. And we do see that with our students, even with younger students, older
students, they will, they miss that contact. With the teachers and the students that they care about. And so it’s great to see their faces light up when they’re happy to see you.

Rico: [00:13:39] You know, with, Paul Duke’s a little different from, let’s say, Norcross, where there’s more sports. Actually they do sports there let’s say, so I can, you know, that, that it’s a whole different animal altogether now with sports. Those poor kids not being able to do, you know, go to championships, things that they’ve trained for you have to do. But Paul Duke also has. Theater, right? You have Music. So how has that, how so? How is that more hands on stuff? How’s that being handled?

Johnathon: [00:14:08] So that requires a lot of creativity for the teachers to how do you teach dance or, you know, how to play the cello or the Viola.

Rico: [00:14:17] Or graphic design, right?

Johnathon: [00:14:21] So those interactive experiences and the culminating products look different than the math class does. And so those teachers have been really creative in how they approach that. I know our dance teacher has been recording videos of some exercises and movements that she does and been sharing those with dance teachers across the school district because it can often get monotonous to be learning the same sort of thing from the same teacher. So I know in, in Gwinnett County public schools, the dance teachers are trading video lessons, basically choreography where their choreography dances and then they’re giving that to other students. So that, the students are learning just like they would from different choreographers if they were really in class.

Rico: [00:15:04] Wow. That’s phenomenal. I mean that I can see how that can reinvigorate almost a learning situation.

Johnathon: [00:15:11] It takes away some of the monotony and boredom that comes from hearing the same talking head every day.

Rico: [00:15:17] Yes. I can’t see doing classwork four hours straight on a portal, although I see my son comes down at a certain hour, he finishes at a certain hour, he’s actually the next right in the dining room next to my office, and he’s doing his thing. I can see it and he’s chitchatting with his friends on another computer as well, and it’s just, you know. It’s a good thing.

Johnathon: [00:15:35] And that is a good thing and it makes me feel good to know that students are doing that, that they are finding ways to socially connect since one of the big places that they socially connect is school.

Rico: [00:15:46] Right, right. And the portal doesn’t quite give you that out of that, that part of it. You can’t quite talk to your friends on there, but they’re using other, you know, whether it’s
Google hangout or for them, I think it’s discord or some other online services. But they’re chatting while they’re doing stuff.

Alan: [00:16:04] So, so Jonathan, obviously the teachers are working remotely, but there’s a, there are certain staff that’s necessary.

Rico: [00:16:18] You’re gonna have to come back again. Alan, hold on. Sorry. You’re freezing up, buddy. And this happens, technology.

Johnathon: [00:16:25] That’s, and I think a little bit of what Alan was asking is that there are, the teachers are working from home, but we do have staff members on campus. So our cafeteria, our cafeteria workers are on campus. Preparing student lunches. We have our custodians are getting the building ready, keeping it clean, and getting it ready for when students eventually do return. We have a few administrators on campus that are working through administrative tasks that we need to finish out the year. I come into work every day and, you know, oversee that, have meetings digitally with, community partners, teachers, students, parents. You know, in many ways, you know, schools are cornerstones of our community and to totally close them down, it’s almost greater wounds us at this time. And so keeping schools open, being a place where students can find resources or connect with someone, even if it’s on the phone, is important.

Rico: [00:17:26] So are you guys practicing social distancing, wearing masks and all that I guess?

Johnathon: [00:17:31] We are. So we, actually work in separate offices. We don’t actually interact. It’s pretty, it’s pretty antisocial or sterile for a school, but the lights are on. We’re taking care of people. We’re able to deal with some needs. We are actually even now loaning Chromebooks. So we have some students whose technology has either broken in the time we’ve been off school or their access hasn’t been consistent. So we’ve been able to loan some Chromebooks and help students have the access they need.

Rico: [00:18:02] I think the last day of school was May 20th for Gwinnett County.

Johnathon: [00:18:12] That’s correct.

Rico: [00:18:13] Right. So it’s a four day learning week. Friday’s like a day off because everything’s consolidated into that four day week schedule until the 20th.

Johnathon: [00:18:22] Well, it’s not really a day off. We, we use that day to catch up with students to connect with them. We find a lot of our students may have taken a quiz that week and not done very well. So Friday gives us a chance to reteach, give them a chance to perform as well as they normally would. Normally, not in a school week, you know, you would be able to
intervene in real time. But since our students aren’t doing school in real time, we need a day to kind of check in on them, maintain their learning, and push them forward.

Rico: [00:18:50] How would you, how are you handling finals? You know, end of semester testing?

Johnathon: [00:18:59] So regarding final exams in a semester, so we will be doing final exams at the end of the semester. They’ll look a little different. Testing has to look a little different in this environment. You can’t, it’s not just going to be your bubble sheets or essay tests. So we have to find some different ways to ensure our students can show us what they know.

Rico: [00:19:20] Well. Yeah, that would make sense. Also, you know I think, if you did multiple choices, I can see people on the, on the second device trying to figure out what everyone’s doing. It could be a problem, right?

Johnathon: [00:19:32] Well, and you know, in Rico, that’s a great point. I mean, we’ve even seen the college board is going to be doing AP testing. It allowed students to do the test at home, and so they’ve moved away from multiple choice tests and they’re going to more free response, constructive response. The students can answer on a computer. Or even hand write and take a picture and submit under a short time frame. So we know that teenagers can often be creative, collaborative learners and while that’s a beneficial 21st century skill.

Rico: [00:20:03] Love the way you put that.

Johnathon: [00:20:04] You’re welcome. Yeah. We really want our students to be able to show us what they know, not what their friends know. So we come up with some creative ways to help us ensure that we’re actually assessing the student.

Rico: [00:20:15] Good.

Alan: [00:20:18] So, so Johnathon you know, one of the, the, in addition to keep our, our kids learning and moving forward, you know, one of the great benefits I see of, of the digital learning through this crisis is providing our kids structure. To be out of the norm in most aspects of their life with the shelter in place and so forth. This begins to add back some, some normalcy or structure to their lives that they would otherwise be missing. And, you know, and I worry about that a little bit because summer is coming and while they’re normally, you know, have that free time and lack of structure in the summer, that’s something that’s typically desired. I worry that without the structure, that our kids have the opportunity now I worry about my own kids is where does that place us with this summer, if we still find ourselves in this situation this summer? I almost wish that there was a way to have an opportunity for these kids to continue to learn, but also to have this community structure, this structure. As you said, the school is a cornerstone of our community and it’s providing such an important role beyond just education to help kids manage through this crisis. Though I don’t know if there is anything that’s available through the
schools to help our kids through the summer if we’re still in the situation. But, can you, you have any thoughts on that?

Johnathon: [00:21:46] Yes. So I know that one of the things that we’re considering is really what might that look like. And so we know that school plays an important part in providing structure in students’ lives, but also you know, teachers last day of employment by their contract is the 22nd. So there’s this, there’s this middle ground, I think, or this place where we can give resources to parents, give resources to students to help them maintain that structure as they move from May to June and then into July. Hopefully things will continue to improve. That people will keep social distance in mind, even as folks start to go back to work. But I am hopeful that we can begin to gain some of the, regain some of those structures in our environment so that we can give people a break from school. I think it’s, it’s, it’d be time for a break by the time we get to the end of the semester, but then how can we also give our students structure. When they haven’t been in school physically since really mid March.

Rico: [00:22:48] Yeah. How do you plan even, how do you plan out, like even looking at long term. Because you know, yes, we may roll out of this the beginning of May, middle of May, end of May. Who knows, and what does it look like going back to school in August?

Johnathon: [00:23:04] Correct.

Rico: [00:23:04] And especially if they talk about being prepared for a second wave or the way we have to be different socially. So this way we don’t catch a second wave, maybe, but is that being discussed somewhere?

Johnathon: [00:23:18] Oh, absolutely. Our district leaders are having these conversations. We’re thinking through all the possibilities. We want our students to be safe. We want them to be learning effectively. You know, it’s not worth putting people at risk to, to endanger people. So we’re looking at all the possibilities. We’re thinking about how we can leverage the, the lessons that we’re learning now for this year and for the future.

Rico: [00:23:41] Now, it was, I was thinking about the other day, before today’s podcast, I was thinking a little bit about when I visited and checked out the 3D printers, you guys had the mechatronics. Looking at that, looking at the code and looking at the, even the movie equipment that you guys have to be able to shoot films, the greenscreen. None of that is being able to be used at this point it seems. Which is a shame, right?

Johnathon: [00:24:07] Right.

Rico: [00:24:08] So how I don’t know, what do you do with that?

Johnathon: [00:24:12] So, so right now we are looking at, you know, we’ve, we’ve checked out some things to students, some films, and so we actually had a student, some of our students in
our filmmaking classes are using their phones, to make films as they’re out in appropriate social distancing backyard film, so to speak, that they’re making with their families. Or we’ve also loaned a few pieces out to students who are working on more sustained projects. And so we’re trying to find ways to use those resources. We’ve looked, tried to look for some partnerships with the 3D printers. We know that there are some, some folks that can leverage those successfully. So we’ve reached out to a few people, we’re waiting to hear back about ways that we can use the resources we have in the school since the school’s open to some employees to be able to use the resources we have to do good in our community.

Rico: [00:24:59] Great idea, actually. As far as the challenges that you’re facing on, you know, you were telling us before about how students can use the free time to talk to teachers and such. And that’s a choice that a student needs to make. You know how kids are sometimes, no, I know enough, or no, I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to interact. Why don’t you email? No, I don’t need to do that. How do you sort of not force it upon them, but how do you, do you do any of that to try a proactive use of, of that, that work?

Johnathon: [00:25:35] So, you know, I would, what I would tell parents is, is that I have two seniors myself, and then I have an eighth grader and we have, we have a contract worked out per se. So that as long as they’re doing their work and they’re performing well in their online learning, their face to face sessions can continue to be optional. But if they start to struggle a little bit, then they need to go to the face to face session. And then actually with my youngest student, I require her to go to at least every other online session. Because I think as students at the younger, they are, the more important it is to kind of force them, you know, to interact. And cause they don’t realize the benefit that comes from that interaction. Whereas a more mature student or an older student might be more autonomous, might be able to better self-regulate. So it is really up to each, each parent and student to find that perfect media. But what I want our parents to know, or parents around the world to know is that your teachers care about your students. They want to see them interact live when possible. And they certainly want to, to know when the, the parent needs additional help.

Alan: [00:26:45] Well, I, you know, I think you said it earlier, Jonathan, is, you know, our teachers and… As being a big impact to them, not being able to interact with them the way that they traditionally have and just still stay motivated and focused and on track themselves to be able to continue to help our students continue to learn while still dealing. With the challenges that they have personally and emotionally through this process. And, and so, you know, speaking for the teachers that then my kids are interacting with in their schools. I’m, so most impressed with, with the ability of these teachers to, forge forward, to stay motivated, to stay positive for the benefit of our kids.

Johnathon: [00:27:29] Yeah. Our, our teachers, we certainly are. Healthcare workers, folks on the frontline first responders are heroes, but I think this has been an interesting place where teachers have really emerged and showed some of their superpowers. They have really stepped up their efforts to really help our students be successful. And really the teachers want
the students to be successful. They’re being very creative in how they tackle some of those challenges, knowing that our students are facing very unique challenges. More unique than typically we see in a school where everybody’s in the same room at the same time, same amount of time with the teacher. We can control some of those variables. In our current context, the variables are less controlled, so the teachers are really looking for how they can rise to the challenge.

Rico: [00:28:15] What about the other staffing? I mean, you have, you know, bus drivers, obviously there’s no driving at this point. How, you know, I know this, the school system is actually still hiring. I’ve seen ads where they’re still hiring. The school goes back and eventually you need bus drivers, right?

Johnathon: [00:28:35] So we see our bus, so our bus drivers right now, some of them are delivering lunches, and so they’re actually delivering meals into the community. Every, you know, we have 68 schools that are preparing lunches and breakfast now. We’ve now have breakfast and lunch, being prepared, delivered in the community. And so our bus drivers are doing some of that, with our cafeteria teams. So that has really been amazing to see students come out every day, walk to their bus stop. You know, get a lunch and be able to go back home. So those little things matter, and Alan, you were referring to those routines and those important pieces, those little things matter when stuff starts to get chaotic in the rest of the world. And so the little details really become important. And so I’m just grateful to, to those bus drivers, to the cafeteria workers. You know, our school counselors are actually still available and they’re meeting with students on regular basis, providing social emotional support, but also working with kids as they try to get into colleges. So those kinds of nuance details. Our clerical workers are calling in and checking on our students. And parents making sure they’re okay. What really online learning does is it forces us to really reach out into the community more so than I think we did when we were a brick and mortar institution, which has its benefits.

Rico: [00:29:57] Is there a silver lining to this?

Alan: [00:29:59] And I think Jonathan. Sorry, I sorry, Rico. I think there’s a delay with us, but I heard you mentioned a silver lining, and that’s kind of plays into what I was going to say is, you know, providing this structure as we get through this crisis, having our schools there and having the staff and teachers doing what they’re doing. I really see our schools as an anchor in this storm. To our students and to our community. So all, all of you and all of them were, you know, as parents and community members were extremely grateful for that stability that the schools are providing our community.

Johnathon: [00:30:42] Well, thank you. And I think the silver lining is that we’re discovering, we’re learning more about our students and how we can better meet their needs at all times. So typically a teacher thinks about how they can meet the students’ needs in their classroom. And now I think that we’re facing the reality of getting to know our students better so we can meet their needs at home as well. And that’s a two way street. The students value the fact that
knowing the teacher cares, the teacher’s reaching out. And I think we’re building bridges between parents and teachers and parents and students that will pay dividends for years to come.

Rico: [00:31:20] Yeah. Norcross high school is using social media to an extent to be able to get some things going and out there. And Paul Duke does the same, you know, I mean, it was another thing. I think seeing your pictures on Instagram that. Is there anything supposed to that Paul Duke is doing on their, on their social media?

Johnathon: [00:31:40] We’ve done a few things on social media to, to really engage our students, to really make them laugh sometimes. And so we did a faculty and staff truth or dare before spring break where we basically, you know, different staff members challenged each other to truth or dares, recorded those on Instagram and posted it. And we really saw our followership increased during that window. And then now some of our teachers actually get on to their, their Instagram stories and basically walk through the day’s lesson so the student can wake up first thing in the morning if they’re following their teacher, kind of walk here with their teacher’s lesson for the day is. And now we are highlighting our seniors. Really trying to find ways to celebrate the work of our seniors and the work of our students because our students need to remember that we do care about all of them and the work they do matters.

Rico: [00:32:31] Yeah. I don’t know. It feels like the Z generation is going to be lost at some point. School’s going to be over soon. Hopefully, you know, I think at one point there was a rumor, Oh, they’re going to make us do the semester over again. I know that’s not going to happen right. But, yeah, it’s a challenge for everyone, I’m sure.

Johnathon: [00:32:54] It is. And we’ve been, we’ve been in this situation for about a month, and the good news is we’ve got about a month or greater until school gets out. So we’ve still got some time for some good learning to happen.

Rico: [00:33:06] Cool.

Alan: [00:33:07] So Jonathan, so what is, what is the end of the, yeah. What, what does graduation look like for this year’s class, for 2020?

Johnathon: [00:33:18] So I’m glad you asked that question, Alan. So we are actually getting ready to hand out caps and gowns in a no contact fashion next week. So students will actually be coming to all Gwinnett high schools on Monday through Wednesday of next week to pick up their caps and gowns and senior regalia. We’ll be doing contact list delivery right into people’s trunks as they drive through all of Gwinnett county’s high schools. The students are then gonna have the opportunity to take that regalia, put it on, and then take their best picture. I know for my daughters, that activity may take them half a day to take a picture. And so they’re going to, they’re going to be able to do that. And then from there they’ll then send the pictures into the school and working with our television and media crew at the district level, we’re putting together
a virtual graduation ceremony for each of our, each of our high schools. And that’s, that’s going to be unique and different. And the good news is we’re also planning if everything goes well, a face to face graduation in July.

Rico: [00:34:23] Wow, that would be cool. Are they getting a yearbook as well?

Johnathon: [00:34:28] They will get yearbooks, so there’ll be a yearbook pickup coming up. And so we’re learning how to do all sorts of things in new and efficient ways.

Rico: [00:34:37] That’s cool. Well we’ve, I think we’ve come to the end of our time together here. Do you want to Jonathan, do you want to share anything else at this point before we go off?

Johnathon: [00:34:52] Well, I just want to say thanks for the opportunity to come on to share a little bit of what’s going on at Paul Duke STEM. But in schools across our country and our state, you know, the opportunity that educators have to impact students has been, has been impacted by this event, by the virus. But I would say that we have shown, just like we do in a lot of situations, that the power of the human spirit is strong and that there’s a desire for people to connect. There’s a desire for those cornerstone institutions in our communities to rally around our families, our children. Those that need us the most and really be there for them. And so I’m just excited to tell a little bit of our story, but also a story that’s going on in every community around our great country.

Alan: [00:35:39] Jonathan, thank you so, so much for, for everything that you’re doing, for everything that your team’s doing and for all of the teachers and support staff in our schools that are listening. We truly are grateful for everything that you’re doing for our kids. And again for our community. And, uh, I, I agree. I think we’ll all come out stronger and more close knit community, both with our schools and again, just grateful for everything that y’all are doing.

Johnathon: [00:36:08] Yeah. Well thank you both for what y’all are doing.

Rico: [00:36:11] Thank you Jonathan hang in there with, with us for a minute while Alan and I sign off here. Alan? Want to share anything else with our audience at this point?

Alan: [00:36:20] Well, again, I just hope everybody listening and that this podcast finds them well and healthy. And for those of you that are facing challenges and sometimes extreme challenges through this, I wish you peace and strength and wish you the very best through the crisis. And I’m looking forward to moving forward together through this.

Rico: [00:36:46] Yes. Thank you Alan, and thank you Jonathan and everyone else. We look forward to the next episode at some point. Peachtree Corners Life is also airing. Continuing to do interviews. We have one tonight, by the way, with a County commission candidate. Believe it or not, there are elections going on, so we’ll be doing that and hopefully you all have received Peachtree Corners Life. Which has a cover story about rather Peachtree corners magazine,
which has a cover story about digital learning and how the schools in the area are dealing with it. So this was a good complimentary, three on one talk, if you will, about the subject. So thank you all. Appreciate it.

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Spring Voting Will Determine Important Gwinnett School Board Elections



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 21st

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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Norcross High School Foundation for Excellence Celebrates Trio of Educators



As the Norcross High School Foundation of Excellence looks to the future, it continues to build on its legacy of educational success.

The Norcross High School (NHS) Foundation for Excellence shows what a community can achieve when it rallies around educational success. The Foundation was established in 2001 as a 501(c)(3) corporation. It has been key in filling the gap between state and county funding, ensuring that every Norcross High School student has access to a great education.

“The NHS Foundation Board, in its efforts to support its mission, meets monthly with school administration officials to better understand their vision for the school, which consists of three main pillars:  student achievement, staff retention, and community support,” commented Erin Griffin, co-president of the NHS Foundation.

Through its fundraising efforts, the NHS Foundation aims to create a nurturing environment where students and staff can thrive together.

The NHS Foundation’s fundraising supports this vision. It does so by raising and giving funds to the following categories:

  • Teacher Grants for large and small classroom or department resources,
  • Staff Recognition,
  • Instructional Funds for miscellaneous supplies,
  • Capital Improvements,
  • Endowment and
  • Principal’s Discretionary Fund.

Taking great education to the next level

The Foundation’s core values focus on making great education even better. The mission is clear: build community support and raise funds to foster excellence in academics, arts and athletics. It’s all underpinned by a belief in the potential success of every student.

A highlight of the Foundation’s annual efforts is its gala, which started in 2005. This event not only raises funds but also celebrates the contributions of individuals who have positively impacted the NHS community. 

In 2023, the gala had a “teacher wish brick” initiative. It let attendees support specific teacher needs. It ended up. raising over $25,000, showing the community’s investment in its school.

“In 2023, supporters purchased more than $25,000 in bricks, ranging from $50 in JROTC supplies to $1,000 in sheet music and instrument mouthpieces for the band and orchestra,” said Griffin.

The annual gala was started to raise funds for Norcross High School and create community awareness. 

The first gala was hosted at the home of Jan and Aaron Lupuloff. What began as a gathering at their home expanded into an event that now attracts over 500 guests. 

“Each year, the gala is a celebration of individuals who significantly contribute to the advancement of arts, athletics and academics at Norcross High School and an opportunity for families and community members to support the work of the NHS Foundation,” Griffin added. 

Meet the 2024 honorees

Weare Gratwick has a wealth of experience from over 35 years in the banking industry. He has significantly influenced the financial and communal landscape of Peachtree Corners. His tenure as the Gwinnett Market President for Tandem Bank and role as Vice Mayor for the Peachtree Corners City Council demonstrate his commitment to local governance and economic development. 

Gratwick’s involvement with the NHS Foundation Board as Treasurer showcases his dedication to educational excellence. 

But his connection goes even deeper. His daughters are NHS alumni and he has been active in the community since 1995. Gratwick also has leadership roles in many civic and community organizations. 

“I am honored to be recognized by the Norcross High School Foundation who continues to do important work ensuring NHS remains a great school.  Quality schools are at the heart of a vibrant community and NHS continues to be essential to the success of both the Peachtree Corners and Norcross communities,” Gratwick expressed.

Kirk Barton has been a pillar in the NHS community since 1999. First serving as a health and PE teacher and coach, his transition to Activities and Athletic Director was significant.

Under his direction, NHS secured 12 State Championships in multiple sports. Barton’s administrative role grew his influence. He now supports not only athletics but also the fine arts, enriching the school’s culture and extracurricular activities. 

He was recognized four times as the region athletic director of the year. He was also named twice as the classification athletic director of the year for Georgia. These honors mirror his skill in sports administration and community leadership. 

Barton is married with grandchildren. His personal life adds a layer of community connection and shows his deep commitment to the area he serves.

Lynne Zickel Kliesrath’s journey from a dedicated volunteer to an essential administrative member at NHS is a story of unwavering commitment to educational support. 

She started as a volunteer when her eldest daughter began kindergarten. Kliesrath was very involved in the Collins Hill cluster’s PTA and school councils. This set the stage for her deep engagement with the educational system. 

Her move to a GCPS employee and later roles in NHS, especially as the athletic assistant, show her varied contributions and dedication. 

She was also the recipient of the Dave Hunter Community Service Award and the title of “Staff Member of the Month.” 

“Thank you to the Norcross High School Foundation for this great honor and for my recognition into the Hall of Fame. And I want to say how much we appreciate everything the foundation does for our students, our staff, and the Norcross High School community. Thank you for making me a part of the Norcross High School Foundation family!” exclaimed Kliesrath.

What’s next for the NHS Foundation?

These three individuals have varied yet connected paths that have contributed to Norcross High School and its community. Their lives and careers are emblematic of the Foundation’s ethos, valuing community engagement, educational support and excellence.

As the Foundation looks to the future, it continues to build on its legacy of excellence, ensuring that Norcross High School remains a beacon of educational success. The dedication of individuals like Gratwick, Barton and Kliesrath, coupled with the community’s ongoing support, ensures that the Foundation will continue to play a vital role in shaping the leaders of tomorrow. The next NHS Foundation Gala will be held on April 19 at the Crowne Plaza Atlanta NE in Norcross.

Find more Peachtree corners education stories here.

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