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National Merit Scholarship Corporation Recognizes Eight Wesleyan Seniors



The college advising office at Wesleyan recently announced that eight of its high school seniors were recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation for exceptional academic achievement. 

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an annual academic competition that recognizes a student’s outstanding performance on their junior year PSAT. 

Seniors Josh Kavel and Dina Samson were named National Merit Semifinalists, an honor that only 1% of seniors (approximately 16,000 total) nationwide, receive based on their PSAT scores.

These seniors will submit essays, hoping to become finalists and earn scholarship money from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Finalists will be announced in February. 

Additionally, seniors Alex Ebert, Kallaghan Freeman, Daniel Lim, Papa Ohemeng-Mensah, Junie Shin and Tengle Wang were named National Merit Commended students. Approximately 2% of seniors nationwide receive this recognition. 

Congratulations to these seniors and their families.

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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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Stripling Elementary Takes Next Steps to Grow STEM Education



Stripling Elementary embarks on a journey with the launch of its STEM Garden, fostering curiosity and exploration among students.
Stripling Elementary Principal Molly McAuliffe // Photos by George Hunter

“Today marks a significant milestone for Stripling Elementary School in our journey toward fostering curiosity and exploration in the hearts and minds of our young learners,” said Principal Molly McAuliffe as she gathered with staff, students, parents and community members. The occasion marked the launch of the Stripling STEM Garden on Thursday, March 21.

“We embark on an exciting adventure that aligns perfectly with our vision, mission and beliefs. Our vision is clear. We aim to cultivate responsible, empathetic and driven world-class leaders,” she said. 

“This garden will serve as a tangible expression of these aspirations. It will provide our students with opportunities to develop the skills and qualities necessary to thrive in an ever-changing world through hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering and math,” she stated. 

“They will learn not only academic concepts but also the importance of responsibility, empathy and drive and become the leaders of tomorrow,” McAuliffe added.

Celebrating the STEM garden

Over the summer, McAuliffe and her team of educators decided to pursue STEM certification, a five-year process that teaches the school to use an integrated curriculum driven by exploratory project-based learning and student-centered development of ideas and solutions.

“At the heart of our mission is the commitment to develop literate student citizens who are effective communicators, critical thinkers, innovative problem solvers and productive members of society,” said McAuliffe. 

“This STEM garden embodies our dedication to this mission by providing a dynamic environment where students can collaborate, communicate and think critically as they engage in authentic real-world challenges,” she eloquently stated.

What it means to be STEM-certified

Fourth-grade student Anissa Rodriguez welcomed guests to the ceremony and talked about how STEM has already changed her perception of education.

“I really like STEM because you get to build fun solutions for problems in the world,” she said.

Student Anissa Rodriguez

“Last year, in third grade, me and my class did a project where we had to save the animals in Australia from all the wildfires. I liked this project because it helped me build my collaboration and it made me feel like I was doing something important in the world,” she beamed.

And she also shared the enthusiasm just about every student has for the new garden.

“I am also really excited about our school garden … because I will be learning skills through STEM that will help me learn how to garden so that way I can help my grandma with her garden,” she said to chuckles from the crowd. 

“It will also help me learn more skills on how to collect data that will impact our next steps. I can’t wait to get my hands dirty with the other students at Stripling Elementary and make positive changes in our community,” she explained.

Building education together

The garden is planned as a true community effort.

“Starting in April, we’re going to have a community workday to help us build the garden beds, and then we’re going to plan pollinator plants,” said Rebecca Phillips, the school’s STEM coordinator.

The school hopes to donate produce to food assistance programs and allow students to take home food.

“We’re going to open the garden during the summers [and allow] families to adopt the garden for a week,” said Phillips. “They can take care of it, and they get to keep the vegetables that grow here.”

The Great Georgia Pollinator Census

Additionally, Stripling will participate in the Great Georgia Pollinator Census, a program designed to educate people about the kinds of insects in the world and how to identify useful insects from pests.

Stripling’s STEM focus will be on agriculture, so the garden and all the lessons surrounding it fit right in with the curriculum, said Phillips.

But to be successful, the school needs the community’s help. The Rotary Club of Peachtree Corners has already donated $5,000, and the Norcross Garden Club has signed on as an advisor.

How to get involved

Community members who are interested in supporting Stripling’s STEM initiative can donate directly to Stripling Elementary School via check. 

“We have a STEM account we are using to support supplies for STEM education, including our garden,” said McAuliffe.

Businesses can also donate directly to the school for the STEM initiative either financially or with supplies.

To donate supplies, contact STEM Coordinator Rebecca Phillips at rebecca.phillips@gcpsk12.org.

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