At the time, he wasn”t exactly sure of what he wanted out of his career path, but he did know one thing he didn”t want out of it.
"I knew I didn”t want to be a farmer," said J. Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent and chief executive officer of Gwinnett County Public Schools.
Growing up in rural Jackson County, just north of Gwinnett, Wilbanks says his family did a lot of farming. And while he certainly didn”t have his sights set on becoming one of the most honored and respected superintendents in the nation, he knew that farm life wasn”t for him.
"When I started college, they put all the students in a room and introduced us to the different department heads. The education department head was a funny guy – I made my decision right on the spot to be a teacher," said Wilbanks.
The Course to Success
Immediately upon graduation from the University of Georgia in 1964, Wilbanks was offered an industrial arts teaching job at Tucker High School in DeKalb County. It didn”t take him long to begin moving up the ladder in the education field.
After only three years as a teacher at Tucker, Wilbanks was asked to be the assistant principal of a school with nearly 2,000 students. He was such a young educator, his peers weren”t so sure of his abilities to handle the position…nor was he.
"One asked me, “Are you really qualified for this job?” I said, “Well, I think so.” But I wasn”t really sure myself," said Wilbanks.
Three years later he moved on to Chamblee High School as assistant principal, and one year after that opened DeKalb”s North Occupational Education Center as principal/director. His years of teaching industrial arts and occupational studies led him to work for the Georgia Department of Education and leave the classroom for a while. As administrator of the Industrial Development Unit, Wilbanks helped to lead the Georgia QuickStart Program to success.
The QuickStart Programprovides customized training at no cost to new or expanding businesses in Georgia. Part of Wilbanks” involvement was to help recruit companies to locate in Georgia to boost the state”s economy, all the while ensuring the state could provide training for employees and a well-educated workforce for the success of the company.
After his stint with the state, Wilbanks finally found his career leading him to Gwinnett County, where he has now been involved for more than 20 years.
He came on board to start working with Gwinnett Technical Institute (now College) while it was just beginning construction in 1982. "I was involved when we bought the land, began drawings," he said. He also was instrumental in finding qualified instructors to teach at what would become the largest technical college in the state.
"Those instructors are very difficult to get," said Wilbanks. "You have to find people who can not only teach, but who also know about the industry."
But the recruitment wasn”t limited to the staff. The technical school also needed students.
"The school was designed to hold 1,700 people. Our first year, we had about 325 full-time students," said Wilbanks.
In 1984 Wilbanks opened Gwinnett Tech as its first president, a job he would hold for the next 12 years. Concurrently, he served Gwinnett County Public Schools as Assistant Superintendent of Occupational and Continuing Education until 1994, when his title changed to Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Continuous Improvement. The Board tapped him as the school system”s CEO/superintendent in March 1996. Wilbanks is quick to give credit to those working with him for the continued success he has experienced.
"We have always had good people for the day-to-day operations," he said, "and throughout