Gwinnett Magazine recently sat down for a long chat with former GCPS superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks about his life in education. Listen to the story in the newest episode of the Gwinnett Podcast, available in English (see player above), Español and 한국어로 (Korean)!
It was a snowy day in 1986 and the president of two-year-old Gwinnett Technical College had just discovered, firsthand, that getting to school that day was going to be a lot harder than he thought.
“I had gone up to school and as I crossed what is now Sugarloaf, there was kind of a (low place in the road). Well, unbeknownst to me, the snow was deep (there) … and the car just stopped.”
J. Alvin Wilbanks laughs, recalling his struggle to keep the school open.
“So, I went out and got a tractor from the horticulture department and cleaned out the snow. We spent a good day cleaning off the parking lot and the sidewalks.”
It got the job done and school was open for business. “You do what you need to do,” Wilbanks says.
More than three decades later as superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, Wilbanks kept that determination to stay open whether the obstacle was snow, natural disasters or even a global pandemic.
“I’m a firm believer that kids need to be in school…We have a job to educate kids,” he says.
Education and its impact on the community have been Wilbanks’ passion for almost 60 years, and until the Gwinnett County Board of Education terminated his contract a year before it expired, nothing had slowed him down. No reason was given for releasing Wilbanks before his contract expired, though the vote to do so ran along party lines, with the three Democrats voting to remove him. Wilbanks had already announced he’d be leaving when his contract expired in 2022.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” said Wilbanks at a school board meeting the night of his dismissal in March. “I’ve had a great career. I’ve worked with some of the finest people that exist, most of them here in this district … but there is a time for all things and sometimes it comes (to an end) maybe in a different way than you would like it to be, but I’m going to be OK.”
That career overseeing what has become the 13th largest school district in the country seemed to be the furthest thing from young Wilbanks’ mind as a growing boy in Jackson County.
‘A family that worked hard’
“If I had breakfast at home and I didn’t have ham or something else, I thought the world was going to end,” he recalls with a laugh, remembering food aplenty along with his mother’s homemade biscuits. His dad held down two jobs: textile mill worker and farmer.
“We were a family that worked hard,” Wilbanks recalls. And that manual labor wasn’t reserved for Dad on the farm and Mom in the kitchen.
“I came home every day and on my father’s desk was a list of things for my brothers and me to do,” he says. With hogs, chickens, and cows on the premises, there was plenty of work to go around: mending fences, tending to chickens, feeding cows.
“One of the hogs was always unlucky come fall and one of the cows was also unlucky,” he says.
Such was life in peaceful Nicholson, Georgia where, Wilbanks says, “I would have had to go five or six miles to get in trouble.”
He was accepted to North Georgia College after high school but instead ended up at the University of Georgia looking to major in political science with an eye toward a possible career in politics.
“I was like most 18-year-olds and didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he says.
That all changed when he got a look at the head of the education department, Orville Harrison.
And what about his appearance appealed to the impressionable youngster? With a chuckle, 61 years later, Wilbanks says: “He looked like a professor, in my opinion.”
With the fatherly threat of vanishing funds if he didn’t keep up his grades, Wilbanks got his degree and went to work as an industrial arts teacher.
“I was nervous, to say the least. I wasn’t sure, totally, what to expect because from the time I was a student in high school to the time I started was four years and things had changed a little bit,” he says.
So, he honed his skills and made every effort to be as relevant as he could be.
‘There’s got to be trust’
He made his way through the education hierarchy – from a Tucker High School industrial arts teacher in 1964 to assistant principal starting in 1971, to principal the following year, to the Georgia Department of Education in 1981. When the GCPS superintendent at the time, Dr. Sidney Faucette, was about to be released from his duties, the call went out to Wilbanks, who was assistant superintendent, Human Resources and Continuous Improvement, at the time.
“I was going into the kitchen where we had a wall phone and as I passed it, it rang. It was Mrs. (Louise) Radloff, (chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Board of Education.) And, she told me to ‘Get down here – now!’”
Casually dressed in a red flannel shirt, Wilbanks said he was not properly attired to appear before the school board, but Radloff insisted.
“Come on down,” she said, according to Wilbanks. “We don’t have time. Come on down now.”
So, he did. Wilbanks was appointed interim superintendent that night, and two weeks later he was in charge. It’s a position he’s held till this summer. To head any organization for a quarter of a century requires staying power. That, and Wilbanks’ key to good leadership: “Number one, I think there’s got to be trust.”
Trust is a word that exemplified Wilbanks’ leadership style, according to people who worked alongside him.
“He was really hands off and he was a leader, not a manager,” says Roy Rucks, a former principal of then Parkview Technical High School and Maxwell High School of Technology in Gwinnett County. He tells of meetings in which Wilbanks addressed school leaders, saying, “It’s like driving a car. If you keep your car on the road, we’re fine. But if you drive it into a ditch, we’re going to have a meeting.”
Wilbanks’ leadership style served him in shepherding Gwinnett Tech through its first few years. His active involvement with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce gave him the contacts and credibility he needed to help Gwinnett County Public Schools as well.
Talk to anyone looking to relocate and one of the first qualifications for where to buy a home is the local school system. How are the schools?
Under Wilbanks’ leadership, Gwinnett County Public Schools – through its academic excellence – has been one of the biggest draws to people looking for the right place to live with the right schools for their children.
“Gwinnett County students, faculty, teachers and parents have benefited from the leadership of [Wilbanks] for 25 years,” said Gov. Brian Kemp. “During Mr. Wilbanks’ tenure, Gwinnett County Public Schools won state and national awards for excellence, including the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education. [My wife], the girls, and I join Gwinnett families in thanking Mr. Wilbanks for his service and dedication to education in the Peach State.”
Another Georgia governor, Nathan Deal, worked with Wilbanks quite a lot and says he too appreciated his style of leadership.
“When we were having to make large decisions about funding for example, and making innovative changes in education, [Wilbanks] was always one of those you could count on,” Deal says. “He would give you his opinion, and he wouldn’t try to force his opinion on anybody – it’s just that he had a great deal of experience and he drew on that experience.”
Adds Deal: “He had leadership qualities that were respected by many who knew him and observed what he was able to accomplish in the largest school system in the state.”
Wilbanks says that when at the helm of the largest school system in the state “…You want people to appreciate it and feel good about it, and I think that’s the challenge we have, to continue making sure that people know we’ve got a good school district and we’re educating their kids.”
And they’re graduating four-year students at an increasing rate, moving up from 80.2% in 2019 to 83.23% in 2020. That’s just an average; most are well above that, with all but two schools registering an increase in minting high school graduates. SAT scores in Gwinnett County are a cut above the national average.
Twice, in 2010 and 2014, GCPS has won The Broad Prize for Urban Education, recognizing the district as one of the nation’s best. Wilbanks himself, among his many accolades, was named Georgia Superintendent of the Year in 2005 and has been a finalist for the national title four times.
‘I saw Alvin work day and night’
Obviously, a lot changed during Wilbanks’ tenure as superintendent. One of the biggest changes was triggered by a national tragedy in the spring of 1999, just three years into his first term. The first widely publicized school shooting made headlines and school systems nationwide felt the ripple effects.
“Columbine really established new procedures, how we deal with threats, anything suspicious,” he says.
It wasn’t always that way. When, as assistant principal at Tucker High School in the late ’60s, he’d receive a bomb threat, he had only to look out the office window to the pay phone down the hall.
“I’d look out and there the kid would be on the phone, calling in a bomb threat,” he says.
It may have been the turbulent ’60s but it was still a more innocent time. Most other threats were treated as pranks.
“You’d be dumb to do that today,” he says. “You just wouldn’t do it today. Any threat of that nature, you check it out and you prepare for it because of what has happened.”
Back in those days, school counselors not only helped students prepare for college but walked them through the minefield of adolescence, guiding them through everything from boyfriend and girlfriend troubles to problems at home. Nowadays, the load has increased and with that, Wilbanks sees an opportunity and a challenge.
“We refer to it now as SEL: Social Emotional Learning. (Counselors) have to do a lot of things just to make sure that kids know that somebody loves them, that somebody’s looking at their progress,” he says.
That takes listening, something Wilbanks has made a top priority in dealing with critics and supporters. It also takes cooperation, a spirit of inclusiveness, and an ear for diverse input – the kind of collaboration fostered through Cross-Functional Action Teams, representatives from all areas of the school system and the community.
Listening is only a small part of Wilbanks’ leadership style. In his run-up to superintendent he proved himself a tireless worker. In 1981 he helped organize the International Skills Olympics, an event at the World Congress Center that attracted students from more than a hundred countries for a competition in career skills like auto mechanics, carpentry, cosmetology and electronics.
“I saw Alvin work day and night. I’ve seen him stay up all night working. He was a principal in DeKalb at the time and he’d show up fresh the next morning for work,” says Rucks.
Listening to different points of view reflects Wilbanks’ management philosophy, one that fosters innovation and teamwork, even in an organization as large as GCPS. Sometimes these seemingly small processes get taken for granted, but it’s part of the protocol that drives teamwork and communication across the organization.
“I’ll bring people in and run ideas by them and some of them like them and some have a lot of questions about them,” he says. “And I’ll bring the ones with questions back for a second conversation. Normally, they’ve had conversations with others. If you’re the only one who wants to do something, it’s not going to happen.”
‘Somebody who cared about people’
At the end of July, the school board voted unanimously to hire former GCPS school- and district-level administrator Dr. Calvin Watts to fill Wilbanks’ recently vacated post. Watts, who previously spent more than 10 years with the district, left GCPS in 2015 to be superintendent of the Kent School District in Washington.
New leadership is here, and, on the very near horizon, a new high school – Seckinger High in Buford – that will emphasize an area of study unheard of when Wilbanks assumed the mantle of leadership at GCPS: artificial intelligence.
“I’m here to tell you, I could’ve fit everybody that supported that idea when it was mentioned into this room.”
Yet, feeder schools in the new Seckinger cluster are already laying the foundations of AI so that interested students will be ready to tackle those classes in high school and beyond.
“The experts say that artificial intelligence – and it’s not going to happen, it’s already happening now – is going to do away with fifty million jobs. But, the good part of that is it’s going to create fifty million jobs.”
The jobs that look to occupy Wilbanks’ time in the next chapter of his life will combine his passion for woodworking with a love of children, especially his five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Missing from his routine will be the Friday night dinner dates with Celeste, his wife of 57 years. That was a tradition they instituted during his tenure as superintendent. Celeste passed away this past May. Wilbanks reminisced about those date nights three months before she passed.
“She never fussed when I got home late. Before the pandemic, Friday night was our night to go out and eat … We have no kids at home, our two daughters work too. So, I try to make that her night.”
In his spare time, Wilbanks enjoys woodworking projects. When he was president at Gwinnett Tech, he built his own bookshelves, such is his way with hammer and saw.
“I’ve got a pattern for outdoor swings and I’ve built three and I’ve got another one cut out. I’m going to finish it. I don’t want to sit down and not do anything.”
Wilbanks keeps his mind fresh reading three or four journals a week and is currently engrossed in a book about one of his favorite presidents, Dwight Eisenhower.
There’s a famous picture of Ike as general, taken the day before the D-Day invasion in 1944. In it, he is talking with the troops, the young men who would, in a matter of hours, stage the largest amphibious invasion in history, the event that turned the tide of World War II.
“Most people would think they’re talking about the battle,” says Wilbanks, “But they’re talking about fly fishing. He was just trying to get their mind off the war.”
Wilbanks isn’t saving the world for democracy or bringing down tyrants, but in an everyday way, he and those who have worked for him the last quarter of a century have been preparing Gwinnett County Public Schools students for their often-uncertain futures. Sometimes that means just getting their young minds off their own personal battles. And he returns to a familiar theme.
“Sometimes, just speaking to a kid makes a huge difference. Or asking them, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ Something that’ll make a connection and get them talking. That’s what teachers need to do. There shouldn’t be a kid in a class that feels like nobody loves them.”
Gwinnett County Public Schools is not a transportation company but shuttles thousands of students on 1,900 buses. GCPS is not a restaurant but in a typical year serves up millions of meals in their cafeterias. Nor is it a construction company but it’s built 49 new school campuses, seven replacement schools, and a charter school in the last 25 years, with another high school on the way. GCPS is also Gwinnett County’s largest employer and one of the top employers in Georgia.
And over it all was J. Alvin Wilbanks, grateful to be working in education for 58 years and enthusiastic every time he walks through the doors of the building bearing his name.
“I want to be remembered as a good person who treated people fairly, who did my part in what I was supposed to do. I also want to be a person that people can remember that made a contribution to society beyond me and my household. But more important, you just want to be remembered as somebody who cared about people – all people.”