Dr. Calvin Watts and J. Alvin Wilbanks sit together in a crowded conference room filled with fellow leaders from 26 other school districts around the country. It’s a reunion of sorts.
Watts hasn’t seen Wilbanks for some time now – having left his post as assistant superintendent at Gwinnett County Public Schools in 2015 to take the helm at Kent School District in Washington State. This 2018 meeting is also the first time Watts is seated with Wilbanks as an equal, professionally. Wilbanks is still superintendent of GCPS – this being about three years from the day when his tenure would end.
During this chance meeting, the pair begin a conversation both will remember for years to come. Let’s listen in:
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m hearing great things, and I hear you’re doing a good job where you are,” Wilbanks says, speaking over other administrators’ voices. The room is filled with some of American public schools’ top district leaders.
He goes on: “I didn’t want to share that with you for any other reason, but to let you know that I’m proud of you.”
Watts, 52, sits in a conference room with the district’s executive director of communications and a magazine reporter at the GCPS Instructional Support Center, recalling that 2018 conversation. Watts recites Wilbanks’ compliment word for word, and even though he’s wearing a mask you can tell he’s smiling beneath it.
“I’ve been gone six years, serving as superintendent of (Kent School District),” says Watts, who was named Superintendent of GCPS in July 2021. “One could assume not much has changed …. But the reality is, a lot can change. And, a lot has, quite frankly. (For instance,) we’re … wearing masks for a reason. Six years ago, we wouldn’t think of this as normal.”
Much has changed indeed, particularly for GCPS. One of the bigger transformations: the changing of the guard for the district’s top unelected post in the state’s largest school system. Prior to July, Wilbanks was superintendent for 25 years.
“There is always a challenge following in the steps of someone who has served for such a long time in such an incredibly successful manner,” Watts says, adding that having had the opportunity “to learn from and listen to” Wilbanks during his previous 13-year stint with GCPS played a part in preparing him for the new role.
Now that he’s back and leading a district that serves more than 179,000 students, “learning and listening” are going to be key skills – specifically, looking, listening and learning from the staff, teachers and administrators at all the district’s schools.
Look, Listen and Learn
As Watts describes it, the Look, Listen and Learn Tour is a district initiative, or “branding of what most superintendents engage in when they enter into a new role and responsibility as superintendent. Essentially, it’s my entry plan.”
Since accepting the position months back, Watts has visited schools all over the district, asking questions like “What’s working well? What areas may need slight adjustment or improvement? What do you love about Gwinnett County Public Schools? What areas might give you cause for concern or question?”
The initiative allows Watts to “gain greater context to learn as much as I can about Gwinnett County Public Schools … and then to begin thinking about it from a strategic planning standpoint.”
Put simply, it helps him determine: “Where are we? Where do we want to be? How will we get there? And fourth and most importantly, how will we know when we’ve arrived? Those four questions will really help propel us to what I would refer to as the next trajectory, next chapter of greatness in Gwinnett County Public Schools.”
Answering questions is part and parcel of the superintendent role. As he sits in the conference room at the GCPS Instructional Support Center fielding a whole slew of them from the magazine reporter, the district’s executive director of communications chimes in with one of the most frequent questions Watts gets asked: “Do you have a minute?”
Watts laughs: “And, what I typically say to that question is, ‘For you, a minute and a half.’
Here’s another question the magazine reporter asks – and, he’s certainly not the first reporter to ask this:
Being the first ever African American superintendent for the state’s largest district … how does that feel?
Watts takes a moment – you can see he’s collecting his thoughts for an answer. His initial response is this: “It feels humbling and exciting at the same time.”
But, for the full explanation, he delves into his childhood, leading the magazine reporter and communications director on a trip down memory lane. Memory lane for Watts is the place where he was raised: the Pacific Northwest.
‘You wear a jersey’
Born an only child in Seattle, Watts was raised in Bellevue, Wash., “in a household where accountability was a value.”
His parents taught him from an early age about responsibility. Even on Saturday mornings as a child, he awoke at 7 a.m. to complete chores like cleaning his room or washing the dishes before he was allowed to go down the street and play with his friends.
“I can’t sleep in to this day,” Watts says, laughing.
While Watts was born in Washington, both his parents were originally from the Southeast – his mother was born in Thomasville, Ga., and his father was born in East Palatka, Fla. While in Washington, his mother became the first African American graduate of Seattle University School of Nursing.
During that time (the early 1960s), he says there were only a few jobs in which African American women could find employment: nursing, education and domestic help in homes.
The Wattses were also the second ever African American family to move into their community in Bellevue.
“And so, while that may be an area that someone might take as a crown they’d wear, we saw it more as a responsibility,” Watts says, adding that, “My parents taught me at an early age that how you serve, how you respond, how you act represents the Watts family. And my dad would always say, ‘you wear a jersey, and I gave it to you. It says Watts on the back. Keep it clean.’”
All these points Watts makes in order to come full circle and answer that initial question about how it feels being the first African American superintendent in the history of Gwinnett County Public Schools.
“Yes, I may be the first, and while that is significant in many ways, my parents would remind me to keep working and leading in the way we taught you: with integrity,” Watts says. “Leading with purpose and with positive outcomes for each and every child, staff member, community member you serve. And doing so in such a way that (while) you might be the first, most importantly, you will not be the last.”
‘We have an awesome responsibility’
Passing the lessons his parents taught down to his own son, Devin, 18 – an only child like Watts – has been a big part of how he and his wife, Robbye, have raised him.
Prior to leaving Washington State to take the superintendent’s role in Gwinnett, Watts had the opportunity to present Devin his diploma at Kentwood High School in Kent School District. Devin is now a college freshman.
Watts met his wife, Robbye – Calvin’s self-proclaimed “counselor-in-chief” – at Carrollton City Schools, where Watts served as a classroom teacher and developed a varsity soccer program from 1995-2000. They taught there together.
Robbye started her career as a teacher and, while semi-retired now, spent the latter part of her professional life as a school counselor.
Calvin jokes that while he and Robbye have one child they claim on their taxes, they’re raising 179,000.
“So, the challenges of addressing the needs of 179,000 children, of addressing the needs of the adults who serve them, the leaders who support them and the communities benefiting from … our graduates when they leave us, those are the challenges inherent to the role of a superintendent,” Watts says.
These, he says, are both challenges and opportunities at the same time.
“I think, distinctly, opportunities I would say are aligned with the fact that we get to do this work. It’s not have to … No. Every morning we get to impact the lives of students and we have an awesome responsibility,” Watts says.
“I just understand the weight that we bear,” he says. “More importantly, the opportunities … the successes that can come about when we do this work well.”
It’s not easy work.
When someone asks Watts how many hours he works per week, he tells them: “I put in a good 40 hours a week … in the first two and a half days of the week.”
‘Getting better and better’
Long hours are a reality of the superintendent’s post. Watts’ predecessor, who knows this truth all too well, feels Watts will do a good job in his wake.
“Calvin is a people person, and that always serves someone well in that kind of position,” Wilbanks says, adding: “I never thought Calvin was shy about asking for help or guidance if he needed it. Sometimes people in certain positions think it’s a sign of weakness to ask for that, but I always thought it made good sense. And Calvin was good about doing that.”
Wilbanks recalls the fateful 2018 meeting of superintendents in which he and Watts sat together among 26 other school district leaders from around the country. And, Wilbanks remembers the compliment he gave him.
“At the time, I was in an organization that another superintendent in (the Kent School District) area was a member of … and he knew Calvin,” Wilbanks says. “He knew that Calvin had come from (Gwinnett County Public Schools), and he’d told me how good a job he thought Calvin was doing, and that the other superintendents respected him very much.”
Watts recalls that in July 2021, when he officially got the job as superintendent, Wilbanks was among the first to reach out: “I received a text from him that said, ‘Let me know how I can help.’”
Watts says the two had lengthy conversations during the transitional phase of Wilbanks’ departure and Watts’ arrival.
In his time with GCPS, initially under the leadership of Wilbanks as well as now, taking on Wilbanks’ former role, Watts feels that “continuous, quality improvement is part of our work. I refer to it now as ‘getting better and better.’ And, that’s what we all should be striving toward. It looks differently for different communities and different individuals, because not everyone is the same.”
Adds Watts: “Not everyone learns the same or leads the same. So, I think the complexities of educational leadership, specifically leading in a school district that is as complex and as large as Gwinnett County Public Schools … I believe that’s what was cemented into me – that there’s no obstacle that’s too difficult to overcome when you have the right strategies in place, when you have the resources that are needed and you understand truly the depth, the breadth of the problem or challenges or problem you’re trying to solve.”