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Leaders & Legends: J. Alvin Wilbanks

It’s winter 1986. Snow – that rarest of southern delights and freeway frustration – falls in central Gwinnett County. The young, founding president of Gwinnett Technical College navigates the rapidly freezing roads. Wipers flick away the snow, squeaking against the windshield as the man squints toward the white piles building fast on the highway. It’s a whole lot more than he realizes.

As J. Alvin Wilbanks crosses an intersection near the technical college, the car hits a deep pocket of snow. It skids to a complete stop, all but swallowed in a low place in the road where the snow has been collecting. It’s going to get cold fast out here – and his car won’t budge.

Most folks would throw in the towel at this point – never dreaming of still going to work. Most folks would call a tow truck, get a ride home and bask in the warmth of the family living room, awaiting thawing roads and a more convenient day to re-open classes at Gwinnett Tech. Most folks would give up the moment their cars hit a mountain of snow in the middle of a freezing Gwinnett County thoroughfare.

Wilbanks is not most folks.

“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,” Wilbanks says, laughing, as he recalls that morning’s struggle nearly 40 years later.

Gwinnett Tech was open for business on that snowy winter day in 1986.

We Have a Job to Educate

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.

For nearly 60 years, education and its impact on the community has been Wilbanks’ passion. Nothing could slow him down. A vote by the Gwinnett County Board of Education terminating his contract in March 2021, however, did change things.

No reason was given for releasing Wilbanks before his contract expired, though the vote to do so ran along party lines, with 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,” Wilbanks told those in attendance at the school board meeting following his dismissal. “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.”

A 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 at the time: textile mill worker and farmer.

“We were a family that worked hard,” Wilbanks recalls. “I came home every day and on my father’s desk was a list of things for my brothers and me to do.”

With hogs, chickens and cows on the premises, there was plenty of work to go around: mending fences, tending to chickens, feeding cows.

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. 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 up the administrative education hierarchy.

When the GCPS superintendent at the time, Dr. Sidney Faucette, was about to depart in 1996, 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. Radloff, [Louise Radloff, chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Board of Education]. And, she told me to ‘Get down here – now!’”

So, he did. Wilbanks was appointed interim superintendent that night, and two weeks later he was in charge. It’s a position he held till summer 2021. 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 to relocate.

“Gwinnett County students, faculty, teachers and parents have benefited from the leadership of [Wilbanks] for 25 years,” says 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.”

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

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. 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. “You’d be dumb to do that today. 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 100 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’d show up fresh the next morning for work,” Rucks says.

Somebody Who Cared About People

At the end of July 2021, the school board voted unanimously to hire former GCPS school- and district-level administrator Dr. Calvin Watts to fill Wilbanks’ 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.

Already, feeder schools in the new Seckinger cluster are 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 – it’s going to do away with fifty million jobs. But the good part of that is it’s going to create fifty million jobs,” Wilbanks says.

The job occupying Wilbanks’ time in this new chapter of his life is at the state level, where he serves on the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Wilbanks to the post in October 2021.

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 in May 2021.

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 recently read 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 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 are 179,000 students in Gwinnett County Public Schools – and 179,000 opportunities to do just that.

Gwinnett County Public Schools is not a transportation company, but it shuttles thousands of students on 1,900 buses. GCPS is not a restaurant, but in a typical year it serves up 31 million 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. With 24,900 staff members, GCPS is Gwinnett County’s largest employer and one of the top employers in Georgia.

And at the helm of GCPS for 25 years was J. Alvin Wilbanks, grateful to be working in education all his professional life 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.”

You Just Do What You Need to Do

Ten years before he’d take the superintendent post, Wilbanks found himself in the middle of a snowy road at an intersection near Gwinnett Tech. When it was time to decide how to get out of the predicament and keep open the learning institution despite treacherous weather, Wilbanks never flinched. He’d been the president of the brand-new technical college for two years at that point – and character traits like these were one of the reasons he’d been selected to helm the institution.

Prior to Gwinnett Tech, there’d been no post-secondary technical options in the county. So, when the Gwinnett County School Board saw the need, they approached a young man who’d been working his way up the ranks in education. A young man from Nicholson, Georgia, who at one time knew only quiet farm life with his family. But fate and an attitude that stuck with Wilbanks through his six decades in education made it clear to education leaders in Gwinnett they’d found the right man for the job.

“You just do what you need to do,” Wilbanks says, recalling the cold and treacherous day more than three decades later. It’s an idea that’s carried him through tougher roads than snow- sloped highways.

And it will carry him on into the next endeavor.