Gwinnett County, a model for the nation to follow?

Georgia, as a second-round winner in President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top competition, was already getting some attention for its ideas on education reform. For one thing, it’s among the few states that participated in the competition that plans to use some of its funding to pay for early education initiatives.

Today, the state is getting more attention with the announcement that Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta, has won the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education, which funds college scholarships for high school students. The county has outperformed similar districts in the state and also has one of the smallest achievement gaps. It was a finalist for the prize last year.

This year’s four finalists, each of which will receive $250,000 for college scholarships, are the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, the Socorro Independent School District in Texas and the Ysleta Independent School District, also in Texas.

Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest district, was already making a name for itself, at least locally. A recent analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which looked into the county’s success noted that it “defies the odds against long-serving school boards and superintendents.” The superintendent there has served for 14 years, far longer than the average tenure of a big-city superintendent, which is about three and a half years. In addition, four of the five school board members in Gwinnett County have served at least 13 years each.

With much education reform focused right now on shaking up schools in order to bring improvements, Gwinnett County seems to be an example of an effort where change is not necessarily the best or only strategy for improvement. As the AJC put it in its analysis of Gwinnett, “stability is paying off.”

Demographically, however, Gwinnett is in major flux. A couple of decades ago, the county was 90 percent white, according to USA Today columnist Don Campbell. Today, more than 100 languages are spoken in the schools, which are now majority black and Hispanic. Alan Richard, director of communication for the Southern Regional Education Board in Georgia, said Gwinnett is proof “that diverse communities in the South can have excellent schools.”

The fact that the schools have successfully handled their rapid transformation is something the nation, which is headed in the same direction, should perhaps examine even more closely.