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Central Gwinnett – Solving problems in the real world

Central Gwinnett - Solving problems in the real world
By Beth Volpert

Imagine the chaos of a city in the midst of a serious water crisis. Imagine that city is right here in Gwinnett County. A very serious water crisis is the exact scenario of the first Project Based Learning opportunity presented by Central Gwinnett administrators and Mayor Judy Jordan Johnson to the students who are enrolled in Central Gwinnett’s Five Academies.

Students take the mock water crisis scenario very seriously and prepare to respond as a team. 
mayorjjj 190“To make the mock drill just a little more realistic, I brought in Water Plant Operator, Steve Stubblefield,” says Mayor Johnson. “He was able to present a real life case of what can cause water contamination.” The presentation of such a scenario was real enough that some students thought, for just a little while, that the situation was real. Real life application was exactly what the administrators were aiming for; that, and real life solutions. 

When Principal Maryanne Grimes was offered the option of hosting an academy based learning model at Central Gwinnett, she went right to work researching and polling her staff to make certain that the model would work at Central. “The research indicated this would have a positive effect on student engagement,” says Grimes. “We expect grades and attendance to respond well to this model and have moved forward to engage our students and their community for the best outcomes possible.” The community has responded well with a great deal of support. 

The academies are really five schools within one school divided into real-world disciplines that better prepare students for careers and college education. “This is not the old vocational ed focus,” says Mrs. Grimes. “The classes are viewed through a different lens for each academy.” Grimes goes on to explain that this is a shift from the idea that a teacher is a fountain of knowledge that must be absorbed to the idea that students will find knowledge by personalizing the experience to their interests. Brent Cruce, Lead Teacher for the Fine Arts and Communications Academy says, “Students are choosing what they want to study and are being offered real world examples to enrich their learning experience.”

“We have enjoyed a tremendous response from the community,” says Grimes. “There is an emphasis on teaching students the skills they need to be able to work in a real situation; having the community involved helps the kids develop an individualized package to be able to market themselves after graduation.” Having the ability to work in constantly evolving groups and honing presentation skills is among the biggest complaints employers and colleges have when students seek employment or higher learning. Project Based Learning seeks to fill those skills gaps. 

Project Based Learning will blend the curriculum with methods used by the working world to teach students how to better solve problems and move forward in work situations. In a combined statement, Academy of Medical and Healthcare Sciences Associate Principal, Shane Orr, and Academy Leader, Ashley Rutledge said, “In addition to making the learning more relevant to what our students are interested in, our students can’t wait to collaborate and problem solve with their peers.” Echoing those thoughts is Business and Entrepreneurship Academy Lead Teacher, William Artis who adds, “Through the application of 21st century skills, our students will become more productive citizens and our next generation business leaders, entrepreneurs and executives that will hopefully invest back in our local community.”  
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Judge Rodney S Harris on bench in his Gwinnett County courtroom
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Students Visiting Judge Harris’ Gwinnett County courtroom had a real experience
with interactions between judge, defendants and attorneys. 

Adding to the multidisciplinary aspect of PBL education are the field trips which enhance the experiences of the students at Central. One such experience landed a group of Central’s Law Education and Public Service Academy students in Judge Harris’ Recorders Court. “The experience was phenomenal, it surpassed anything we could have provided in the classroom,” says Greg Jackson, Lead Teacher. “You would have thought that it had been a scripted show, but it was such an organic experience between all of the people in the courtroom.” Those people included many who were there to answer for a crime. The defendants took a real interest in the students and shared the experiences that had landed them in the courtroom to begin with. “We would like to afford this type of opportunity to students as often as possible,” says Jackson. “Without the community, we could not develop these scenarios,” adds Assistant Principal Sheila Sudderth.

And should a scenario such as a full-blown water crisis present itself in the future, the students at Central Gwinnett’s Academies will be prepared to go to work with an interdisciplinary team to manage and solve the problems as they arise from all aspects. Speaking to the general theme of the program, the STEM Academy Lead Teacher Danielle Shea and Assistant Principal, Travis Chapman say that all areas will provide students with an opportunity to collaborate, innovate, discover and create. “Our focus is for all students to develop 21st century skills through project based learning, and solving real world problems.” 

The results have yet to be formally calculated in data sets, but from talking to her students, Principal Grimes has discovered that they are surprised to find school is actually more fun and engaging. “Our strongest data will be from this 10th grade class onward,” says Grimes. “That is to say, we should be able to measure the full impact of the Academies beginning with the graduating class of 2017.  It’s a process,” she adds.  “I am confident that we will show growth and improvement with the changes we have made.” In the meantime, with a vested interest from the community to the school and back again, Central Gwinnett and the Lawrenceville community continue a long tradition of being tightly-knit and forward thinking. 

For more information on the Academies programs with Gwinnett County Public Schools, see For more of the interviews with the Central Gwinnett Academy staff see the video on our website at