PROGRESS: Gwinnett County Public Schools’ journey from rural to state’s largest system

A Norcross Elementary School class in 1923. (Photo: Courtesy of the Gwinnett Historical Society)

In just under 200 years, schools in Gwinnett County have blossomed from a cluster of small community schools and academies educating hundreds students, to 139 schools offering enrichment to more than 180,000 children.

The transformation from a rural area of farmland outside of Atlanta to one of the United States largest school districts has been a process.

Education in Gwinnett County officially began in 1821 with an act passed allowing trustees to build a county academy. Due to the lack of funds, the academy was not opened until five years later in 1826 and given the name Lawrenceville Academy in honor of Captain James Lawrence, a U.S. naval officer, and the namesake of the county seat.

Academies such as the Washington Academy in 1827, the Gwinnett Manual Labor Institute in 1835, the Female Seminary in 1837 and Center Academy in 1839 were the first educational instiututions to open in Gwinnett.

By the 1850 Census, Gwinnett County had grown to a total of 31 one-teacher schools educating approximately 1,186 students. In a diary kept by Suwanee resident Lucretia Douglas in 1852, she describes teaching “an infant school in one room of her family’s home.” Pupils came from neighboring farms, and one student even boarded with the Douglas family.

The change in educational standards more than two decades ago was designed to challenge students with a more rigorous and comprehensive new curriculum known as the Academic Knowledge and Skills curriculum. The change in curriculum not only has given Gwinnett notoriety for being the 12th largest school district in the country, but also for its achievement, winning the The Broad Prize for Urban Education, given to the top urban education systems in the country, in 2010 and 2014 and being named a finalist in 2009, 2010, and 2014.

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