Many educators credit their decision to enter the profession to a teacher who treated them with kindness or a principal who saw beyond the swagger to the promise. Mike Looney, the new superintendent of the Fulton County School System, is not among them.
“I didn’t have any teachers or external adults that leaned in and knew me as a person and built a relationship with me,” he said. “I was eager to talk but nobody really asked. Nobody asked what’s going on in your life that makes you this way. They just thought I was a long-haired kid that didn’t come to school and caused problems.”
Looney joined the military and found inspiration in U.S. Marine Corps training that gave him “firm and fair direction, which I desperately needed,” he said.
He also discovered purpose through faith, saying, “I believe God bestowed on me some resilience, where adversity didn’t crush me but challenged me to overcome it.” That adversity included an abusive home situation that led him to run away and sleep under bridges and in vacant homes.
Looney wants the children of Fulton County to have a more positive experience in school.
The 56-year-old comes to the Fulton County School System, the fourth-largest district in Georgia, after nearly a decade leading the high-performing and fast-growing Williamson County District in Tennessee. Meeting with Atlanta Journal-Constitution editors and writers on Day 35 on the job, Looney talked about how he plans to create a more supportive environment.
Twice, he mentioned school must be a welcoming place not only to students, but parents and teachers. He shared that mantra at his first Fulton school board meeting, where he told the audience, “My first and primary goal is to make sure our students feel welcome, wanted and worthwhile. … There is only one Fulton County Schools. We are one. My professional mission during my next 20 years of tenure here is to work to bring us together, so all students, regardless of their school or their ZIP codes, receive a quality education they can all be proud of.”
(His 20-year tenure reference merits explanation. Fulton has had eight school chiefs in 15 years, and parents and teachers have lamented the constant churn.)
While there may be one Fulton County Schools as Looney contends, parents in south Fulton would counter there are different outcomes. Students in north Fulton outperform peers in south Fulton on the SAT, ACT and AP tests. About 30 percent more students in north Fulton score in the proficient or distinguished range on the state end of grade Milestone exams.
There is an obvious reason for this. Poverty levels are much higher in south Fulton, where about three-quarters of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch based on household income, compared to only a quarter of their north Fulton counterparts. Poverty casts a long shadow over student achievement: A 2013 study found children from low-income families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students.
Looney faces the same dilemma as his predecessor Jeff Rose, who resigned in December with no explanation after two-and-a-half years on the job. He must direct more resources to south Fulton, while also addressing north Fulton concerns, which include retention of top teachers and stronger math and science offerings.
Looney sidestepped a question about whether Rose may have alienated some north Fulton board members with his focus on the south side of the county, a focus welcomed by south Fulton parents, many of whom blamed the school board for his departure.
“I have a professional track record of raising student achievement for all students across all demographic groups,” said Looney, who has already established a permanent office in south Fulton where he’ll spend part of each week. “I can’t raise achievement for all students unless I concentrate on all students.”
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