Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney’s mind is blown by Emily, 10, as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School during its summer school program in Fairburn on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney’s first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. Starting Monday, June 17, Looney will lead Georgia’s fourth largest school district, which has a general fund budget of more than $1 billion. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fulton school chief traded M16 for chalk; still on mission to serve

The new Fulton County Schools superintendent says he’s lost track of how many times he’s jumped out of an airplane at 15,000 feet and plummeted toward earth at 120 miles per hour.

That’s not a metaphor.

Mike Looney, who officially starts today, really is a skydiver, a veteran of the U.S. Marines and a former elementary school teacher. Looney, 56, just jumped from an affluent suburban Nashville school district to land this job leading Georgia’s fourth largest school district with 95,000 students and a budget topping $1 billion.

As for the skydiving?

“I think one of the reasons that it appeals to me so much is that it is controlling the chaos,” he said. “The thought that you can actually control what your body is doing, control the outcome is pretty incredible.”

OK. Maybe it’s a metaphor.

Looney takes over for a district that’s had a bit of turbulence at the top. He’s Fulton’s fourth superintendent, not including interims, since spring 2008. It’s a vast district with 106 schools, divided into distinct southern and northern sections by the City of Atlanta.

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney helps lead a lesson as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School during its summer school program in Fairburn on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney’s first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. Starting Monday, June 17, Looney will lead Georgia’s fourth largest school district, which has a general fund budget of more than $1 billion. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fulton’s districtwide grade is a B, according to the state. It boasts many top-tier, high-scoring schools in affluent suburbs. But the district also has nine schools on the south side on the state’s 2018 list of lowest performers.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sat down with Looney before he became superintendent to talk about his experience and Fulton County Schools. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Incoming Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney interacts with students as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School during their summer school program in Fairburn, Ga., on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney’s first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. Starting Monday, June 17, Looney will lead Georgia’s fourth largest school district, which has a general fund budget of more than $1 billion. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What drew you to education?

“I was the general manager of a small company that sold new Volkswagens and Mazdas, and at the time I was working on my MBA at Jacksonville State University … . The company was sold … . I still had a job, thank goodness, but decided that the new owners and I didn’t have the same vision for the business. I actually knew a school principal who asked me to consider being a substitute teacher during the day while I worked on my MBA at night, and that changed my life forever.”

“The students seemed to connect well with me, and I surprisingly was able to draw a connection to my military service to the classroom in this way: They are both service businesses and serving people, I think, is my purpose and my passion. I found a way to serve people in another way, rather than with an M16 I used chalk instead. I switched careers, dropped out of the MBA program and entered a master’s program to get a degree in education.”

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney (third from left) speaks with Jill Meeker, assistant principal of Evoline C. West Elementary School, Jennifer Burton, principal, and Leah McDaniel, principal of Campbell Elementary, as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School during their summer school program in Fairburn on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Starting Monday, June 17, Looney will lead Georgia’s fourth largest school district, which has a general fund budget of more than $1 billion. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What’s your leadership style?

“My leadership style, I hope, has improved and changed over time. I will say that when I first got out of the Marine Corps, of course, I was a hard-charging Marine, and I learned very quickly that you can’t run an education institution like the Marine Corps. I think that people will learn that I’m a participatory and shared-decision maker. I believe in engaging as many people as possible, but I’m not afraid of the hard calls either. I am willing to do that and take responsibility for the outcomes related to those calls.”

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney speaks with Karolina, 9, as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney’s first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What makes you excited to do this job?

“First, improving student outcomes for every student. That includes obviously the low-performing students that deservingly get a lot of attention, but also the highest-achieving students — making sure that they are exposed to a challenging and rigorous curriculum as well.”

Second: “Supporting the school board’s strategic plan, and the vision that they have developed through the input of their constituents.”

Third: “Public school business is really hard work, and we naturally and sometimes deservingly have a lot of critics. But at the same time, making sure that we celebrate and recognize the good quality work that’s being done by classroom teachers when the door closes.”

Newly named Fulton County Superintendent finalist Mike Looney speaks during a presser at the Fulton County School North Learning Center, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

How did you approach curriculum as superintendent of Williamson County Schools?

“We recruited the 10 brightest teachers from the district in that specialty area to come work out of the classroom for a year and focus one year on developing kindergarten through 12th grade social studies curriculum based on primary-source material, based on information that’s readily available and open in the world. We focused a lot on the primary and secondary material. So, as an example, instead of reading about the Constitution, let’s read the Constitution — using actual artifacts and material that we all as citizens have access to. It’s better to look at the real thing, then read about the real thing.”

Incoming Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney accepts a parting gift from Jennifer Burton, principal of ECW, and Jill Meeker, assistant principal of ECW, as he leaves after touring Evoline C. West Elementary School during their summer school program in Fairburn, Ga., on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney's first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. Starting Monday, June 17, Looney will lead Georgia's fourth largest school district, which has a general fund budget of more than $1 billion. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Casey Sykes/Casey Sykes

Is there inequity between the north and south Fulton learning communities?

“I think there’s always inequity in school districts, but I would say it’s not just north and south. It’s east and west. It’s elementary and high. And I don’t know if inequity is the right way to frame it. I think there are differences.”

“I think there are different types of experiences that our students have, but one of the things that this district does very well, too, is it gives our students some freedom, some choice. That’s not my greatest concern to be honest with you. My greatest concern is about advancing the interests and opportunities for all students, not in one specific area.”

Incoming Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney speaks with the principals and assistant principals of ECW Elementary and Campbell Elementary as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School during their summer school program in Fairburn, Ga., on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney's first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. Starting Monday, June 17, Looney will lead Georgia's fourth largest school district, which has a general fund budget of more than $1 billion. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Casey Sykes/Casey Sykes

How will you help the lowest-performing schools?

“When the (state test) results come in, we’ll do a deep dive into the data and figure out what worked and what didn’t work. One of the things that I find a lot of value in is using research to make informed decisions.”

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney observes a classroom as he tours Evoline C. West Elementary School on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Looney’s first official day on the job is Monday, June 17. CASEY SYKES FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What do parents want?

“They want to know that their child matters in this large, complicated system, and I think that goes back to my value of relationship building with students and employees and parents. That’s why I intend to be one of those superintendents that you see everywhere.”

“The overarching theme was: ‘I need you to know that my child matters, and it’s important that they have every opportunity in school to be successful and will you provide them with that?’ and my pledge to them is that I will do everything in my power to do so.”

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