As a teenager growing up in Columbus, Mike Looney lived in an abusive situation at home and ran away off and on starting in the seventh grade.
“I had some harsh experiences as a young person,” Fulton County Schools’ new superintendent said, adding he was homeless during that period. “I lived under a bridge for a time and lived in vacant houses for a time. … “I came from an abusive environment so there was an event that led to me wanting to leave home. …
“I’ll never forget the experience of sleeping in a bathtub with pine straw to keep me warm in a vacant house. I hope that will make me a more effective leader in the district. … The learning lesson was I was one of these kids teachers were not fond of, but it had nothing to do with my intellect. But the teachers and the school community didn’t recognize it.”
Looney dropped out of Carver High, then transferred to Kendrick High and eventually served time in a juvenile detention center but never graduated, instead getting his GED after enlisting in the Marine Corps.
Looney spoke on that topic and more June 21 at a news conference at the district’s North Learning Center in Sandy Springs. He said those experiences helped make him a better educator and superintendent after he left the Marines following seven years of service, especially when it came to dropouts.
“It gave me empathy for students that drop out of school, and it gave me (an opportunity) to dig deeper for the root causes for what a child’s poor performance was,” he said. “Just because a student is not doing well in school or has lived ad rough life and can’t do something doesn’t mean we can’t help them.”
Looney replaced Cindy Loe, who had been serving as the district’s interim superintendent since January. She replaced Jeff Rose, who Oct. 25 announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31, for personal reasons.
“Dr. Looney’s experience and approach are the right fit for our schools at the right time,” Fulton Board of Education President Linda Bryant said in a May news release announcing his official hiring. “We have great confidence and optimism in his abilities. He has shown the willingness to be transparent, listen to the community, comes with a track record of results in student achievement, and is thoughtful in his approach toward teaching and learning, the most important role of the superintendent.”
Looney’s base salary is $329,000 and he signed a three-year contract effective June 17, his first day. Looney said his first week was “exceedingly busy but rewarding.”
He added he’s installing a permanent office at the Fulton district’s South Learning Center in Union City and plans to spend at least one day a week in south Fulton and one day a week in north Fulton to get to know its students, parents and staff better.
Looney said he had a program in his previous two superintendent tenures with Butler County Schools (four years) in Greenville, Alabama, and Williamson County Schools (10 years) in Franklin, Tennessee, a Nashville suburb, where would not allow a student to drop out of school until he personally met with him or her.
“We were really successful” with that program, he said, adding it had an 80% percent success rate. “Most students don’t really want to drop out of school. My circumstances made me want to be a dropout. The truth is I went to school for two reasons: pretty girls and free food.”
In Tennessee Looney was creative in ways he kept children from dropping out of school.
“We had one student who was living in a parking lot in a Walmart,” he said. “I (formed) a company where I would not give him cash but would give him credit toward (owning) a bicycle for working for me, so he had a way to get to school every day.”
Looney said homelessness among students is a subject he addresses head on instead of hiding from it.
“I came from one of the most wealthy districts in the state (Williamson), and we had lots of homeless kids no one wanted to talk about,” he said.
Of addressing Fulton district’s dropouts and possible homeless students, Looney said, “I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve already collected the dropout data. Some schools have low rates and some high rates. I’m (studying) the size of the district and the numbers. I am committed to putting a process in place where kids can’t go to their school just and say, ‘I’m dropping out.’ Out. In fact, Georgia has a law to not allow that. I’m committed to going beyond the law on that process so … kids can’t easily drop out of school easily. …”
“One of the tools we had in Tennessee is the superintendent could request your license be revoked if you dropped out of school. I was pretty determined I was going to exercise that authority to keep kids in school. I can’t imagine not using the tools available to keep kids in school.”
Looney said his goals for the district are “to outlast the (superintendents) that came before me because any district needs some continuity in a leadership role.”
“In order to accomplish those goals, I have some secondary goals,” he said. “First, maintain the trust of the school board and the broader community of all the schools, and the way I do that is things improve. I have to be measured on how students do (on standardized tests). That’s what I signed up for. It’s like being a head football coach. You don’t last very long if you don’t win games.
“Second, I must be willing to work and (help improve) opportunities of students. And finally, making this a place where students want to call home. Fulton County Schools should be a place where people want to live, play and work together.”
When asked what impact being a Marine had on his abilities as an educator, Looney said, “I learned this in the Marine Corps: there are no shortcuts and no easy answers. What I have learned is we as administrators continue to add (so many) things to teachers’ plates that it’s kind of paralyzing. What I’ve done in my former districts is we’ve stripped away all the clutter and closed the door and allowed the teachers to teach, but we had standards all teachers had to meet.”
“The standard is the standard and you’re going to learn. The nonnegotiable is the learning and the negotiable is how long it takes. For some kids it’s going to take them longer, and that’s OK.”