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Life lessons inspire fresh perspective for Fulton County Schools superintendent

Dr. Mike Looney, Fulton County Schools
Dr. Mike Looney, Fulton County Schools(WGCL)
Updated: Jul. 13, 2021 at 5:13 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Online or in person, school during the Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges for everyone.  But it was school administrators who had to make the tough calls.

Fulton County Schools Superintendent, Dr. Mike Looney, found himself on the front line. The leader pf the state’s fourth largest district drew upon his personal experience as a child runaway growing up in Georgia, as he made some of his most difficult decisions.

“I think we earned a solid B,” Looney tells CBS46, when asked to grade his performance during the pandemic.

Looney says there were certainly things he could have done better while adapting to the realities of virus.

“If we missed a single student, didn’t meet a single student’s needs, then that’s a short coming on my part as superintendent of schools,” Looney said.

In fact, the district’s own internal studies show there was double the disruption of student growth since fall of 2020.  The same Fulton Schools study shows that Black and Hispanic students’ growth in reading was impacted anywhere from two to six times more than for their white classmates.

“Our students’ reading gains are half as much, so moving forward we’re going to have to make one and half times the amount of progress we normally would, so that’s going to be a tremendous challenge,” Looney said. “We have to be in this for the long term. And we’re going to have to enlist more people and use more resources than we have before.”

Central to those efforts are the $90 million Looney has allocated for what the district is calling its ‘Every Child Reads’ initiative, a three-year push to improve students’ reading and writing.

While many Georgia parents complained about the slow pace of getting kids back into the classroom, a lot of Fulton families credit Looney for getting them back the quickest. The superintendent, whose current contract runs through 2023, says his decisions were informed by his own difficult childhood in Columbus, Georgia.

“I was a runaway as a child and spent some time on the streets and in juvenile hall, so I have a natural tendency to think of students in harm’s way,” Looney exclaims.

He says he was in harm’s way when he was a kid, the child of an abusive parent. Things got so bad, he dropped out of Kendrick High School and occasionally sought shelter beneath a highway overpass on Forrest Road, right by Bull Creek.

“When school’s not in session, it tugs on me,” Looney says. “When school is not in session, many of our students don’t have resources to get food or shelter.”

Not many school superintendents can say they know what that feels like; that uncertainty, that fear. But Mike Looney can. And he says he thinks about it all the time.

“You can’t do it alone. I had friends and people I met who supported me. Reaching out when help is needed is an important skill to have and I hope our students have learned that during this time,” Looney said.

He also says, for all the talk of learning loss, he believes kids have been forced to pick up some important skills as well.

“They have learned to be resilient, they’ve learned endurance, to be flexible,” Looney said. “It’s not that they haven’t been learning. These are things that might not be found in a math text book, but they’ve been learning things that are important life lessons.”

And Mike Looney’s own life lessons, learned in part on the streets of Columbus, Georgia, that he draws upon as he gets set to lead Fulton’s 90,000-plus students through another crucial school year.