District brings new superintendent on board
The Fulton County School System began the 2019-20 school year in August under the direction of new superintendent Mike Looney, Ed.D., 57, who came to the district from Brentwood, Tenn.
A former “Superintendent of the Year” in Tennessee, Looney replaced former superintendent Jeff Rose who resigned at the end of 2018.
In announcing the selection, district leaders cited Looney’s record of rising test scores and student achievement over the decade spent in the Williamson County School District. During his tenure, students were awarded more than $1 billion in National Merit Scholarship awards.
Looney will be the 9th superintendent for Fulton Schools in the past 20 years. The frequent change in leadership has created some concern in the school community, which cited stability as a key attribute in the Fulton School’s Board’s selection of a new superintendent.
A Marine veteran and recipient of the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Looney has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and previous superintendent. He has a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from the University of Alabama.
In Fulton County, Looney leads a district more than twice the enrollment size of his previous district, with a much higher level of diversity of students.
STEM school opening delayed to 2021
The science/technology/engineering/math high school originally scheduled to open in downtown Alpharetta in 2020 will open a year later, in August 2021.
Fulton School leaders cited curriculum issues and the need to build strong business partnerships as the primary reasons for the one-year delay in opening the Innovation Academy.
The STEM curriculum will place students on a career and/or academic pathway to high-demand, high-paying jobs in information technology, health care sciences and engineering, say Fulton School officials.
Construction of the school on the site of the former Milton High School will be complete in August. It will be used as a professional development center for staff for one year prior to its opening for students.
The $60 million school is being funded through the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax (SPLOST) approved by voters in 2016. The referendum included funding for two STEM schools in the district: Innovation Academy in North Fulton, and a 6through 12 grade school in South Fulton. Both will now open in August 2021.
Innovation Academy is only new school planned for North Fulton in the 2017-2022 Capital Projects Plan for the district, although most high schools in the area are overcrowded. Innovation Academy is expected to provide relief for some of the schools. With the one-year delay for Innovation Academy district leaders have promised to look at other ways to support overcrowded high schools next school year.
Fulton Schools continues focus on safety
The Fulton School System invested nearly $2.4 million in 2019 to ramp up school safety measures across the district, primarily in the areas of additional personnel and resources. Additional funding from the state added another $30,000 per school for targeted safety upgrades.
With the added funding from the district, the Fulton Schools Police Department hired 16 additional school police officers to augment the existing police force of nearly 70 sworn officers. The district’s Police Department is among the largest departments in the state, and one of the few with SWAT-trained officers.
The department also added 10 additional campus security officers and established an online mental health resource center for students with the resources.
Comprehensive audits at each of the district’s 105 schools were also conducted in the spring to identify risks or hazards that could compromise student and staff safety. The audits were funded by the $30,000 grant provided to each school under Gov. Brian Kemp’s school safety initiatives. The results of the audit will help pinpoint issues at each school to be addressed through the grant money.
The focus on school safety and active shooter threats follows a nationwide focus on school safety which has escalated over the past several years. Since the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 which killed 26 students and staff, there have been 239 incidents involving guns in schools, according to Gun Violence Archive, an organization which tracks school-based incidents.
Fulton Schools has made school safety a priority for funding, in the classrooms, the buses and other areas. In 2019, enhanced cameras — with the capability of facial recognition — were installed in area high schools and can be directly accessed by local law enforcement. The cameras will eventually be rolled out to all schools.
Most of the funding for safety programs comes from the one-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), beginning in 2012 when school entry protocols were enhanced.
FirstSTEP adds 71 student teachers
An innovative program to recruit and retain top teachers in the Fulton County School System added 71 teacher interns embedded in schools across the district for the 2019-20 school year. The 71 interns nearly doubled the 41 interns in the pilot year of the program in 2018.
The goal of the district’s FirstSTEP (Student Teacher Education Program) is to eventually hire the interns as full-time teachers next year. The interns will come into the classroom with a year of classroom experience and lessons learned from mentor teachers under their belts.
The 71 interns this school year come from six local colleges and universities — Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, Spelman College, the University of West Georgia and the University of Georgia. The interns receive a $3,000 stipend for the nine-month internship, and the promise of a full-time contract upon successful completion.
This year, 35 teachers were hired from the original group of 41 interns, exceeding the program goal of 80 percent retention.
Changes to the FirstSTEP program in 2019 included expanding the number of participating schools, implementing periodic “lunch and learn” opportunities, and placing at least two interns together in a school so they can learn and grow together. The University of Georgia is also participating on a trial basis this year.
FirstSTEP is a staffing solution to Fulton School’s critical needs. With 17 school districts in Metro Atlanta all competing for a dwindling pool of teachers, creating a pipeline of teacher candidates is critical, district officials say.
Ron Wade, Fulton Schools’ chief talent officer, said the district had to fill nearly 600 positions for the 2019-20 school year to meet its goal of 6,850 teachers in place by the start of school.
Graduation rate leads among large systems
Students in the Fulton County School System are graduating in record numbers from the district’s 19 high schools, with every traditional high school in North Fulton exceeding the district’s goal of 90 percent graduation for the first time.
Data released by the Georgia Department of Education calculated Fulton’s overall graduation rate at 87.2 percent for the class of 2019, a 0.4 percent increase from the previous year and the highest rate among metro Atlanta systems.
Among North Fulton’s eight traditional high schools, the average graduation rate was 90.56. Top performers included Chattahoochee High School which led the pack with a graduation rate of 97.9 percent, followed by Cambridge at 97.6 percent and Northview at 90 percent.
Fulton’s five-year Strategic Plan, first passed in 2012 and renewed in 2017, sets a high bar for the district’s graduation rates. In 2012 the goal was a 90 percent graduation rate; in 2017 it went to 92 percent.
“The data shows that our district made progress on this front last year,” said Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney. “We intend to celebrate the hard work of our schools. We intend to remain laser focused on ensuring that this trend continues so that we can witness all of our students walk across the high school stage with a diploma.”
Fulton Schools hits bulls-eye with systemwide enrollment projections
Planners with the Fulton County School System were nearly spot on in their projections for student enrollment this year, missing the mark by only 12 more students than the forecast of 93,527 students.
This near-perfect forecast for the 2019-20 school year is in stark contrast to last year’s enrollment which came in more than 1,000 students below expectations. It also indicates systems planners are getting more adept at projecting numbers as the system gradually declines in population.
This year’s enrollment of approximately 93,500 students is the third consecutive year of decline. Once projected to hit 100,000 students, FCS saw its enrollment hit a peak in 2016 with 96,000 students.
The district remains the fourth largest in the state, behind only Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb County school systems.
Although overall numbers were aligned with projections, in North Fulton sharp variances were seen in elementary schools. Manning Oaks Elementary opened with nearly 100 fewer students than projected, while Hillside Elementary in Roswell welcomed 75 more students than expected – the equivalent of nearly three classrooms of kids.
In all, 13 of the area’s 30 elementary school saw projections miss the actual enrollment by 30 or more students.
Projections for the area’s 12 middle schools were more in line with actual enrollment, with most coming within 10 students over or under forecast. The lone outlier was Holcomb Bridge Middle which enrolled 50 more students above projections.
After defying the slowing growth trend across Fulton County for years, most high schools in North Fulton enrolled fewer students this year than last, and are nearly all within instructional capacity for the first time in years.
The lone exception was Cambridge High which had a first month enrollment of 2,087, slightly higher than last year’s population. Milton remains the area’s largest high school, but saw an opening day enrollment of 2,340 students, more than 40 students fewer than last year.