FULTON COUNTY — Reducing the dropout rate in the Fulton County School System is a personal mission for Superintendent Mike Looney. It’s one he has held onto since joining the district in 2019.
"I was a high school dropout," Looney admits. "It's not that I couldn't do it [it was just] life was in the way."
One year after taking the reins of the Fulton School System, his directive to district leaders to slow the dropout rate is making an impact.
Last school year the number of students leaving without a diploma was nearly cut in half — from 1,216 dropouts in 2019 to 685 in 2020.
“This means 531 students did not step away from their future; they stepped into it,” said Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones. “They all have names, and now they all have futures.
Jones said a four-part plan was developed in 2019 to reduce dropouts in the short and long term. Components include:
- Implemented a data dashboard to identify potential student dropouts early before they were already heading for the exits.
- Used data and research to provide school leaders, specifically middle and high school graduation coaches, with focused training on creating dropout prevention programs in their schools.
- Formed a “drop out team” composed of school leaders from across the districts who met regularly to monitor the data, the training, the process and the progress.
- Established a “gate” that any student who wanted to drop out must pass through. The gate, Jones said, was the principal, who would help the student alleviate the barriers and find the support and resources to keep the student in school.
"We are proud to share that we have already seen significant progress," Jones said. “[But] we do want to exercise caution in the ability to sustain this kind of growth, given the significant challenges brought on by the COVID pandemic."
He noted remote instruction and other disruptions caused by the pandemic have made it more difficult to see students every day and remain in touch.
For his part, Looney said he understands why students seek other paths, but he is working to remove the barriers that keep them focused on an education.
"I have yet to meet a student that wants to drop out of high school," Looney said. "What they are saying is 'I just don't know how to finish.'"