For 40 years, Cooper’s life has been centered around education and during the nearly 10 years he’s served as superintendent, his mission has been to improve education for the students enrolled in Rome City Schools.
Today, during his retirement reception at Elm Street Elementary School, dozens of students, parents, teachers and other education officials will honor Cooper, impressing upon him how much he has touched their lives.
But Cooper said it’s the other way around. Every moment was a joy, and every hug from a student, every “thank you” from a parent, has enhanced his life, changing him for the better.
The pathway to leadership
Cooper graduated from Cedartown High School in 1969, and said during his school years, he developed a love for the sciences.
“I enjoyed sciences, biology, physical science, that sort of thing,” he said. “So when I went to college, I majored in life sciences there and science education.”
At first, his eyes weren’t set on becoming an educator, but while he was earning his undergraduate degree at the University of West Georgia, he found out he needed a minor.
“I did some practice teaching down in Newnan and I really enjoyed it, practice teaching and working with the kids,” he said. “And I haven’t looked back since.”
He said it was his time spent practice teaching that helped cement his future.
“What really hooks you into teaching is when you see a student light up and say, ‘Yeah! I get it now,’” he said. “And the relationship you build with students because they trust you, they like you, and ultimately, they want to please you as much as they do their parents. There’s a good relationship there between the student and the teacher and that was wonderful.”
Cooper said he enjoyed teaching the sciences, coaching boys’ and girls’ tennis and being over the science club, but when he saw the opportunity to enter into administration, he snatched it up.
“I saw an opportunity to perhaps do some things for the whole school (system),” he said. “So, I began taking some jobs in administration, one in Paulding County High for a couple of years, and a junior high school down in Haralson County, then I wanted to come back to more of a larger city and I heard about Elm Street Elementary in Rome, and I took the job at Elm Street Elementary as an elementary principal.”
Having never worked with elementary school students, Cooper said the teachers at Elm Street would invite him to their classrooms to read to students, and he would even demonstrate science experiments to students.
“I just enjoyed learning how children at that age learned,” he said. “I learned a great deal from the students and teachers then.”
In 1989, Cooper took on the role of assistant superintendent for Rome City Schools, and then in 2003, he was hired as superintendent.
“It seemed like the ultimate job in education,” Cooper said. “It seemed like you could be more innovative and creative. And before, I was implementing programs and I had some input in to them, but as a superintendent you can work with your board of education and with your school personnel, your teachers and principals to really come up with some neat ideas.”
Creating the desire to learn
As the Great Recession of 2008 tore through school systems across the U.S., forcing many to let teachers go and cut programs, Cooper was determined to maintain the current programs and even develop more for the students.
“We have 15 Advanced Placement courses now in Rome High School, making sure that your public high school can compete with any of the private high schools in Georgia, and that your students are afforded the same opportunities that kids who come from the finest private schools in Georgia or excellent public schools have in other parts of the state,” he said. “So you take that on as a mission and we had a good school system when I became superintendent, and we just tweaked and moved some things and we’ve just continued to grow. And in truth, whoever the new superintendent is, I hope they will take it and improve upon what we have done and continue to make it an even better school system.”
Cooper said he is particularly proud of the AP seminars students can take in the fall and spring at Georgia Tech, UGA, Berry College and the University of West Georgia. During the two-day seminars, students are able to see what it’s like to study in a collegiate setting, fostering in them a spark for the desire to excel in their AP classes and ultimately attend college once they graduate.
In 2008, Cooper created the Phoenix Performance Learning Center in Rome, a non-traditional high school for students who are either struggling to keep their heads above water or who are experiencing other responsibilities that go beyond those of a normal high school student. Before the Phoenix PLC, Cooper said the dropout rate was escalating to an uncomfortable point for him.
“We were losing, oh gosh, out of a cohort of say 400 kids, we were losing 25 percent,” he said. “This last year we were graduating 84 percent which means we lost 16 percent, but the thing that’s helped us narrow that dropout margin is the Phoenix PLC.”
The center is for high school juniors and seniors who have lost some credits or have jobs with awkward hours that they must work in order to support their families. It’s a self-paced learning environment, and students have the ability to complete an entire semester’s work in less than four months.
“The girls and the boys really like it, they feel like they’re in college there,” he said. “Georgia Northwestern (Technical College) taught one course this fall. In January, they’re teaching the intro to English class at Georgia Highlands on campus. And so they’re getting dual enrollment and dual credit. But what we’re trying to do is help them feel like they’re in college and we’re bringing college to them so when they graduate in May, some in December even, they’re already hooked in and registered at either GNTC or Georgia Highlands. I’m very very proud of that because, before, these kids were having students … just dropping out. And now, they’re a success story in that they’re graduating and going to college, whether technical or a traditional college.”
From a student’s point of view
Students enrolled at the Phoenix PLC wrote letters to Cooper in light of his impending retirement, which he has yet to read, telling him how the center has changed their lives. PLC Principal Jennifer Perkins gave the Rome News-Tribune access to some of the letters, and said that were it not for Cooper, this year’s 15 graduating students would be in a much darker place.
PLC student Aliyah Daniel wrote that before her enrollment, she was resigned to dropping out of high school, but wrote that the PLC has made her a better person, in and out of school.
“PLC has tremendously helped me realize that there is hope and that I can do anything I set my mind to do,” Daniel wrote. “I have set goals I never dreamed of doing like my future career as a doctor or even a teacher. To get the chance to say I am the first grandchild to graduate will be an honor, and Dr. Cooper, you are the man who made it all possible.”
Nestor Gaspar said after failing the eighth grade twice, she felt awkward being an older student in high school.
“Every day was a struggle for me to get up and go to school at RHS, but thanks to the PLC, I look forward to going to school now,” she wrote. “PLC was the perfect place for me to get a head start on life. Thanks to your idea, along with my brother, we are going to be the first high school graduates in my family. For that, I would like to humbly thank you for changing my life, and every student’s here at the PLC.”
Germany Miller was haunted by the idea of not graduating.
“Throughout my high school year, the image of not graduating constantly danced around in my head,” she wrote. “Though most of my grades were passing, the fact that I moved around many times interfered with my credits and the image almost became surreal … Dr. Cooper, this letter may seem over the top to you, but please understand that I am very, very grateful for the PLC. Since the day I started, I have not stopped working towards my full potential. There are many people out there who believe no child should be left behind in their education, and you are one of those people.”
Cooper said he is looking forward to teaching school law, policy and ethics at Berry in the spring for students aspiring to earn their masters’ in education. But for a month, he won’t have any work to do. He’s thinking about driving south to the beach and relaxing over a good book. In the future, he hopes to do some traveling abroad, something he’s never been able to do.
The way parents display their kids’ handprints on the refrigerator, or an A+ book report, Cooper feels that way when he receives excellent results from his students.
“When we get our SAT results, or when I find out that we’ve got the highest graduation rate of all ethnicities that we’ve ever had, all those are indicators that let me know that we’re doing a good job for our kids,” he said. “And I’m so proud of our teachers, gosh, we’ve got great teachers, principals, they care about the children, they’re laser-focused and they’re helping each of the children. I’m very proud to be a part of this system.”
The most rewarding aspect of his 40 years in education has been the opportunity to serve his community and fellow man.
“Dr. Albert Schweitzer said, ‘I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.’ When I read that, I thought, I know I’m not crazy, this guy saw it too.”
As he’s grown older, Cooper said he views his career more and more as a position of service.
“I think, you reach a point in your life where you have a nice home and a nice car and whatever, and you have everything you want,” he said. “And then you start looking at your life in terms of, am I doing what I’m supposed to do? Is this my calling? And I’ve really looked at my career in education as both my calling and my opportunity to serve. And I enjoy it, I like, it and honestly, I think those people who find a way to serve are the happiest. It’s very satisfying to me to be in this job and serve our community in public education.”