Profile: Philip Lanoue

His Contagious Way Leads to National Limelight

By Paul Riede/School Administrator, May 2015  

Profile - Lanoue
          Philip Lanoue

When Nancy Denson met Philip Lanoue, the Clarke County, Ga., superintendent, in 2009, she was immediately taken by his passion for education. She also admits feeling a little guilty.
    Denson, now mayor of Athens-Clarke County, says Lanoue’s insistence that poverty cannot be an excuse for failure in school got her thinking about her own assumptions.
    “I was doing something a lot of other people were doing,” she says. “I was making excuses.”
    Now, nearly six years later, Lanoue’s enthusiasm and “no-excuses” attitude in the high-poverty, 13,000-student district have proven contagious. The achievement gap in the majority-minority district has narrowed dramatically.
    Lanoue, AASA’s 2015 National Superintendent of the Year, says his success has come from opening up the system to bring clarity and transparency to its work.
    Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the district’s classrooms. Ernest Hardaway, Clarke County’s executive director of school support, says before Lanoue’s arrival, teachers in different schools used widely divergent approaches to instruction — and often got the same poor results from students.
    Lanoue cracked open that go-it-alone culture, Hardaway says, beginning with some plain talk.
    “What is teaching? What does it look like?” Lanoue asks. “If nobody is learning you can’t call it teaching, but we have for years.”
    Lanoue, 58, established common, research-tested classroom practices, calling them “non-negotiables” and insisting all teachers adopt them.  
    Because of his bedrock belief that all kids can learn, Lanoue says the district has taken risks with students, including offering high school physical science to all 8th graders who want to take it, regardless of their academic standing. The vast majority of students have succeeded.
    Lanoue also restructured a career academy to offer dual enrollment with a local technical college at no cost to students.
    The renewed confidence in the district’s struggling students has led to other changes. Lanoue says the district has improved school climate by adopting practices based on what he calls “inner control psychology.”
    “Instead of commands and suspensions and expulsions, we put in behavior specialists, we do class meetings in the morning,” he says. “Adults have to role-model exactly what they want for kids.”
    Born in the tiny Vermont mill town of Middletown, near the Canadian border, Lanoue first made his mark in ice hockey. He started playing on “a pond near the swamp” and advanced to captaining and later coaching state championship teams.
    He went to the University of Vermont for pre-med, but switched to secondary education. By 32, he was principal of Burlington High School and three years later was Vermont’s principal of the year.
    After two stints as a principal in Massachusetts, he became an area assistant superintendent in a struggling portion of Cobb County, Ga., before being named to lead the Clarke County schools in July 2009.
    His wife, Vickie, commutes to Boston, spending most of her work days there or traveling as director of event management at MFS Investment Management. Their two grown daughters live in Boston.
    Denson, the mayor, and Hardaway, a central-office administrator, both hope Lanoue stays just where he is, despite the new attention he is drawing on a national stage.
    “I’ve been here 41 years, and the last six have been the best of my career,” Hardaway says. “I can see the difference in what we’re doing for kids.”

Paul Riede is a journalism instructor at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y. E-mail:


Bio Stats: Phil Lanoue

Currently: superintendent, Clarke County, Ga.
Previously: area assistant superintendent, Cobb County, Ga.
Age: 58
Greatest influence on career: When I began my career, I had school leaders who made a tremendous impression on me. I continue to connect with them on a regular basis.
Best professional day: Connecting with students, teachers and principals in their school and ensuring they know you support them always makes me feel good at the end of the day.
Books at bedside: My iPad
Biggest blooper: I once called a candidate who applied for a job to tell them at length that they did not get the job, and they responded, “Thank you, but you must have the wrong number as I never applied!”
Why I’m an AASA member: The resources and knowledge from colleagues around the country provide access to a wealth of knowledge and support.