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Long-time educator named WCC Distinguished Contributor
SUGAR GROVE—Bernard “Bernie” Looney, of DeKalb recently retired from a career in education that spanned more than four decades.
For 14 of those years, he worked closely with Waubonsee Community College in his role as director of the Valley Education to Employment System (VALEES).
For all of the ways he has strengthened the ties between the students, staff and faculty of local high schools and colleges, as well as local businesses, Waubonsee is proud to recognize Looney as its 2013 Distinguished Contributor.
Looney started his educational career in 1972 as the cooperative education coordinator/instructor at the Mid-Valley Vocational Center, which is now known as the Fox Valley Career Center (FVCC). He then moved into a role as the division chair for vocational education at St. Charles High School.
“As I spent my career working with students, especially high school students, I realized how important it is for them to know who they are—their interests, aptitudes and abilities—and to match those up with their decisions about further education or training,” Looney said. “They shouldn’t just be going to college but preparing for a future career, one that they’ll be interested in and will find enjoyable.”
It was working directly with students that was always most enjoyable for Looney, so after a few principal positions, including one at DeKalb High School, he came back to the FVCC as the director.
According to Looney, it was a time during which career and vocational education were in vogue.
“We had the federal School-to-Work initiative and the Illinois Education to Careers,” Looney said. “But then when No Child Left Behind was introduced, we got away from that connection. The focus shifted away from the real prize and onto test scores and grade point average. We really need to be looking at the whole child and try to help him/her develop an individualized career path and educational program.”
Looney got the chance to develop stronger and smoother college and career paths for local students when he was hired on as the director of VALEES in 1995. He held the position until 2002 and then came back to it from 2006 until his retirement this past spring.
One of 60 regional systems established by the Illinois State Board of High Education, VALEES works with local school districts, career centers and community colleges to provide curriculum and staff development, promote business and industry partnerships with education, and administer Career and Technical Education (CTE) related grants.
There are a few things that set VALEES apart from the other 59 systems.
“We are one of the largest in terms of geography and number of districts served,” Looney said. “Plus, being housed on a community college campus (Waubonsee’s Sugar Grove Campus), there is a natural connectedness that develops, and we’re better able to foster partnerships with Waubonsee.”
Looney always had the interests of the students, schools and businesses he serves in mind as he developed projects and solutions. For example, when East Aurora High School approached him several years ago to get his opinion on updating their welding lab, he immediately thought of a potential Waubonsee connection.
“The high school district made an investment in the facility, and the college invested in the equipment,” Looney said. “So now there’s a facility that serves both institutions, as well as local businesses.”
Cultivating that connection with local businesses has been a particular accomplishment during Looney’s tenure at VALEES. Not only do local professionals help guide local educators and curriculum with their participation on VALEES’ advisory committees, they also open up their operations for the benefit of teachers and students.
“Our business partners were having a hard time participating given the economy,” Looney said. “So instead of inviting them to the schools, we took teachers to their sites, and they were happy to host us. We changed our angle a bit and were able to keep those real-world connections, as well as keep our teachers up to date.”
Keeping local schools up to date with ever-changing industry standards is another function of VALEES, as evidenced by the recent change of Waubonsee’s fire science curriculum. Instead of the program granting high school students articulated credit, or credit that can only be used at Waubonsee, the program now grants dual credit that can transfer to any college.
“With changing state requirements and certifications, we just felt that this better met the needs of students, and we were able to work with Waubonsee administrators to get it done,” Looney said.
It’s not always the VALEES office initiating improvements or opportunities. Relationships have developed to a point where businesses are starting to see the value of the system and the possibilities it can provide.
According to Looney, Burgess Norton contacted the VALEES office a few years ago about starting a scholarship for high school students in the VALEES region. The company now offers two $2,500 awards each year, with VALEES doing the applicant screening.
“It was actually a student of mine whom I had placed at Burgess Norton when he was a student who helped us facilitate the scholarship,” Looney said.
Looney realizes the importance of the people he’s met and worked with along the way and gives them all the credit for his accomplishments.
“It’s all about partnerships and people,” he said. “Partnerships don’t happen because of what you put on paper but because of the people involved.”