“Milwaukee stands at the threshold of doing something very great,” Gregory Thornton, the new superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, told the Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday.
It’s nice to hear that kind of optimism when it comes to educational success for Milwaukee’s children. But everyone knows how much needs to change for that to become true in a city where reading scores are among the lowest in America.
That’s the balancing act Thornton has been undertaking as a he continues to reach out to both leaders and the general public in his first months as chief of the 80,000-student system.
He needs to strike a positive tone about what is going to happen, but he also needs to make it clear that he’s here to change the state of things, and that’s going to take major work. Thornton appears to have received generally favorable reviews for how he is doing and what he is saying. He has met with numerous political, business, and philanthropic leaders and groups, visited a large number of schools, and made appearances throughout the city.
At the invitation of Common Council President Willie Hines, Thornton spoke for about 20 minutes at the start of the meeting in the ornate Common Council chambers, a rare venue for an MPS superintendent. Thornton hit many of his main themes: The financial challenges facing MPS (it will cost $55 million more next year to do the same things being done this year, he said). The new administrative team he has brought in (he named and described the background of several of them). The need to deal with the high cost of employee benefits. The need to save money in areas such as food service. The need to do something about the large number of empty buildings MPS is holding. And the urgency of doing something about the low reading ability of so many Milwaukee children.
“I want to ask you for your partnership – we’re in this together,” Thornton told the aldermen, giving a message he has given to community leaders in general. He asked the aldermen to back the new literacy plan being implemented in MPS this fall. Turning to something that falls more under the purview of City Hall, he asked the aldermen to do all they can to keep children safe in the city.
Thornton even hit a positive tone on the issue that has caused the most divisiveness in education politics in Milwaukee in the last two decades, the voucher program which allows more than 20,000 children to attend private schools using public money. “Milwaukee is the choice capital of the world,” Thornton said. “I think we should be proud of that.” But, he said, every school and child should be held accountable to the same standards. “We need a common yardstick,” he said.
One large step in that direction is already becoming a reality. Unlike conventional schools and charter schools, voucher schools were not required to administer or report the results of the state’s standardized tests known as the WKCEs in the past. But the Legislature changed that in 2009, and this year will be the first in which the approximately 110 private schools in the program will have to make the performance of their students a matter of public information.
As he has most everywhere he has gone, Thornton appeared to get a warm reception from Common Council members. Sure, it’s a honeymoon period, but that’s better than no honeymoon. Reality will cast its vote on the new team at MPS in a lot of ways as things unfold. But give Thornton credit for hitting the ground running – and, it appears, in some good directions.