Gregory Thornton is looking for the code. Poverty makes it harder to figure out. But he thinks it can be done. He’s determined to do it.
The code the new Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent referred to in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session Tuesday at the Law School’s Eckstein Hall, is the way to achieve substantially higher levels of academic success with children from low-income homes.
Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the Law School, asked Thornton if the impacts of poverty were too great to succeed in school districts such as MPS.
“I see the sting of poverty every day,” Thornton said. “It’s devastating.”
About 81 percent of MPS’s 82,000 students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, the general standard for regarding students as poor. The school system feeds about 100,000 meals to students every day, including thousands of breakfasts.
But, he said, educators can’t use poverty as a cop-out. “It’s our responsibility, despite the poverty, to find the code that young people can be successful,” he said.
Thornton described MPS as a place where meaningful steps, such as a new reading program that is being implemented in almost every school and overhauls of some of the weakest high schools, are being taken.
“Everybody likes champions and we’re going to win,” he told an audience of about 100. “I have no doubt we’re going to win.”
He said attendance was up and suspensions were down so far this school year, but “we get a wake-up call each morning,” in the form of a daily report on data about MPS schools that shows the urgency that attaches to improving outcomes for Milwaukee kids.
Thornton said a four-year contract with the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association that includes requiring teachers to pay some of the basic cost of their health insurance will be a good step forward, assuming it is ratified.
But other hard financial decisions are going to have to be made, including cutting the amount of space MPS operates. He said the system has space for 25,000 to 30,000 more students than it actually has. “If we make the courageous decisions that have to be made,” Thornton said, MPS can be “right-sized” over the next three years.
At a Law School forum in May, Robert Peterkin, who was MPS superintendent from 1987 to 1990, said that if he had it to do over again, he would push reform in Milwaukee twice as hard, twice as deep, and twice as fast. Gousha asked Thornton is he was taking Peterkin’s advice.
“No,” Thornton answered. He said he wanted to push change as fast as he thought it was practical to do, but in a way that would be sustainable in the long run. Too much reform ends up bringing two steps forward and three steps back, he said.
“How much change can the organization take?” he asked. That reality has to be balanced against the urgency of change.
“I think we’re moving at a pretty good pace,” he said. “I think the city is ready to do something fundamentally different.”
Thornton met with the faculty of the Marquette College of Education last week. His two visits to Marquette led him to issue a challenge: How about if Marquette partners with MPS in working with at least one specific school?
“Let’s get the uniforms dirty,” he said, adding it would take time for such an idea to be put into practice.
“There’s a sense of hopefulness in the city,” Thornton said. “I think that hopefulness will drive change.”
Video for the event is available here.