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The Outsider
Can MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton really deliver sweeping change? Not alone, he says. And his strongest supporters agree.

Photos by Adam Ryan Morris

“Dear community members:

As superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, I write to solicit your help in saving lives.”

It’s the last Sunday in February, and Gregory Thornton has penned this strongly worded letter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Crossroads section, mourning the recent shooting deaths of four city teenagers in four separate incidents.

“I am outraged because the community is not outraged,” he continued.

The next day, Thornton joined scores of local politicians, bureaucrats and businesspeople milling in the lobby outside the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee ballroom, waiting for County Executive Chris Abele to deliver his first State of the County address. The day was Abele’s, but that didn’t stop Thornton from working the room, moving with casual purpose through the crowd. One after another, notables from District Attorney John Chisholm to some older suburban men who volunteer in the schools spotted him, approached, shook hands and praised his cri de coeur in the Sunday paper.

Soon, the crowd would sit for Abele’s short talk, but come the end, Thornton was back on his feet working the room. Ald. Nik Kovac cornered him among some chairs.

“What do you need?” Kovac asked.

“We’ve got to do more together,” Thornton told the 34-year-old alderman. “We can’t do it by ourselves.”

We can’t do it by ourselves.

There may be no more succinct summary of Gregory Thornton’s fundamental philosophy as he winds up his second year at the helm of the vast and troubled Milwaukee Public Schools. The first superintendent to come from outside the community in more than a decade, Thornton has managed to command enormous goodwill and enthusiasm among city leaders. Critics are rare, and even some of them seem ready to be won over. The 57-year-old Philadelphia native has immersed himself in the hard – and often dispiriting – data of a district where a third of its students don’t graduate and stubborn gaps persist in test scores. And he’s implemented a series of decidedly unsexy, but no less concrete, changes – from streamlining curriculum to leveraging new resources for strapped schools to putting middle management through quality improvement training borrowed from the business community.

For years – decades even – legions of critics have pointed to the schools with withering criticism of dismal test scores and stubborn dropout rates. Focusing the blame on schools alone, some have all but turned on the public system, fostering the district’s alternative network of taxpayer-funded private schools and the rise of public, independently run charter schools.

In the face of those trends, educators have tried repeatedly to offer a simple but stark rebuttal: So much depends on how children start out before they set foot inside the schoolhouse door. Schools have no hope of fixing things in a vacuum.

For a long time, few would hear this defense, but that’s changing. And Thornton is a large part of the reason why. He’s getting the critics to listen.

“When kids have challenges in their communities and their homes, we’re there to put the pieces together,” Thornton says, sitting in a public-school-drab conference room just outside his office in the MPS administration building. For the district, that could mean doing something as simple as getting clothes for kids. “If I’m not tending to those basic needs, then I’m not getting kids to learn.”

It’s no longer possible to ignore how much and how persistently poverty handicaps children, says Ellen Gilligan, CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. “Dr. Thornton is very poignant about the fact that one of the primary problems with children in
Milwaukee is the level of poverty,” she says. “And there’s a growing number of people around him and in the broader community who are aware of it, too.”


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