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 […]


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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Gregory Thornton’s upbringing should disprove his case.

He grew up in one of Philadelphia’s ubiquitous row houses on the city’s working-class west side – the same community that a decade later spawned both the real Will Smith and his TV alter ego, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

By Thornton’s teens, gangs encroached on his neighborhood, there was violence in the streets, and his high school lunch room was closed down because “it was considered unsafe,” he recalls. “I lost so many friends. I was one of the lucky ones.”

Yet he was no hard-bitten street kid. “I wish I could tell you life was tough for me,” he chuckles. “I ended up a Cosby kid. I had every advantage a poor child could have.”

An only child, Thornton describes a childhood that, for all its hazards, seems almost idyllic: a life of nurturing parents and teachers, and church every Sunday. To shelter young Gregory from the streets during the summer months out of school, his parents sent him south to stay with grandparents in Virginia and Maryland on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

For Thornton’s father, a union steelworker named James, toughness was a core value. “The proudest point of his entire work life was that he’d worked 41 years at the same place,” Thornton says, “and for 17 of those years, he didn’t miss a day.” During the evenings, James would enlist his son’s help with budgeting and paying bills on the $117 he brought home each week. Thornton thought his dad was simply teaching him the ropes, but looking back, he realizes the man who never finished high school may have actually needed his assistance.

His mother, a preacher’s daughter named Rachel, stressed compromise, which led to arguments with James over how Gregory should be reared. “My mother would say, ‘You’ve got to be forgiving.’ My father would say, ‘You can forgive, but you must never forget.’ ”

When a school bully confronted 14-year-old Gregory, he recalled his father’s words and stood his ground. “I got beat,” he says, and went home, nose bloodied, to a dad who quietly radiated pride at his son’s resolve and a mother who was deeply disappointed. “In my mother’s eyes, I probably committed the worst sin. My father told me, ‘You may have lost the fight, but you’ve won battles you don’t even know you’ve won.’ It was true. The bullying stopped.” As an adult, Thornton found compromise, the elusive place his parents couldn’t always reach, and he speaks of maintaining a balance between his mother’s soft side and his father’s steely resolve.

School itself was pleasant for Thornton, who can remember virtually every one of his elementary school and junior high teachers, rattling off names. But that wasn’t so at 5,000-student Overbrook High – a place “so big we went to school in shifts.” Overbrook, Will Smith’s alma mater, is perhaps best known in Philly for such athletic alums as the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, UCLA basketball star Walt Hazzard and Olympic track gold medalist Jon Drummond. It also turned out Guion Bluford Jr., the first African-American in space.

Thornton’s Overbrook education took him to Temple University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1977 and applied to teach at his childhood school system. “The first thing I was asked is, did I know my ward leader,” he remembers. “I knew I was in trouble – I didn’t even know what a ward leader was.”

He didn’t stay long. Within four years, Thornton was an elementary school principal at a school district on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he spent those childhood summers. The job turned into the longest he’s  held anywhere, lasting eight years.

In the decade that followed, Thornton served as principal in three more schools in three states, then he began climbing the administrative ranks in North Carolina and Maryland. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree at Salisbury State in Maryland and, in 2002, a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

By 2002, he rose to deputy superintendent in Montgomery County, Maryland. Two years later, Thornton returned to Philly as the district’s chief academic officer. And in 2007, he was hired to run the tiny – 5,000 students then, even smaller now – Chester Upland School District in suburban Philadelphia.

The city of Chester is among the poorest in Pennsylvania. The median family income – about $27,000 – is more than $20,000 below the average for Pennsylvania and the nation as a whole. And more than 70 percent of the district’s students qualify for federally subsidized lunches – double the state average. The 5-square-mile community has struggled for decades with poverty, and its schools have become collateral damage.

In 1994, Pennsylvania declared the district “financially distressed” and appointed a board of control to run it. Six years later, the state declared it an “Education Empowerment District” and appointed an Empowerment board of control, which hired the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. to manage eight of the district’s nine schools. After four years, the contract was canceled with little to show for it and a false accusation – later recanted – that a principal had sex with a 16-year-old student. In response, the state tightened its control, and in 2007, Gov. Ed Rendell appointed Thornton as superintendent. “It was some of the best years of my professional life,” Thornton says now, calling the city “a community that’s just starving for attention, relegated to years and years of neglect.”

He had his work cut out for him. When a student was shot on the steps of the high school, Thornton, who estimates he attended some 15 student funerals in his three years there, tried to rally the city to action. He reached out to Cheryl Cunningham to join a community advisory board. Cunningham is executive director of the Chester Education Foundation – a consortium of local colleges, businesses and nonprofits that formed in 1988 to provide support. State education agencies were also involved, as were supplemental endeavors such as after-school help programs, and it all remained independent of the district and its administration. Cunningham remembers Thornton as a charismatic and popular superintendent.

“He came in as a very experienced educator,” she says. But he had an outsider’s perspective. “I think that he was quite surprised after he was here for a while to find out just how challenging his work would be in the district, even though, compared to Philadelphia, we’re so tiny.”

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Cunningham got to see Thornton’s work up close. “Some of the best work that Dr. Thornton did was in partnering with local organizations to create some academic reform and some educational options,” she says. He encouraged an alternative school focused on the arts; another targeting science, technology, engineering and math; and a third that focused on health sciences. All of them were offered as alternatives to keep students in the district instead of joining burgeoning charter schools.

“It allowed the district to offer some options that would be very attractive to families who were looking for better academic situations for their students,” Cunningham says. “He was very astute to see that the partners who were approaching him had resources to bring and would have a long-term commitment. They could help him to establish alternatives that parents were looking for – choices within the district.”

 

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Tall and solid, Thornton packs into his oversized frame an indulgent grandpa, a hard-nosed numbers wonk, a nurturing teddy bear and a flinty CEO. In 2010, the Milwaukee Public Schools board determined he was fit for the task of fixing MPS, recruiting him from troubled Chester.

“There was a clear consensus that Dr.
Thornton was the one who could help this community achieve its K-12 educational goals,” says Jeff Spence, a school board member. “He had experience in dealing with very similar populations.” Thornton, he continues, “wasn’t locked into a preconceived notion of how to go about improving the educational climate for our young people.”

Thornton’s focus is simple, but his approach ranges widely, never shying from the unorthodox.

“His first priority is the children of Milwaukee,” says Michael Bonds, the school board’s president, and that’s a sentiment widely echoed among Thornton’s fans. The most ideal way to reform a district is to start at the beginning – making the earliest childhood programs as good as they can be and laying a foundation for learning that will extend through the grades until students graduate. But when a district is as old as MPS and deals with the sort of problems it has had, there isn’t the luxury of only focusing on children beginning that schooling journey. “I’ve got kids going into the world every year in June,” Thornton says. “I’ve got to work on both ends of things.”

Which leads to his systematic and strategic networking.

Whether sitting for an interview or mingling with civic leaders, Thornton leans forward both to listen and to talk, barely containing the energy ready to burst out. He holds regular meetings with parents, students and teachers, and has made efforts to connect with the business community – where, he acknowledges delicately, “There was a lot of confidence lost in the public school district of Milwaukee over the last number of years for a number of reasons.”

In less than two years on the job, Thornton has reorganized the school district, closed schools and negotiated a new concessionary health care deal with the teachers union. He’s also nearly tripled the amount of money that’s come into the district from outside grants, like one worth $20.4 million from General Electric Foundation, the charity affiliate of the multinational manufacturing corporation, to improve math and science teaching. Thornton brought in $100 million in outside grants in his first year.

Thornton arranged for district middle managers to undergo training through GE in management skills, focusing on quality improvement and waste reduction. For human resources advice, he took an MPS team over to Manpower Inc., the big Milwaukee-based temporary help firm. “They were brainstorming about how we could help them attract good teachers and administrators to Milwaukee,” says Manpower Vice President Melanie Holmes, who also chairs the Milwaukee Area Technical College board. “I didn’t expect him to be so open to things outside the norm.” Or to advice from outside the district.

For classrooms, Thornton spearheaded common districtwide math and reading curricula, which some have criticized for stifling teacher innovation. But with 15 percent of MPS students moving from one school to another during the year, Thornton and his supporters argue it helps keep those children from getting lost in their lessons.

Thornton does his homework, says Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. She recalls a meeting with the new superintendent soon after he took office in July 2010. The subject: Bradley Tech and Trade High School on the near South Side.

Bradley Tech has been a special project of the civic organization Taylor runs. Since its celebrated renovation a decade ago, manufacturers, builders and other employers hungry for skilled trade workers have hoped the school could once again be a pathway for students to the workforce, as it was when Milwaukee was the world’s machine shop.

Thornton came to that meeting with numbers showing the disappointing reading and math scores of the school’s ninth-graders. Bradley wasn’t living up to the notion that it was supposed to be a kind of magnet school, recruiting the students most equipped to take its specialized classes.

“He comes in and puts the data on the table and says, ‘Here’s the reality. What are we going to do about it?’ ” Taylor recalls. “He was the first person I’ve ever seen do that.”

Thornton thrives on data. Three-quarters of the way through an interview, he pulls out a sheaf of papers studded with numbers. There are stats on attendance and student progress. At one school, half of the freshmen are “over-age and undercredentialed,” Thornton says. Translation: They’ve either repeated a grade, or they’ve been passed through without qualifying. That practice – critics call it “social promotion” – raises the difficult question of whether it’s better to let kids move from grade to grade or to hold them back.

Letting kids continue through the system doesn’t work, he says. “You think you’re helping them, but you’re not. You’re actually giving them false hope.” But still, “I do have kids who are graduating now who’ve been passed from grade to grade. They don’t have the skill sets.” If they get to college, they’ll end up in remedial courses – something that, in an ideal world, colleges wouldn’t have to provide.

The other option carries downfalls as well. “If you leave a kid back once, they have a 50 percent shot at graduating,” he says. Do it again, and the percentage plummets. “I have kids in the ninth grade who are 17, 18, 19 years old.”

The district no longer practices social promotion, says Thornton, but just ending it isn’t enough. So he’s looking at special schedules, flexible days, even Saturday school or night classes – anything that might help reverse the downward spiral.

Thornton returns to the reports, mining for more numbers. How many meals served. How many late buses deployed. How often principals take time to observe their teachers teaching. Even individual student grade point averages. “Every aspect you can think of is there,” he says.

The papers he’s poring over are from a meeting earlier that day with district regional administrators. “The focus this month is on dropouts,” Thornton explains. But to get at that question means looking back at the signs of trouble – like those repeating ninth-graders. “We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and allow our data to drive our future decisions.” The district is developing a new student information database and wants it to be so detailed that the district can see “where every kid and family is, and the supports and services that they’re receiving.”

Thornton’s insistence on data draws ready comparisons to another high-profile city official: Police Chief Ed Flynn. “These are two people who have come from other communities to Milwaukee,” Taylor says. “They’ve not looked at it and walked away, but said, ‘This is solvable. But this is what you have to do to solve it.’ ”

District Attorney Chisholm has met with Flynn, Sheriff David Clarke, Thornton and others to discuss the problem of student violence on city buses. He seconds the comparison. “An outsider’s perspective can be extremely important, particularly if it’s an informed, intelligent, articulate outsider coming in,” Chisholm says. “The advantage they have is that they can simply speak to what they know works and what’s effective – they’re not immediately perceived as being part of some agenda.”

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In early 2010, the city tried to take control of Milwaukee Public Schools. Complaining of a feckless elected school board, outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle and Mayor Tom Barrett, both Democrats, sought a state law that would let Barrett appoint the school board. But a coalition of neighborhood activists, unions and members of the city’s black community pushed back hard, and in the end, lawmakers in Doyle’s and Barrett’s own party, who controlled the legislature, blocked the measure.

After this bruising and unsuccessful attempt, Thornton arrived. Not surprisingly, he and Barrett were wary of each other in those early months. “There were a lot of raw feelings in the community,” Barrett says. “He was from the outside. I was someone that was at odds with the majority of the board.” There was no light switch, no “magic moment,” says Barrett, but that’s changed. Trust grew.

Thornton’s first – and so far, only – major stumble on the job also came early. His recommendation that the school district undertake a study of alternatives to its in-house food-service operation was rejected outright by the school board, which voted against even exploring the question. Critics of the proposal saw it as a stalking horse for privatizing food service and contended the superintendent hadn’t made the case for even putting the question on the table. “I have yet to see a privatization scheme that’s saved taxpayers money,” says Peter Blewett, school board vice president and a Thornton skeptic.

Thornton came back this year with a modified proposal – turning to an outside commissary – which the board again rejected. Despite those setbacks, Thornton has maintained goodwill with the majority of the board. A year ago, the board extended his nonbinding contract to 2014. The superintendent’s salary is $265,000.

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He’s also managed to cultivate a cordial relationship with the district’s teachers union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, even as Thornton’s administration negotiated significant concessions from MTEA on health care coverage and moved on plans to close city schools.

“He’s a real plus to the Milwaukee scene and MPS,” says Bob Peterson, the union’s president. “He’s a very smart man and knows a lot of educational issues. We have been partnering with him more than any superintendent in years.”

Neither Peterson nor Thornton paper over their differences, such as the union’s refusal last summer to put 5.8 percent of pay toward pensions, which would have helped cover the $54.6 million in state aid that the district lost under the new state budget. The district subsequently announced 519 layoffs, including 354 teachers.

But in November, the union, Thornton’s administration and a group of outside community members from foundations and UW-Milwaukee held a quiet, daylong meeting. Out of that session, held to “reimagine MTEA and MPS,” in Peterson’s words, came an agreement that he and Thornton both signed. They vowed to try to work together as collaborators.

Part of the changing dynamic in the administration-union relationship arises from change at MTEA itself. Peterson comes to the union’s top elected office as one of the activists behind Rethinking Schools, a nationally circulated journal based in Milwaukee. He represents a unionism that seeks to go beyond representing the economic interests of teachers. The union should take a stand for social justice, he believes, and support for public schools is part of that vision. “Public schools are key institutions in a democratic society,” Peterson says. “The best way to defend the Milwaukee Public School district is to improve it.”

For instance, Thornton and Peterson are exploring ways to develop a new evaluation system for teachers that would include student test scores but not make them the only criterion. Still, the shape of any collaboration between the union and the administration could rest on what happens in Gov. Scott Walker’s pending recall election and the long-term future of the law he muscled through that stripped public employee bargaining rights. The MTEA’s contract, signed before that law took effect, expires in 2013.

Coming from outside, Thornton brings fresh eyes and a welcome freedom from “the habits of the past,” as he puts it. But Peterson also warns that outsiders – Thornton included – “sometimes underestimate the capacity of people here in this city.

“For too long, our district has tended toward the top-down management style,” Peterson says. “The district still needs to work on two-way communication.”

 

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As many as 125,000 children live within the Milwaukee Public Schools district, but a third don’t attend Milwaukee Public Schools.

More than 20,000 go to private schools on the public dime, thanks to a 22-year-old program that provides vouchers to low-income families in the district. A similar number attend more than 50 charter schools – publicly funded schools that operate under separate authorization and without some of the rules and restrictions that govern traditional public schools. Charter schools are authorized by one of several approved agencies. In Milwaukee, those agencies are the city, UW-Milwaukee and MPS itself, which authorizes two-thirds of the city’s charter schools.

Voucher and charter schools are the legacy of 1990s school reform and are still firmly embraced in some quarters. School choice, the theory goes, creates competition, and competition forces public schools to improve. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Data on charters is mixed at best, and a recent comprehensive five-year study of Milwaukee’s voucher program found only marginal improvements. “There’s nothing in America that says school competition works,” Thornton says.

Bruce Thompson, a strong school choice advocate who was on the school board when Thornton was hired and left it a year later, says he greeted the incoming Thornton with high hopes – hopes that have diminished. Thornton, Thompson says, has turned out to be far less supportive of alternatives than he thought. “I was really disappointed about his treatment of the charter schools.”

Thornton says his position isn’t anti-charter. He likes that charter schools can be established quickly if the need is perceived, and then shut down quickly if they’re not doing the job well. He wants to see the city place all charter schools under a single authority, and thinks the school district can and should be responsible for that. At the very least, when a school’s charter has been canceled or not renewed for non-performance, it shouldn’t be able to turn to another chartering agency to just sign up again, he says.

Bill Berezowitz, a GE vice president in Milwaukee, has worked closely with Thornton around the GE Foundation grant to the district. He grew up here, graduated from MPS and UWM, and wants this to be “a viable place for my grandchildren to grow up,” he says. Regardless of the charter and voucher programs, “Milwaukee Public Schools is a major component of education for all children in Milwaukee,” Berezowitz continues. “We have to all be in this together. The challenge is, will everybody recognize that?”

That’s the premise of Milwaukee Succeeds – a project spearheaded by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to look for ways to fundamentally improve not just the education but also the basic life conditions of the city’s impoverished children.

“Even if you could build an alternative system, you can’t build it fast enough,” says the foundation’s Gilligan. Charter and voucher schools by themselves will never be able to supplant the school district when it comes to educating most of Milwaukee’s children.

The focus must be on poverty, she contends. Well-off children go to school with an invisible cloak that helps them get ahead from the first day: books and reading at home, a comfortable place to do homework, a full stomach. The dearth of those factors – along with violence, family stress, a lack of health care and the absence of family-supporting jobs in the central city – all point to why poor children struggle in the city’s schools.

“Some children are doing well, and some schools are doing well. But they’re not evenly spread,” Gilligan says. The fate of the children in trouble is a communitywide project, not just one for the schools. To improve their education will demand improving their lives. Thornton has an ambitious idea for how to do that.

Families in poverty are “working with the department of social services, they’re working with schools, they’re working with juvenile services – they’re working with all these agencies,” Thornton says. “We’ve got all these different people going to these homes, and we don’t have a coordinated case management plan.”

He wants them all at the same table, and thinks the school district would be a logical place for that table to be. “In the beginning, I thought it was about reading and math,” Thornton says. “If I’ve got people terrified to ride buses and kids scared to come to school and kids being hurt on the streets, I’ve got to deal with that.”

Some have tried to sound this message for a long time, but it’s finally being heard among some of Milwaukee’s influentials. Thornton’s outsider status may get some of the credit. GMC’s Taylor suggests he’s earned credibility from his experience elsewhere. And he’s spoken forcefully on the issue, in a way that locally grown predecessors might not have.

“If this is what you’ve known all your life, it may be what you expect,” Taylor says. “And the social issues are so overwhelming, they’re hard to look at.”

Thornton, she points out, doesn’t dodge the need to make MPS more responsive. “If you’re poor, you can still be educated,” she says. “But we also have to pay attention to these environmental issues. If we don’t, we’re being blind to a big half of that equation.”

Gregory Thornton still owns the West Philly house of his childhood. His two sons live back east. So does a 7-year-old granddaughter, whose pictures adorn the walls of Thornton’s MPS office. A huge baseball fan, Thornton will root for the Phillies when they come to Miller Park. Ditto for when the 76ers are in town and when the Eagles play the Packers. Thornton’s love for his hometown, his family ties there and the commuter marriage that he sustained until his wife recently moved to the area have all led some to speculate whether he’s got a foot out the door.

In Chester, Thornton tried to plant the seeds of change. “It appears they’ve lost a lot of ground,” he says. Chester schools recently faced the possibility of shutting down entirely. The district sued the state in federal court for funding to keep it open, and teachers went without pay for a time.

In Milwaukee, Thornton says he’s begun to think about what his legacy could be. “I was confident that I could potentially change perceptions, change minds,” he says of coming to Milwaukee. “One of the things I struggle with here is trying to move people to a new place.”

As in Chester, he says, “I’m planting a bunch of seeds. My big worry is, will they stick?” He grows quiet.

“My dad said, ‘In your life, you’ve got to finish something.’ I’ve begun thinking about, ‘Am I going to finish this story?’ That’s important to me.”

Ellen Gilligan took the helm at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation two months after Thornton came to town. “It was right around the time that the movie Waiting for Superman was the hot thing,” she says. The documentary took its title from remarks by a central figure, New York City’s Geoffrey Canada, who leads a massive project to provide not just schooling but before- and after-school guidance for children in Harlem. It’s been criticized for simplistically demonizing public schools and teachers unions, and unrealistically promoting charter schools as a panacea for urban public education.

But Gilligan draws on it for a much different reason.

“Greg Thornton is our Superman,” she says. “We have to do everything we can to help him be successful.”

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