Superintendent in-waiting Thornton addressed members of the Milwaukee Press Club Tuesday and said he will run the Milwaukee Public Schools as a business whose number one goal is to educate children. Goals two and three are to run the district efficiently and to improve parental, community and business involvement on both sides of the table.
To accomplish goal one, Thornton will make use of innovative programs including TEACH for America and New Leaders/New Schools. Both recruit people in non-education fields to devote a period to teaching in rural and urban school districts. While in the program, the neophyte teachers are mentored and nurtured into certified educators, who will possibly stay with the district or at least fill vacancies in needed classrooms while under the program..
“We need to grow teachers and principals,” Thornton said. “We need to use programs and universities to enhance teaching and leaders in the classrooms.”
He had other innovative ideas, such as using Facebook, Twitter and iPods to enhance the educational opportunities by developing mp3 lectures or YouTube videos of classes. However, he did show his unfamiliarity with the lingo when he added that he “twits” all the time.
Thornton’s business attitude should help with achieving goal two, effective management of the district. He said the district needs to take a hard look at the infrastructure, get rid of empty buildings and look at the return on the investment of current contracts with teachers unions and other support staff.
He also has big plans to engage parents, the community and businesses in MPS. “I like to say that education is everybody’s business.”
In previous superintendent positions, Thornton has implemented parent access centers and study groups, but the program he is most proud of is parent academies. The academies help parents, who often failed to graduate, acquire the skills to help their children with schoolwork and success. The program also helps bridge cultural differences that are a barrier to student achievement.
He is ready to sit down with Milwaukee’s business leaders to determine what skills MPS graduates need for the future, here and abroad. He plans to have a “kitchen cabinet” stocked with industry titans that will focus on introducing algebra at lower grade levels and to develop soft skills.
“Students need to learn how to think, to solve problems and to use technology,” Thornton said. “Students need to be knowledge navigators to find information and turn it into usable skills.”
In addition, an earlier focus on Algebra in 7th grade could help improve falling 10th grade math skills in the district. “The problem has been the 10th grade test is heavy on Algebra and Geometry and these are unknown skills to many of the students. We need to have earlier access to these skills.”
While Thornton doesn’t take over the reigns at MPS until July 1, he has been spending a lot of time in the city visiting schools and talking with the students. He said the student’s number one issue is improving the cafeteria offerings. He added that students aren’t concerned with who sits in his chair.
“There are 82,000 students and they don’t care who’s leading the parade, they just want a good parade,” he said, in a down-home style that seemed to appeal to the press corps.
Currently, who leads the parade is up in the air, as Gov. Jim Doyle pushes for the passage of Senate Bill 437 this week to give the state superintendent of public instruction the ability to intervene in schools and districts that have been determined “under performing” for four consecutive years. MPS is the only district in the state that currently meets that criteria.
The bill would allow the state superintendent to help set standard curriculum across the district, implement specific strategies to improve reading and math and use data to address student needs. A change to the bill’s original language added the requirement that the elected school board serves as a partner in the intervention, instead of giving the state superintendent full, unfettered power.
Thornton welcomes the political discussion on schools and said that there is an opportunity for MPS if the Senate bill passes.
“It will provide us wit a new way to look at leadership with the elimination of principal tenure,” he said. “We will be able to determine how effective (a principal) is in the job, not by how much seat time they have had. It will allow management to move more quickly to failing schools.”
Thornton also welcomes choice and charter schools, but says a proper yardstick is needed to measure their success. A recent study has shown that students in Milwaukee choice/charter schools are currently performing at the same levels as their peers in MPS. Thornton said that could change, but overall choice, charter and even public schools that are failing have one thing in common, they have to be closed.
On a personal note, Thornton said he plans to relocate his home from Pennsylvania to Milwaukee and that he needs a minimum of 5 years to accomplish noticeable results for MPS. He said he could easily become a Packers fan and will even try on a cheesehead, but that converting from the Phillies to the Brewers might be difficult.
Most of all, Thornton sees Milwaukee as a place filled with dedicated people who want the best for their children and feel a sense of urgency for improvement. He looks forward to being part of that challenge and promises to keep the dialogue with the community, parents and students open and candid.
The entire panel discussion with Dr. Gregory Thornton, the next superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools will be broadcast on Time-Warner Cable’s Wisconsin On Demand, Channel 411 and onWisconsin Eye.