After years of Milwaukee Public School Superintendents trumpeting the party line, it was surprising –and refreshing– to hear Dr. Gregory Thornton say these simple words at a recent Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker’s Luncheon:
“I am in favor of school choice.”
In these parts, school choice doesn’t just mean charter schools sanctioned by the local public school district or open enrollment, but state-funded vouchers for parents to use at any school within the MPS district – charter, private and even religious.
It is a popular program in Milwaukee, as the number of children wanting to use the vouchers exceeds the 22,500 limit imposed by the state legislature.
However, the teacher’s union and administration have vilified the program as a drain on funds that are desperately needed by MPS, and say that it is not effective in teaching the state’s poorest and most needy children.
Thornton sees it differently. “Good schools are good schools, no matter where they are or who is running them.”
While he hasn’t had time to visit any of the promising choice schools in Milwaukee, Thornton is looking forward to stopping at three – Hope Christian Schools, St. Marcus Lutheran and Milwaukee College Prep (a charter school) — in an effort to find out the best practices being used in those schools and put them to work within MPS.
“We need to spread the good stuff around so all the kids can benefit,” he added.
Tapping choice school for ideas isn’t the only way Thornton plans to turn around MPS, which contains the worst reading schools among 4th-grade African-American males in the country.
In his first 100 days, Thornton has implemented a literacy program which standardizes the subject across the district and put into place the MAP (Measures of Academic Success®) assessment program to track results.
“We’re looking at the students several times throughout the year to see how they are doing, to make changes, regroup,” he says. “We just finished our first assessment in November and will do another in January.”
In addition to testing the students at regular intervals to determine progress, the district has changed how literacy is being taught. Large classes are broken into small instructional pods for basic concepts, then the entire class meets to practice before returning to small groups to reinforce what they’ve learned. Teachers are even meeting on Saturdays and afterschool to learn techniques and new ideas from each other.
He is also working closely with the teacher’s union, which has already given him health benefit concessions and allowed for a test run with teacher merit pay to develop teacher evaluation methods thatwould help good teachers and also identify those that are struggling.
Thornton has also started having coffee hours with parents, excitedly pointing out that over 100 parents have attended the sessions to share their challenges and issues with him. He is also hiring an outside consultant to organize a network for parents to help with their own educational deficiencies as well as parenting skills.
“We need to get parents in the room, reengage them and find more ways that parents can get involved,” Thornton said.
He also wants to give students a voice in the discussion by developing advisory groups within schools. He’s open to the idea of having a student representative sit on the school board, and wants to make sure that students have a direct method of contacting him.
But the bottom line is that schools need to better prepare students for what lies beyond high school.
“All students must be college-ready,” Thornton said,“and that is different from going to college. I want a diploma to mean something to both colleges and employers.”
While woodshop and metal shop are a distant memory, Thornton wants all students to be proficient in algebra, technology, English, financial literacy and the soft skills needed to further their education after high school or to go into the workforce – ready for college, if they want. He says that in addition to engaging parents and students in the discussion, a partnership between schools and Milwaukee businesses must be built in order to successfully get more students to graduation day.
“We are using everything at our disposal,” Thornton said. “We don’t know the code that will unlock the hearts and brains of students. We need a total school effort.”