Charm and more: MPS’ Thornton might have the right mix

With anticipation bubbling up for Sunday’s Milwaukee Film Festival screening of “Waiting for Superman,” some might have expected Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton to crash into the Common Council chambers at City Hall through a window, a cape fluttering in the wind and a twinkle in his eye.

Instead, 83 days into his tenure here, Thornton walked up to the podium from the back of the room and we were reminded that there are no supermen coming to beat down the issues facing public education. But hearing Thornton speak, we were also reminded that there are some super folks working hard to educate Milwaukee’s kids, and at this first glance, Thornton looks to be one of them (fingers crossed).

He got full marks from this MPS parent this morning for never using the word “honeymoon” and for being lighthearted but serious and seemingly on-task.

Whenever a new superintendent comes on board, there’s talk of the honeymoon; you know, the time he gets to learn the lay of the land, assess the situation and start making changes.

If you have a kid in public school, the idea of anyone at Central Services kicking back to read the literature is abhorrent. There is no honeymoon for our kids. They don’t go on break during the “honeymoon” for this arranged marriage and come back later for their education.

When one alderman asked how long Thornton is willing to wait to see change at under-performing schools, the superintendent said he wants to see change immediately. Goal!

“Some schools are in intensive care,” he said. “They are getting an intensive dose of support.”

Of course, talk is talk and Thornton would be expected to say all the right things the first time he addresses Milwaukee’s Common Council. But those paying attention know that Thornton already got to work quickly and spent the summer making changes on Vliet Street.

In his roughly 20-minute talk Tuesday morning, Thornton didn’t sugarcoat the state of public education. Surely, he knows things are beyond that. He did say a number of schools — naming, among others, Bay View and Bradley Tech — have been “put on notice.

“It is not acceptable that schools are under performing,” Thornton said.

The superintendent noted that 300 of 482 laid-off teachers were recalled, then quickly pointed out that that was in large part due to a one-time federal cash infusion that simply kicks the can down the road to next year when we can expect the specter of layoffs to return.

“Our schools feel the sting of poverty every day,” he said, adding that MPS serves nearly 100,000 meals a day.

Thornton said MPS needs accountability, needs to work with the teachers’ union, needs to make sure families have what they need for their kids to succeed in school. He acknowledged the deep fiscal deficit.

But Thornton also acknowledged that there are ways to save and that he’s looking for savings without sacrificing MPS’ core mission. He noted, for example, that MPS has perhaps 50 schools more than it needs.

When Ald. Nik Kovac asked about priorities, Thornton sagely replied that the top priority is the classroom and what takes place there.

Ald. Michael Murphy wondered who would make the decision to close specific schools. Others asked about parental involvement, SEED boarding schools and sought clarification on the new “regions” Thornton has set up in the district.

Ald. Joe Davis Sr. asked if African-American MPS kids will take school trips to Africa. The audio system in the chamber is not great, so we can perhaps assume that Ald. Davis didn’t hear the part about MPS’ $55 million deficit, which is expected to continue to grow in coming years, and about the ongoing threat of layoffs.

Thornton didn’t miss a beat, however, riffing on the importance of travel for students, saying he’d love to take kids on a trip to Africa, which he has previously visited, but also to see Washington D.C., New York City and his native Philadelphia. But he stopped short of announcing that MPS has hired a travel agent or is busily scouring Orbitz for deals.

Maybe the new guy really does have the right amount of chutzpah and charm to kick things into the next gear.

I went to the council meeting hoping to hear Thornton say all the right things, but also to sound like he means them. I didn’t want to hear that everything is fine, because we all know it’s not. But I wanted to hear a message of hope and of determination, because without that potentially powerful cocktail, MPS would be a lost cause.

“Milwaukee is on the threshold of greatness,” said Thornton. “Education is the big bet we want to make. Education is not an MPS agenda, it’s a city agenda.”

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