Milwaukee Talks: MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Six months into his tenure in Milwaukee, MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton has already seen a lot. He’s gotten a hearty Midwestern welcome, but he’s also seen how issues — like MPS’ vacant land and buildings — can rear up suddenly and snarl.

But he remains optimistic, if realistic, and as proposed budgets now filter down to the individual schools, he’s hearing a lot from parents and students. But he doesn’t shy away from that contact. In fact, he makes monthly visits to the homes of MPS parents for evening chats and he reads the e-mails he gets every day from kids.

You’ll also notice that it doesn’t take much to get Dr. Thornton talking and there’s a whole lot more answer than question in the interview that follows.

If you doubt that Thornton isn’t one to mince words, read to the end, where he talks about how long he’ll stay in Milwaukee.

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton. Let’s talk about the budget. What does MPS have to face?

Gregory Thornton: We have to face a tough time, and in tough times, you can begin to think through problems differently. For example, we’re now beginning to go back and question some of our values as an organization. Let’s take the value of early childhood education, and have the conversation, does that truly give us the return on investment?

There’s always a moral side of doing things and then there’s a business side, and I would suggest to you that we’re challenging both of those. We’re taking a look at outcomes. We’re running numbers right now. From a business point, do those youngsters stay with us after third grade, or do those youngsters leave? Does the cost of that intervention give us the return on student achievement? So as an organization, when you get to tough times, and businesses hopefully use these times to begin to think differently.

OK, what’s a different way we could potentially fund this model? Would it make sense to cluster all of the 3- and 4-year-olds together? Would it make sense to do several early childhood centers? What’s the research say? What are the people doing? And the list just goes on.

So you’ve got these teams coming together. This happened to be a team that came together this morning to talk about what is the future of 3- and 4-year-olds. Not just to get through the budget challenge, because the budget challenge is kind of good. It makes you face some things that you wouldn’t normally face.

You get comfortable when everything is moving along, and I’m going to suggest that innovation is not born out of things and people being comfortable. Innovation’s actually born when you have challenge. So that’s what good organizations do. What good organizations will tell you is in these times the next product line is launched. Not because of the time, but for survival. So we go through and find those things to be something very significant to the fabric of who we are and we can certainly think differently. So, that’s what the budget’s about.

The budget is about getting away from the numbers, the algorithms they give us. Our budget has probably been done the same way for the last 30 years. You take a set of numbers, and you multiply them by a set of multipliers, you get a number … you get a formula, you plug the numbers in and that’s it.

OMC: And when that doesn’t work, what happens?

GT: When that doesn’t work, cuts, cuts. Now this is what’s different this year. When that doesn’t work this year, then we talk about it. We talk about this greater good of the organization. You have these meetings to begin to talk about, what are the other factors? Are there other ways for things near and dear to you?

OMC: Are there creative ways  …

GT: Are there creative ways? What I’m trying to do is empower a broader sense of involvement into what those creative ways might be. I’m going to suggest that those creative ways in most organizations come from the ground up, instead of the top down. I’m going to suggest that the solution to problems — now maybe you don’t get everywhere you want to get — is typically with the people that are in the problem.

I was in a school today and was pushing the curriculum generalist; this is where we’re at, what can we do about this? He had several suggestions that potentially could get us there. …

Let’s take the leadership challenge. You’ve got a principal there that’s kind of in two places and you’ve got a guy running the school day to day. You know, so, the solution is kind of challenging. He’s in it, and realizes he’ll never move to the top spot, but in this environment day to day, he’s running the school. He didn’t make any indication that that’s a poor model, but I believe he’s smart enough to know that there are other ways of doing it, and what we’ve got to do that we haven’t done is, we’ve never opened our budget in a way … (although) I think the district has always been relatively transparent with the numbers …

OMC: I think there’s a feeling that even if the numbers are transparent, the parents don’t get a sense that they can do anything about the numbers.

GT: (But) I don’t think we’ve ever talked about the behind: what’s behind the numbers, and the thinking that goes behind the numbers, and the values of an organization that goes on behind the numbers. I’ve been really stuck on this thing. On the standard of care that goes behind the numbers.

Then the big issue, and I’m really pushing to the board, who should determine that standard of care? We’ve never talked about that, and right now what youngsters get day to day is driven by principals. Because the way the system has been driven is that principals make decisions whether kids get art; principals make decisions whether kids get music; principals make decisions about class sizes. Principals make decisions about who comes and goes.

Now does that make sense? So what I think we’re going to bring, is really a conversation about where we want to go as an organization. I think there’s a greater level of conversation that we will begin having. We’re late coming through. I’m 180 days in; if I was three years in I would certainly be at a different place.

So you have to think, what do we have the organizational capacity to do this year? Where do you want this thing to be? The organizational capacity that we have this year is to begin having conversations around priority budget, and that’s how we’ve done the budget, and that’s how we’ve framed the budget. Going back and having conversations with individual schools and communities about what are the values of the community. But we have a bigger conversation that we need to have that hasn’t been had. That I’m hoping that parents will appreciate.

OMC: How do you have this conversation with parents and staff and administration at 184 schools in the space of four months?

GT: Well, certainly, I don’t. I believe the conversation should be ongoing. One of the things I said to the budget committee just a few days ago, it was with (District 8 school board member) Terry Falk, who heads up this division of sub-committee of the budget. I said, “Terry, you can’t do budget in budget season. It has to be continuous.”

What I’m suggesting to you is that this committee will not go away at the end of the budgeting season that we begin next year, because the strength of the budget is the intent. The budget is no more than numbers in my mind. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell what we have. It doesn’t tell where we want to go. It doesn’t tell what’s not there. So that conversation and building this fact base is important. So what you will see is that the real budget will get geared up for fiscal year 13.

How do you do it? One of the things we’re, in our redesign of the central office, we want to really get to case management. To look at it differently and approach to how we support schools.

So, that was the creation of regional executive with a regional team that basically becomes the conduit to my office, which is a smaller team of individuals. So when you’re talking to Reggie Lawrence, in your case, you’re talking to me. Reggie has that opportunity to have those conversations in individual schools.

I’m trying to keep the patient load — I’ve been stuck on this hospital model lately — the patient load to where he can manage it. You get too many patients, you know, this is like a doctor … I was amazed, my pediatrician — this is a little side story — when my son was born, somehow we got into a conversation about how you know your patients and that. He was a good friend of mine and he had 120 patients. How do you discern between 120 kids sniffling?

I guess what I’m saying is that you have to get that case management load to a good place. I’m thinking the sweet spot is about 20. It’s like a classroom. I believe that classroom teachers are challenged when class sizes get too big, and they don’t know the individual needs of individual children. So our system is managed. That’s how you do it. You do it with case managers. You do it with teams.

One of the things that I don’t know if you’re aware, we have a different strategy as to how we support schools, internally. There are schools that are fortunately or unfortunately getting more service than others. Going back to my medical model, I believe that there are patients in the hospitals, some of them are in intensive care units, and a step down from intensive care is comprehensive care.

There are places in the hospital where folks need constant monitoring. You can go places in the hospital where the patient’s hooked up to a nurse’s station — watching them constantly. I feel the same way about schools.

There are some schools that need that level of support, and then there are those schools that probably need something in the middle, and then there are some schools on top of that that probably have the inertia going on to keep that school moving and doesn’t need that level of support. The overall theory of action, that’s how I approach it.

OMC: So how do you make sure that those schools that have the momentum don’t lose that momentum, so you end up with more schools in intensive care?

GT: I think it’s kind of two ways. One, innovation, and again, I’m going to go from the bottom up and the top down. I think, organizationally, you drive from inside that particular building. And the other is, what are we doing as a district to actually create the opportunity? What I see as my role is creating the forum for those conversations to take place, like in (parents’) homes (via Thornton’s parent coffees), and then creating a framework that allows those things to happen. So if I was (MPS regional executive specialist) Reggie (Lawrence) and I had a (school) in my portfolio — I mean one of my patients — there is a group of questions — you’re not talking so much about innovation down here — (and) he has a differentiated strategy that he would employ to make sure those things happen.

Green schools stay green because they allow academic freedom, they’re allowed a whole bunch of things, and then we’ve done some things up here. We did create a comprehensive literacy plan, but if you set up here in this band, you had some opportunity to do it differently. We did create standardized textbooks, but if you sit in this band, you can potentially create a contract, and this band is pretty prescribed, so the whole system is aligned that way, differentiated based on what kids and where schools are. I think I’m getting at your question.

OMC: I think so, too. That also brings me to the literacy plan. Has it rolled out the way you had hoped? What’s the state of that now?

GT: No, I don’t know what I thought. It’s better than I anticipated, and it’s not just me. One of the things I’ve thought was important and have always used at other school districts is that I always have some external reviewers come in and take a look at it. I went to the foundation community early on and said we don’t have a lot of capacity in this office, as money’s become tight, there’s been a conscious decision made by me and my predecessor, that we want to put money in schools.

So what some central offices look like, our central office doesn’t, so we are actually looking at contract services. We have four national experts coming in, and I gave us probably a D+ or C- in the rollout, and I think they would give us a B. I mean, the challenge we have here is the fact that we’ve been in the decentralized focus for such a long time, and we don’t have real strong teacher skill building, teacher staff development and things — I think that’s been the shortcoming … and we don’t have access to time. Organizationally, for a number of years, I think we’ve given up the right to manage schools …

OMC: Because of decentralization.

GT: Because of decentralization and just with respect to negotiated labor agreements. At the end of the day, there are 3,000 memorandums of understanding and side deals to the big cut over the years. Every time you cut one of those things, you weaken the fabric of what you’re trying to do, so even though I think we will, just by virtue, of having some standardization, we’ll have some improvement. I don’t think we’ll maximize that improvement until we get to a place where we have a greater control over calendar and time, and things of that nature.

OMC: Was there good buy-in from teachers?

THORNTON: Better than I … I measure buy-in by participation, and I think that this summer we had 3,000 to 4,000 teachers actually attend (the training sessions). The buy-in on their time has been — and certainly we incentivized it, we paid for it — but at the end of the day …

OMC: Do you think there was some fear for teachers who maybe weren’t happy about it but felt that they couldn’t say anything about it?

GT: Well, I think you always have that, but one thing that I’ve found in Milwaukee, there are very few bashful people. They may hide behind a blog or something like that, but they certainly make their feelings known. I’m hearing, because I’m in schools a lot, as I talk with folks, they have welcomed the change. People who were passive-aggressive have kind of come on board and said, hey, this is pretty good stuff. It helps us.

Some of our own Montessori schools (Ed. note: the MPS Montessori programs have a waiver exempting them from the compulsory reading curriculum) have said, hey, wait a minute, we want some of these materials, we don’t want that much freedom. So, I think the investment has been significant. It’s far exceeded where I thought we would be. Now, we’re getting ready to go down another path. The path to comprehensive math, comprehensive science, and what does that look like in an integrated way? The STEM stuff.

The good news is that we’re going to be fueled, because we don’t have the capacity, with some partners out of GE. We got lucky, and we won the GE award yesterday. We’ve become the seventh school in America to become part of this transformation, and that certainly brings on some seasonal capacity to get us through where we need to be. I’m finding myself, which I don’t like, building seasonal capacity in the organization as opposed to building it from the ground up.

OMC: You’ve anticipated my next question, which is: has the rolling out of the literacy curriculum given you some usable lessons with regard to rolling out math and science?

GT: No question. I think it definitively will. We learned a couple of things in the literacy plan. We started out focusing on reading teachers and literacy teachers, and what was compelling — what the research says — is that literacy is everyone’s business. Everybody should be literacy teachers, and we maximize that, and we began to widen the net to get more people into the organization.

The other piece that I think it will do, what we’ve learned, is that the traditional face to face staff development doesn’t work. We have to think differently. How do we deliver messages and begin to leverage and technological solutions such as Web podcasting and things of that nature, so there’s some good learning.

The other is, which we should know because we treat our classrooms, everybody is just like going into a classroom. Great teachers differentiate right within the classroom. We have some teachers, just like our schools, that need kind of a different approach. We didn’t spend a lot of time around adult learning theory and basically building some of that thinking into how we deliver instruction to adults.

OMC: Does the $20.4 million that’s coming in to deal with this free up some money that you originally planned to spend on this, or was this a bonus on top of that?

GT: It was a bonus in such that … for me it was around timing. What it did was accelerate to the time. Where I would probably be two to three years down the road, getting to this, it pushes it into present tense instead of the future tense. We would’ve had to get to it. The other issue that you have to keep in the back of your mind is that we’re a school district in (need of) improvement. We’ve had several years of being a part of grants and things of that nature, so we are under some mandates from the Department of Public Instruction, and this allows me to make the mandates. If not, I would’ve been out of compliance. We didn’t have the internal capacity to pull it off.

OMC: So this definitely helps get it going.

GT: I have two science people, and I have probably, without grant dollars, about three or four math people. You’re talking a system-wide roll-out, because you teach math to everybody, this grant facilitates to bring in 60 or 70 seasonal workers … I hate to call them seasonal workers … seasonal workers to get us through the season of roll out.

OMC: Do you get a lot of feedback from students in the district?

GT: When you’re out and about you build relationships with people, and the relationship that I really wanted — I didn’t have any idea it would be as big as it is — is with kids. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t get 10 e-mails from our young people, and they find their way to me in e-mail. Some of the things are really valuable. Those genuine e-mails I get probably have a higher priority than the others. (Than) some of the adult stuff.

OMC: They really don’t have the same kind of agenda as adults do.

GT: Exactly. But they ask tough questions. It’s as challenging as, and sometimes a little edgy as the e-mails get out of Rufus King, but they’re good ones. They’re trying to figure out from adult conversations how to get to places we are. Right now one of the big adult conversations is around this whole concept with budget. I mean, where do we get the money? And in their opinion, this comes from adults. We should just get rid of all the bad schools and give it to us. That’s one way of looking at it. But what do you do with those young people … those young people have to go somewhere. I’m going to suggest that the school being bad has nothing to do with children. Children are just a victim of a system that’s failed; an organization that’s failed, or a community that’s failed. All of those sorts of things.

OMC: Let’s talk about buildings.

GT: I’ve had a lot of conversations about buildings, and I was somewhat disappointed in the way it was handled. What I’ve said from the very beginning with everyone I’ve met with is that solutions are crafted with folks sitting down at the table and having conversations about it. I’m sorry the building conversations got to the point where the solution was more of a press conference.

I’m disappointed, because that’s not how you get to solutions. Let me tell you what we’ve done. Since then, I’ve had subsequent conversations with two of the individuals who desire to be in the building business. I don’t have a desire to be in the building business. I mean, we’re educators. We’re going to work very hard and do a good job at that. What we’ve said to the City in our last communications is that we’re in the midst of an RFP on the street that basically talks about a comprehensive master facilities plan.

Based on that, which I have in June, let’s have a fact-based conversation, because unfortunately, when you start this kind of conversation, there’s a lot of misinformation. That’s what happens … 27 buildings vacant … that is so far from true. You’re talking about pieces of land, scattered properties, and when you got down to it, there were some places that … that was just misrepresented. And subsequent conversations with my partners downtown, is that if there are buildings that you want, tell us what you want, and folk were unable to do that. I went back to the board the other day and said that some of this stuff we will never use.

I use shoes as a way — I have a person on my staff who loves shoes — because I know they can all relate to it. Imagine you go to your closet, and you’re cleaning it out and you find some shoes you haven’t worn in five years, and in reality you’re probably not going to wear in the next five years. Well, let’s donate them. So I finally got the board to say hey that’s not a bad idea. So, we’ve made a donation, or at least we’ve approached it with here’s a donation of facilities that you guys can have tomorrow.

We don’t want them, and we know despite the fact we have a master comprehensive facility plan, these are not going to come to the level which we want. These are things we’ve even talked about tearing down. If you feel you can market these in this market and make something out of them, put them on the tax rolls or even offer them to another school, they are of some potential value, but I’m going to suggest to you that these are places that I don’t want my children.

So the board said, okay, you figure out what those are for the first round. I figured out and I shipped those over for them to respond to. These are yours now. Now when do you want to take them, because we can stop maintaining them tomorrow. They’re yours, you develop them. What I’m trying to say — because I’m trying to get to is a memorandum of understanding — is that you won’t do anything to determent the district, and if you make any money off of it. According to one of the parties over there, they thought the money should be returned to us because we maintained them over the years.

The buildings are not an issue for me. They’ve never been an issue. I was disappointed that they were an issue for others. I think we’ve been great stewards for the buildings. I think we’ve done a really good job maintaining, even though some of the things we were maintaining I probably would’ve torn down 25 years ago. I’m talking buildings from 1888. Not 1988 … 1888!

So, I guess the building conversation is kind of swirling around, but to me, I’m going to go back to running schools, and hopefully if the City wants to get into developing and all of that kind of stuff, I wish them well. What I also propose is that each year, on July 1, the ones I know I’m not going to use, I’ll give them to you. We don’t have to have legislation. We don’t have to have those kinds of conversations to work together. I would hope in these tight economic times that we would begin to think differently about how do we leverage services. They’re a big entity, and I’m a pretty big entity, I think we might be a touch bigger than they are.

Bottom line, we should be thinking of ways in which to work together, because at the end of the day, more resources to the city and more resources to the school district gives me more resources for the class and some of the fundamental things I’m struggling with, like, am I going to be in the 3-year-old business? Am I going to continue to support thematic signatures for schools? Am I going to be able to get to a place where I have class sizes as such? Food service? I mean, those are fundamental issues for me that I don’t want to be out trying to develop property. I want what I want. There are strategic needs.

We have this concept that we’re playing with long-term around a city-wide strategic options plan for kids to have opportunities throughout the city. That’s where I want to spend my energy, and the other thing that I want to spend my energy is towards, which we haven’t done as successfully as most American cities, is how do I engage the public in a meaningful way, so they can have some skin in the game? I know places where we have community involvement are the places that are insulated and reform sticks around longer than the reformer. That’s where my head’s been.

OMC: A couple of Milwaukee questions because I know we’re running out of time.

GT: Good! I’m still an Eagles fan.

OMC: Do you have some favorite places in Milwaukee you like to go? Restaurants? Things you like to do?

GT: I can tell you. It’s summer. I mean, it’s one of the greatest places. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in America. It’s a jewel. This is summer in Milwaukee. This isn’t now. (Laughs) I love the diversity of the ethnic festivals and things of that nature. I look forward to attending and being in our booths and standing and talking to different people. I love the entertainment, our little beach that you can walk along … so it’s been really great. The parks are beautiful. We probably have one of the best parks systems in America. Well-kept and maintained to walk and do those kinds of things. It’s a great place.

OMC: What are you going to do when the revamped Brewers meet the Phillies in the playoffs?

GT: I’m certainly not worried about that, and I don’t think you are either. I look at it like this, we played nine games last year and we won eight out of the nine, so I’m OK. We just acquired one of the best pitchers in baseball. I wouldn’t worry about that and neither should you. (Laughs)

OMC: Do you have a Brewers hat?

GT: I do have a Brewers hat. I actually had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch, so that was the big treat for me over at the Brewers stadium.

OMC: Are you here for a while? Are we going to see you around for a while?

GT: I don’t know. It depends. It depends on the City, and I’m at a place in my career where I want it to work, and if we’re moving in the right direction, yes. If we’re stuck in the snow and we’re just constantly spinning our wheels, then no, I’m going to be out soon. I’m optimistic that there’s a desire, as I talk with my board, as I talk with my unions, as I talk with parents, this could be a world-class, premiere school district, and I would be excited to be a part of that, but if it’s business as normal, just kind of moving the furniture around, nah, not at all.

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