On the first day of school, some welcome news

School began today for Milwaukee Public Schools and other districts in the area, too.

I was at two MPS schools this morning and the mood was hopeful and bright. Despite the battles between politicians and educators and administrators, everyone was smiling and hopeful (though some kids looked a little shell-shocked).

At Albert Kagel E. School Elementary in Walker’s Point, MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton and the state superintendent Tony Evers were on hand as principal Nancy Martinez and her team welcomed kids, unrolling the “blue carpet” for the arriving kids.

“Blue is our (school) color but it is also the color of advanced proficiency,” Martinez said.

A number of MPS officials were on hand including chief of staff Naomi Gubernick, director of school administration Anita Pietrykowski, chief academic officer Heidi Ramirez and board member Larry Miller, among them. MTEA president Bob Peterson was also there.

After the kids were in their rooms eating breakfast, Thornton spoke to media in the school’s third floor gym.

He vowed that this year will be a great one.

“As adults our job is to insulate our children from those challenges and I think we’ve gone a great job,” he said, pointing to a number of factors.

Thornton noted the success of the reading curriculum launched last year, the arrival of a new math and science curriculum, two new college access centers for high school kids, a major drop in suspensions last year that led to the district surpassing the 90 percent attendance mark for the first time in 15 years.

“I have a great sense of optimism about these young people,” said Thornton.

He also noted that a return of the SAGE program to about a dozen schools has led to the return of 70 teaching jobs and that for the first time in decades, MPS enrollment has not only not dropped, but has increased.

“We have 2,000 more students enrolled this year,” he said. “Will they all show? I doubt it. But if 25 percent of them stay we will reverse the trend for the first time in 20 years of declining enrollment.”

The district currently has about 83,000 students enrolled and projects that at least 81,300 of them will still be in the district for the annual third Friday of September head count.

“Folks are being really savvy consumers,” said the superintendent. “I do know some folks enroll in a couple places. They try the seats out in a couple places and see which seat they like best.

“I think there will be minimal impact to MPS this year (from the expansion of choice programs). Next year, we’ll work hard. I have a team that I work with every day that comes in and gives us 27 hours a day to make sure our kids are successful.”

Thornton said that MPS needs to get parents back into their local schools to see the changes going on.

“I need them to come look. I need them to get into the school. I need them to talk to teachers. I need them to talk to the principal, I need them to talk to the children. That’s a major ingredient to our success. I’m asking them to take a bigger step with us as we move forward. We have some great opportunities for our kids. I want parents to maximize the sense of opportunity and get involved.”

Part of the plan to encourage that connection is the launch of a campaign in the second half of September to get parents involved.

“We are looking at a strong volunteer program,” said Thornton, adding to the assembled reporters and cameramen, “I hope that all of you who have time or could make time would think in terms of volunteering in our schools.”

Talking to Thornton afterward, he said he had not interviewed for the superintendent’s position in his native Philadelphia and that he is not seeking the position.

Though he said, “I never say never,” Thornton added that he’s deeply engaged in working to improve things in Milwaukee Public Schools right now and so the timing isn’t right for a departure.

“If it was two or three years from now, who knows.”

In the meantime, he seems focused, as always, and as realistic as always.

“We’re digging out of a pretty big hole,” Thornton said. “I wish I could snap my fingers and be out of the hole but we’re gonna work our way out and that’s how you have actual sustained, scalable growth and that’s the goal that I have.”

Up on Center Street this morning, Lindsay Heights residents, agencies and partners held a Student Welcome Rally to offer encouragement to students returning to North Division High School.

The event, which ran from 8 until 8:30 a.m., was meant to inspire students and a donor provided healthy foods to be distributed to students, who also got free student planners.

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