Now What, MPS?

By Bill Henleadership changek – Truth be told, the recent news that Superintendent Gregory Thornton would be leaving our  Milwaukee Public Schools didn’t come as a shock to me.  The prospect has been floating for some time now.  Every so often, news of his imminent departure would surface, but until now, none of the prospects came to fruition.

As it turns out, once all the i’s have been dotted and the t’s crossed, Dr. Thornton will be, in the vernacular of LeBron James, “taking his talents” to the Baltimore City Public Schools.  It also turns out that I know a fair amount about his new district, because I’m a regular reader of Nick McDaniels, a teacher in the system and a terrific, longtime alumni blogger for the Marquette Educator.   As a result, neither was I surprised to see Nick devote his most current post to his soon-to-be CEO in the form of an open letter.  Very good reading.  Check it out.

From my standpoint, it’s hard to know with certainty what it was about Dr. Thornton’s MPS role that caused him to entertain leaving, or what it might have been about the Baltimore position that he found appealing.  The reasons could have been professional, personal, or both.  I have my suspicions, but that’s all they are.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter.  Speculation gets us almost nowhere.

The bottom line is that the district needs to start preparing right away for its future, one  that doesn’t include the passionate and skilled  leadership Greg Thornton tried to provide.  Although his stint fell short of perfect, in my view there’s no denying that it was solid.  As urban educators go, he’s a very good one.

Consequently, I’m sorry to see my education colleague and personal acquaintance go.  In saying why, I’ll try not to make this post sound like an obituary since he’s still on the job here.

Let me first say that Greg tried very hard, and he genuinely cares about kids.  He endured a steady stream of political pressure with more grace than I could ever have mustered.  Through it all he remained optimistic and spirited publicly, and that is important because those who toil in urban school districts need their leaders to instill hope.  On his watch, he also made some very big and important decisions, and he did his best, limitations notwithstanding, to take the district along a road of systemic educational reform.  No small feat in any city, mind you.

Some notable progress occurred although not at a pace that any of us, including him, found sufficiently satisfying.  The challenges to the district, rooted primarily in poverty, are formidable and seemingly intractable, albeit not impossible to overcome if we get things right — whatever that means. No doubt I’ll weigh in on that count in the future, but frankly I need to think more about what needs to occur.  Sadly, based upon past experience, I’m more prepared to say what I hope will not happen.

For what it’s worth, the first wind I got of the exodus left me numb.  My initial thoughts centered  on what this development might mean for MPS students, not to mention their families, teachers, and principals, as well as the central office staff.  But soon afterward, my thinking turned to dread over what lies ahead.  For all intents and purposes, Dr. Thornton’s exit amounts to starting all over, not so much pragmatically as politically.  Such a setback would be bad enough pretty much any time, but it’s especially regrettable given the sense of urgency we should all feel to help kids achieve and prosper broadly in short order.

Fact is, I vividly remember what it was like as the last superintendent’s search unfolded, because it coincided with my first efforts as a blogger.  It was the topic of a number of my posts back then, because it gave me plenty to write about.  But in the best interests of the district, I wish in hindsight that I wouldn’t have had such a rich and fertile topic.  For instance, the debates over the governance of the district were relentless and very divisive, and watching the search process play out in the media qualified as painful.  Nearly everything became politicized, and unfortunately, we are about to enter “here we go again” mode.  Feeding frenzies of one kind or another will soon be upon us I’m afraid.  That’s what happens when you have lots of stakeholders with disparate beliefs.

Either way, right now I’m just left with questions, and I’ll close by sharing the most vital among them:

  • How does the district need to adapt in order to serve our school children as well as possible?
  • When will new leadership be in place to orchestrate these changes?
  • What direction will the district go with the next superintendent?
  • Where will energies and resources be directed?  And last, but not least…
  • Who will that leader be?

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