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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Kids & Family Commentary

Over the past four years, MPS has seen a number of successes, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Public Schools)

MPS has seen successes in past four years, but there's room to improve


In the wake of news that Dr. Gregory Thornton would leave his post as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools to take the same position with Baltimore City Schools beginning in July, a number of media outlets reported on Dr. Thornton's successes during his four years at the helm of MPS.

Mayor Tom Barrett shared his favorable opinion of Dr. Thornton's tenure – and especially Thornton's fiscal work – at OnMilwaukee.com this spring.

Among the things touted as bright spots by some during the Thornton era were the implementation of comprehensive reading, math and science curricula, a $20.4 million grant from GE, stemming the tide of enrollment decline, the expansion of specialty programs like Montessori schools and an improved rapport with the local business community.

But we were also curious to hear what parents and teachers in the district thought were the areas that were overlooked or under-addressed in the district over the past four years; not a bashing session, but an honest discussion of areas that need a boost in our schools.

So, we asked and got many replies via email, social media and in person.

Here are some of their responses, which can serve as unsolicited suggestions for the next MPS superintendent.

Many respondents requested anonymity – especially those that work for the district – and we've honored that here. But we have separated out the replies from educators and the replies from parents, to offer some context.

Educators

  • "The top high school in MPS is in a building set up for 6-8th graders."
  • "Facilities upgrades and improvements, alternative schools for all ages with consistent dedicated psychologists social workers and counselors, improving quality of food – partnering with locally sourced and more healthy choices. Dedication to maintaining specialty programs while simultaneously improving all the schools. Dedicated full time music, gym, counselors and social workers per site."
  • "(Thornton) overlooked the wealth of talent and professionalism in the teachers of his district, instead buying various resource people and overseers to 'train' the teachers on what they could have been teaching to each other through sharing sessions."
  • "He also overlooked an amazing opportunity to stand with the teachers through the Act 10 travesty rather than on the other side; an opportunity to educate the public on what big hearts teachers have, that they will on any ordinary day sacrifice time, money, lunch for the children that they work with, that the public didn't have to nickel and dime with teachers' hours, pay, benefits. He could have stood with the teachers, earning respect and loyalty rather than resistance and defensive attitudes."
  • "(The) administration created a climate that discouraged open and honest communication between the district's teachers and its leaders, and furthermore suppressed talent and innovation. The swiftness in which some school and district administrators were either reassigned or relieved made other employees wary of honestly communicating their thoughts to the administration. Dr. Thornton's approach to leading the district was one that restricted talent among the district's employees, specifically teachers and administrators, and allowed school climates to deteriorate in some buildings all in the name of a favorable presentation of data. Although I know some curricular mandates were required by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the 'top-down' or 'chain-of-command' leadership structure and homogenization of curriculum that originated from the administration has contributed to the de-professionalization of both teachers and administrators by handicapping their ability to be experts in their field and actually practice their crafts. It's discouraging to receive such rigid direction on how to best serve our students when that direction comes from a group of individuals who no longer directly serve or even have regular contact with any students."
  • "What I think has been overlooked is how MPS still hasn't found an answer to the middle grades crisis that our city faces. Many young people my age would have no problem sending their elementary age children to MPS, as the wealth of experiences and schools provide ample opportunity for people to have their child in a positive environment. What scares me, my girlfriend who works at an MPS elementary school and our friends who live in Milwaukee, is what would happen to their children post-fifth grade. Some schools have K-8 models, which serve some well, but as a high school teacher, I believe stunts growth in other areas. We have ninth grade students who don't know how to move between classes! It absolutely boggles my mind how hard of a change it is for them to go to 48-minute classes as opposed to being cooped up in the same room all day. What I would like to see, should money not be an issue, is a return to stand alone middle schools, or, I'll even do one better, and say that they should really be like old junior high (schools)."
  • "My biggest problem with Dr. Thornton has been the voucher issues. I have not seen him at one joint finance committee meeting or do anything to fight back against vouchers in our city. As a parent and teacher I feel he should be our biggest cheerleader. I have seen very little of him fighting back and saying, 'stop taking money away from our kids and giving it to unaccountable vouchers and charters.'"
  • "(Principals) are all sitting on the edges of their seats because of all the stress he has put on them. We should be working smarter not harder."

Parents

  • "Limit bus service and go back to neighborhood schools with increased community partnerships. This would put money back into the budget, increase parental involvement and improve attendance."
  • "Get rid of busing. Anyone can go to any school ... but they should be supporting the city bus! I am referring to high school age (students). Grade school age (students) should be going to their closest schools, walking if possible. Education is no better due to the catering of these ignorant, tolerant practices (that are) costing Wisconsin taxpayers needless dollars year after year with no real benefits! Teach(ing) your children to be responsible for their education in itself is most beneficial to getting one!"
  • "Thornton didn't want any suspensions, which has led to a climate of the students ruling the buildings in most high schools. We need administrators who have not forgotten what it's like to be in a classroom! We need principals who are actually competent and have real degrees."
  • "Implementation of a leadership approach that empowers teachers and principals versus the 'gotcha' approach (Thornton) became known for."
  • "I think Dr. Thornton had an attitude that was stuck in the past about large, public districts, especially in Milwaukee, where public schools have to compete against charter and private options. He and his substantial bureaucracy had a very 'I'll serve it and you'll eat it' approach which did MPS a lot of harm. I think in the past year he showed more willingness to listen to parents and community about how they wanted their schools, but it was a slow change that was just beginning, and I get the feeling that many people high up in MPS still have a hard time viewing parents and families as customers rather than seat-fillers. All of the administrators in MPS need to learn that lesson. Until MPS adopts a 'We'll serve it, what would you like?, approach, it will be hard for MPS to compete with charters and private schools that are more savvy – schools that listen to parents and collaborate with the community."
  • "He should have identified the top three schools in metropolises that are similar to Milwaukee, identified the top three things they are doing best and imitated the model. That would have affected some immediate positive change and bought time to do some in-depth analysis and troubleshooting. I'm a big fan of not reinventing the wheel."
  • "MPS needs leadership who is protected enough to be able to come in and make some modeled, proven quick 'low-hanging fruit' positive change so they can then focus on getting the right people in administration and in front of the kids, reward those who perform both personally and professionally as well as with a better support infrastructure, get rid of those who don't, and then take a cold, hard look at the budget."

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