Thornton brings Philly moxie to MPS job

    The same scene has been playing and replaying out for a couple generations at Milwaukee Public Schools.

    The school board hires a soft-spoken, cerebral, well-intended person to be the MPS superintendent.

    The new superintendent tries to enact some changes to improve the quality of education at MPS.

    The new superintendent encounters staunch resistance to those changes from the likes of the teachers union, the school board and some parents.

    Control of the school board changes hands, and a new cast of characters are then calling the shots.
    The superintendent either is pushed out the door or walks away in frustration.

    A new superintendent is hired and …

    Sound familiar? As the old saying goes, it’s a heck of a way to run a railroad, isn’t it?

    That was going through my mind as I recently met Gregory Thornton, who will succeed William Andrekopoulos as the next MPS superintendent.

    Thornton was unanimously selected to be the superintendent by the MPS board in January. He will assume his new role in Milwaukee on July 1.

    Thornton most recently served as the superintendent of the 7,800-student Chester Upland School District in southeastern Pennsylvania. He previously held high-level administrative posts in the 140,000-student Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and the 180,000-student School District of Philadelphia, where he was chief academic officer.

    Will Thornton add his name to the list of well-intended MPS superintendents whose heart was in the right place, but who fell short of enacting meaningful reforms in a school district that seeks progress without change?

    We shall see.

    I can tell you this. My early read on the guy is that he is cut from a different bolt of cloth than most of his predecessors. Thornton has a forceful presence about him. Speaking boldly and confidently at a Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon recently, Thornton did not strike me as someone who will be a shrinking violet that will be easily subdued or controlled by the school board.

    The man had a microphone, but he did not need one. He looks you in the eye and speaks with authority.

    And he speaks from experience. He has visited and studied schools and educational systems throughout the world.

    He speaks in sound bytes:

    • “Education is everybody’s business.”
    • “What happens in urban schools is we start a bunch of things and (don’t) see them through.”
    • “We’ve got to plant some seeds and nurture those seeds.”
    • “I’ve got this crazy notion that if kids come to school more, they’ll learn more.”
    • “I believe we have some housecleaning to do.”
    • “I believe in choice … I support good schools. The ones that don’t stack up need to go.”

    Thornton even went so far as to say that he needs to figure out ways to embrace social media, cell phones and other new technologies that children are using to communicate to the educational system’s advantage, rather than banning them. Imagine getting text messages from the principal.


    If you’ve ever sat next to a Philadelphia Phillies fan at a baseball game or a Philadelphia Eagles fan at a football game, you know hold brash they can be.

    Thornton is a Phillies fan. And he won’t apologize for it, either. Perhaps that’s the kind of moxie that is needed to bring change to an organizational culture that for years has resisted it.


    Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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