Behind-the-scenes jockeying over who would take the helm of Baltimore City Public Schools officially came to an end today, as the candidate favored by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – Milwaukee public school superintendent Gregory E. Thornton – was introduced to the media.
“I’m going to be depending on you to get me to where I need to be,” Thornton said as he took the microphone, addressing the woman who had been hoping to get the job, acting CEO Tisha Edwards.
“The Baltimore school system is a gem and we want to keep the schools shining,” Thornton said, at the news conference held at John Eager Howard Elementary School in Reservoir Hill, which drew community leaders and school board members and a brace of television cameras.
Thornton, 59, has worked as an administrator in Philadelphia, Montgomery County, and Winston-Salem and Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as Milwaukee, where he has been superintendent since 2010.
Speaking today, he stressed his ties to the Baltimore region, noting that he got his master’s degree in administration at Salisbury State University, in Maryland, and that his grandparents “are buried just up the road.”
But the Philadelphia-born Thornton also stressed ties to the city of a more conceptual nature.
“I grew up in a community very similar to the one they have been in. . .everyone didn’t get the opportunities,” Thornton said, looking over at the students assembled for the press event.
“The opportunities have been stolen from them.”
Achievement Gap, Massive Rebuild
Asked today what he considers his major challenges, Thornton’s first answer was academics, specifically citing the stubborn achievement gap between city students their peers in other jurisdictions.
He also noted that implementing the statewide Common Core standards will require “a major shift in classroom practices.”
Another challenge will be implementing the landmark$1.1 billion school construction program, funded through legislation approved last year in Annapolis. (The size of the funding package, he said, made him and other administrators feel “jealous.”)
“This is big. A lot of my energy will go to it,” he said, noting that John Eager Howard, like other “Year One” schools slated for the first round of renovation funding, is meeting as a community to discuss how the funds should be used.
“This process has to happen all around the city,” he said. “Some schools will have to be closed. It’s going to be difficult.”
“Meaningful community engagement” and parent involvement will also be a priority, he said, “so the magic doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.”
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Thornton was asked about his staying power in the job, considering he left his last one after four years. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in August the school board there approved a two-year contract extension for him to June 2016.
The 59-year-old Thornton said there would be no consequences for him of leaving that contract early and plans to stay awhile in Baltimore, saying, “Certainly, that should be it for me.”
His starting salary will be $290,000.
Technology also popped up several times in his remarks. “Technology is the real challenge. It’s not just bricks and mortar,” he said, explaining to a television reporter his concern about the digital divide. “We need every family plugged in.”
Moments later, fourth grader Marcellis McQueen came up to talk to Thornton, who encouraged the 10-year-old to email him.
“How about if I write a letter?” McQueen said.
“Don’t you have email? You’ve got to get up with the technology!” Thornton told him. “Are you on Twitter?”
Advocates Appreciated Edwards
Afterwards, schools advocates said it was too soon to make a judgment on Thornton, though they could not hide their disappointment that Edwards (who had been special assistant to the previous CEO, Andrés Alonso) had been passed over.
Edwards had been a fierce negotiator on behalf of the school system in talks with City Hall, particularly “about what responsibilities the city was going to accept or push off on the schools, like recreation centers,” a source close to the talks said.
“She was tough. She was tough in all the right ways,” the source said. “She was terrific. It’s just hard now to start with a new person.”
Edwards was tested by today’s event itself, as Shanaysha Sauls, chair of the Board of City School Commissioners, skipped over the moment in the program where Edwards was to make some remarks. Sauls apologized for the oversight.
Her eyes glistening, the emotion raw in her voice, Edwards offered her thanks for the opportunity to serve and urged administrators and the board “to move our reform agenda forward and do not stop.”
To the school children of Baltimore who want to succeed, she said, “I share your dream and want to encourage you with every fiber of my being to continue it.”