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Gregory Thornton, favored by Mayor to be schools CEO, introduced today

Milwaukee schools chief since 2010, Thornton said he'd been "jealous" of Baltimore's $1.1 billion renovation funding package

thornton with jamel cornish, asia ross and marcellis McQueen

Newly-named Baltimore City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton, with Jamel Cornish, Asia Ross and Marcellis McQueen at John Eager Howard Elementary School.

Photo by: Fern Shen

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.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake with the candidate she backed for Baltimore City Public Schools CEO, Gregory E. Thornton.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake with the candidate she backed for Baltimore City Public Schools CEO, Gregory L. Thornton. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.”

Are you on Twitter?

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.

School mascot mural outside John Eager Howard Elementary School in Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

School mascot mural outside John Eager Howard Elementary School in Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.

Acting CEO Tisha Edwards, speaking at the ceremony for Gregory Thornton, who will be taking over as CEO the job in June. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Acting CEO Tisha Edwards speaking at the ceremony for Gregory Thornton, who will be taking over her job in June. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“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.”

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  • ZacharyMurray

    Wait in line Tisha…ain’t that the Bmore Way.

  • Smiley

    That’s our mayor: Smile for the camera, Scowl for the taxpayer.

    • KnowNothingParty

      Mayor Failings Blake seldom smiles.

  • Sean Tully

    This dude is in for a big surprise. Baltimore City is not Milwaukee. No way, no how. I know he is already lost in the tall weeds because he said Baltimore City schools “are a gem”. They may be a rock upside the head, but a gem they aren’t.

    • SpecK

      LOL, this is just someone saying what they are supposed to say on their first day. 99 percent of people in this position are going to blather on about how wonderful the organization they are taking over is, how their personnel is their greatest s asset, the kids are unlimited in potential, etc. Reformers like Alonso are few and far between, especially if they have to rise through some political process.

  • trueheart4life

    I’m sure he’s got a great retirement package … Let’s pray for our children, they’re getting screwed again. I’ll be paying close attention to how many of his favored contractor friends get a piece of the school construction $$$ … $1.1B.

    • Renew Baltimore

      Given that the Maryland Stadium Authority is letting and managing these construction contracts – through a public bid process – I suspect that the CEO will not be giving construction contracts to anyone.

  • CarpeDiem

    I’m perplexed at how this CEO search process has played out. I expected the CEO candidates to be announced to the public around now. Instead, a new CEO was simply announced, per the choice of the mayor. Weren’t a few steps in this process skipped over? Like the public being informed of the candidates and their qualifications for the position? Like the School Board discussing the candidates? Where’s the outcry against this process??

    I was at some of the community meetings that were held for the public to voice their thoughts on what qualities the new CEO should have. One word that came up repeatedly was “non-traditional.” Another popular sentiment was that the community wants a Superintendent, not a CEO. Like many processes in Baltimore, those forums were for show, and the community voice was completely ignored. Folks wondered why nobody shows up to such forums. I’m weary of all the behind-the-scenes politics in this city that play out behind closed doors, and in particular, the door of the Mayor.

    • River Mud

      Well, obviously the mayor herself is the most qualified person to make these kind of judgments. Which is why the average tenure for this position seems to be about 16 months. Obviously.

  • davethesuave

    was it just a coincidence that right above Tisha’s head is the heading “Fiction”?

    • Tom Gregory

      That was all Fern. She’s always looking for subtle juxtapositions in her photos.

      • Dave Troy

        I figured she was going for the “F.” ;)

  • KnowNothingParty

    Progress is difficult with these frequent and consistent changes in leadership of the various city agencies under Stephanie Failings Blake. Why cant she keep her own hires in key positions

  • krempel

    Your info about SU is a little dated. It’s a pretty well respected medium-sized state school now.

  • GXWalsh

    I know “Don’t you have email? You’ve got to get up with the technology!” Thornton told him. “Are you on Twitter?” was supposed to be funny, but, I wonder if he really understands children and technology policy.

    A 10 year old can’t sign up for her own email account from at least Google or Microsoft because of COPPA regulations. Twitter used to be 13 but is now limited to people who can legally enter into a contract with Twitter (18+). Parents sign up their kids all the time for these things but the kids can’t do it themselves (legally). If you’re dealing with a population of children who don’t get enough to eat (85% on FaRM http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/7078-students-receiving-free-and-reduced-school-meals?loc=22&loct=5#detailed/5/3300-3323/false/36,868,867,133,38/any/14091,14092), having a guardian get you signed up for gmail seems like a far away nice-to-have.

    This is one of the big problems in education today: the misunderstanding and misappropriation of technology. Very often, technology is just handed to or thrown at teachers and children without any real plan. There are plenty of stories of schools with computer labs in complete disrepair because no one knows how to manage them or, worse, computers in boxes because no one knows what to do with them.

    I also found it kind of mean to make a joke/secretly boast out of a very nice question. The boy felt comfortable writing a letter, why not just let him send it? Why would a 10 year old send an email? Did they learn in school, was it part of a writing class?

    His joke was cute but rubbed me the wrong way at the same time.

    • Diogenes

      I didn’t even think in context the joke was cute. He owes the student an apology.

      • GXWalsh

        I re-read this and realized I meant “supposed to be” in front of cute.

  • baltimorebrew

    Usha Nellore asked us to post this poem on her behalf:

    To Marcellis McQueen

    Poor Marcellis McQueen,
    chided for wanting to go snail mail,
    The biggie tells him, “Don’t you have e-mail?
    Aren’t you on Twitter?”

    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t with these biggies

    who deplore that the young ones are losing it–
    they are always on social media,
    their EQ is low, their empathy is nil,
    their humanity has congealed,
    their relationships have the quality of plastic–
    they rely too much on codes,

    they can’t add one and one in their heads
    they can’t imagine the consequences
    of being slaves to communication–
    a communicable disease–social media
    is a tidal wave of noise–
    we need incommunicado

    to think, garden, play,
    invent, sing, write, read–
    we need to shut the world out
    and dare to be alone–

    Yet when a poor kid is not connected
    he is derided or denounced,
    belittled or dragged through a morass

    of why not connected,
    how not connected,
    how bad not connected,
    how lost because of not connected–

    Come on–the health care exchanges–
    all connected–
    but useless nevertheless–
    so many benumbed souls

    completely connected yet isolated–
    masses at the feet of Google
    on a journey to get their biases validated–
    disconnected and easily manipulated–
    by ad men and Peeping Toms targeted
    for publicity and sales

    their privacy shredded,
    like moist print their brains clouded–
    their ink running all over –
    their yearning for peace– a dream..

    So Thornton, Marcellis is not connected 24/7
    or not connected period,

    but that doesn’t make Marcellis deficient
    or insufficient,
    perhaps slow and inefficient–
    not even that if you think about it,
    that doesn’t make Marcellis pitiful–
    your grandparents buried just up the road,

    will be turning in their graves–
    that you concentrated
    more on the opportunities robbed from Marcellis–
    than on the opportunity you were given
    to read the letter Marcellis wanted to send you..

    The old way is the new way–

    because there is no new way
    that hasn’t been built on the old way–
    Science is all about standing
    on the shoulders of giants–
    technology can take us back
    as it can move us forward–

    Art, love, touch,

    the bewitchment that seizes the soul,
    the bewilderment
    when the sun sets and the sky catches fire,
    the exhilaration of a hike among wild flowers,
    the inimitable notes from the fingers of a master
    on makeshift drums called cooking pots

    and sticks made from bones or branches–
    those pleasures have been there
    from time immemorial
    before machines wrought wonders,
    and man wrought computers,
    before time became something that sped
    instead of something that stopped,

    or paused or ambled or stumbled,
    those pleasures were there
    and even now they’re there to savor–

    Thornton, you are wrong to think
    that technology is everything–
    art is not a machine–
    but it is miraculous–

    Pottery spun in the kiln,
    quilts sutured piece by piece,
    old clocks restored,
    furniture built from scratch,
    baskets woven from reeds,
    greens sprouted from seeds–
    bread baked from flour–
    leavened by yeast–

    mushrooms foraged in a forest,
    berries plucked from bushes,
    metals forged in a smithy
    bent into the shapes one wishes,
    letters written in cursive
    out of sight in attics–
    even if these are crafts
    and human ways that may fade,

    they gladden the heart
    because they’re hand made…

    At this point ARE we changing our machines,
    or are our machines changing us?
    Are we building and controlling them,
    or are they building and controlling us?

    Are we coding them
    or are they coding us?
    How are they evolving us?
    What parts are they stealing from us?
    Our eyes rheumier,
    our hands lazier,
    our thoughts fuzzier,
    our brains bombarded,
    our sleep decimated,

    Chip by chip from dinosaurs
    to birds to reptiles to mammals,
    we’ve been shaped, cell by cell developed
    in the primordial soup–
    now we are the creatures of our machines.

    By your calculation–without machines

    your students are amputated
    yet, in the Silicon Valley–
    a temple to our modern machines,
    the fathers and the mothers–
    favor their children deprived
    of those very machines they exalted,
    that vaulted them into millionaires–

    Now they want their children
    writing with old fashioned ink–
    long hand on paper–
    they fret their children will sink
    their boats deep in the vortex
    of technology if not prevented
    from sitting at computers and tablets,

    if not forced to read from books
    and imagine all sorts of imaginings
    during hours of day dreaming–

    If not separated from machines–
    they fear their children
    will be shaped by machines into machines…

    Technology brought the Arab Spring
    but technology can’t change the Arab Winter,
    technology brought “shock and awe”
    but technology can’t pour peace on terror,
    technology precipitated a global recession,

    but technology hasn’t caused a speedy reversal,
    technology has the mullahs
    drooling over their centrifuges
    and the fizz released from the uranium atom–
    but technology hasn’t convinced them
    to suspend their mischief

    and pray on their bottoms,
    technology can direct laser beams
    into the eyes of pilots,
    it can send poison darts
    into the hearts of children,
    it can make corpses out of the living,
    it can make tyrants out of doctors–

    it can be used for bad–
    it can be used for good–
    it can be used for nothing more
    than passive entertainment,
    or for stalking, bullying,
    and exploiting the innocent–

    When hackers come calling,
    on the energy grid,

    with thumbscrews and nails
    when they come plotting–
    technology could be capricious
    frustrating and vicious–
    it could let us down–
    and send us back
    to “hand made” for years…

    Thornton, technology isn’t everything,

    So if cute Marcellis McQueen
    wants to send you a letter
    by snail mail tell him that’s great,
    tell him you’ll read it,
    tell him you and he
    will have a chat later about
    what he has written,
    because unlike many others–

    Tell him, though you’ve been bitten
    by the technology bug
    you’re not a slug on the log–
    of technology..

    Usha Nellore.

  • Sean Tully

    You can’t make this stuff up. In the Sun today, someone said that Thornton knows how to put a team in place that stays around for a while. This is about a guy who is leaving his contract in Milwaukee early. Wow! It’s like City politics is performed for our amusement.

  • ushanellore

    You are elitist but that’s marvelous. Be a bold elitist! Come out of your closet, wear it on your sleeve, declare it, celebrate it and run it with it on your Adidas shoes. Come on krempel–dated?

    Diogenes is on the money. It’s not really a good graduate school. Its acceptance criteria for undergrads have supposedly been set higher but its graduate programs are not the same and besides Thornton went to school there when the school was not pretty well respected. It was pretty much suspected then of being poor — rightly so and also may be so because the ilk of Thornton was in it.

    I am just snapping my finger and expecting James Hunt to be on this thread asserting that education has nothing to do with talent, performance, productivity or astute moving and shaking.

    • krempel

      Perhaps I’m biased. My graduate experience at SU was rigorous and positive. That’s the English Dept, anyway.

      • ushanellore

        I accept your assessment. Then should we just leave it at Thornton not being a credit to the school, what with leaving Milwaukee holding the bag and chiding a kid for not being up with technology–or joking about it in poor taste. I hope Thornton does not turn out to be a thorn-in-the flesh-ton-of-weight-on B’More-son-of-SU.

  • KnowNothingParty

    Mr. Thronton is simply ANOTHER out of town administrative carpet bagger. His type go from municipality bureaucratic appointment to municipality bureaucratic appointment, promising the world but never delivering. (See the performance of Police Commissioner Batts and former Fire Chief Clack) Thornton will be here for two or three years then it will be off to his next “gig”. What a mistake. Mayor Failings Blake has carpetbaggers as Police Commissioner, Fire Chief, and DPW administrator. None know Baltimore or its people. They care about the future of Baltimore about as much as we care about the future of say, Oakland CA. None of Mayor Failings Blakes carpetbaggers will be here in 2017.

  • Dave Troy

    Another out-of-state, low performing, skeletons-in-the-closet bureaucrat spouting off about justice and opportunity while sapping the strength of a cash-strapped city to the tune of $290K per year. If this guy was about what he says he is about, he’d demand his salary be cut by half (more than adequate for anyone living in Baltimore) and direct the remainder towards mentoring students.

    When he stops babbling about test scores and common core, and gets about the real issue — fixing our torn social fabric — I might think he’s for real. But til then, this appears to be just another itinerant vagrant desk-jockey who will bilk us for just as long as we’ll let him.

  • teach

    I see a lot of negative posts here. If you had been in Milwaukee for the past four years, they would be more negative. This guy is a smooth talker, but knows nothing about what happens in a classroom.
    One of the comments questioned the school where he got his masters degree. If you want another good laugh, google Nova Southeaster University, where he bought his doctors degree.

  • SpecK

    Wait, when did Thornton attend this school? Isn’t the question how solid his education was? If SU has improved, good for SU, but this is besides the point. Not even touching his doctorate-conferring institution.

    All this being said, Thornton may prove himself to be effective at his job. I wouldn’t expect a high level of educational expertise. But there are a lot of aspects to this job that matter greatly, for which an advanced degree may not be particularly relevant.

    So, we’ll see. The interaction with the kid described here made me cringe, though.

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