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On The Threshold Of Greatness

On The Threshold Of Greatness
"This city is going to be defined by the progress of its school district," says Dr. Gregory Thornton, who took over as CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools in July. (J.M. Giordano)

Days before Dr. Gregory Thornton started his new job as CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools in July, the Baltimore Teachers Union filed a class-action grievance over teacher evaluations.

In his first year on the job, he has to contend with ongoing controversy around the new Common Core standards, now in their second year, and the first year of a new statewide testing regime aligned with the Core: PARCC (Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers).

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During the same week that we sat down for an hour-long talk about the challenges facing city schools, he was questioned about a new report from the nonprofit Fund for Education Excellence (FFEE), calling for higher standards and more activities in city schools, as well as a viral video of a fight between a teacher and a student at a West Baltimore school (the teacher has been placed on administrative leave, and the student charged with assault).

But even with all that and, at the moment, a nasty cold to contend with, Thornton is optimistic about Baltimore City schools. He says things were "a little more complex" in Milwaukee, where he last served as superintendent (before that he served as a deputy in both Montgomery County, Maryland and Philadelphia), with the biggest voucher system in the country and a fraught political landscape very much tied into the school system.

In Baltimore, Thornton says he sees “a city that sits on the threshold of greatness,” and, pointing to the mayor’s goal of bringing 10,000 families into the city and spurring economic growth, he says “the most critical success factor in that happening are the public schools, so we gotta invest and we gotta make public schools everybody’s business.” 

City Paper: How is the school year going so far?

Dr. Gregory Thornton: It's been busy. It's everything I anticipated and more. We're coming to a large, urban school district. Like many urban school districts around the country, we probably have some of the same challenges, but I have to say we got off to a really good start. We had the governor in town and we went and knocked on doors the first day, woke some kids up and got some kids on their way. We walked some kids to school together. It was more symbolic around the importance of attendance and things of that nature. And along the way, I've had opportunities to have a lot of listening tours throughout the community, the mayor and I have been out in several communities. Being new, you want to get a context of what folk are thinking, what folk are concerned about, what's going well, what going right, and I think it's been a really good, quick orientation to Baltimore City.

CP: Your predecessor Dr. Alonso made a lot of changes, decentralizing administration, closing some schools, giving parents more choice. When you were in Milwaukee, were you watching what Dr. Alonso was doing here?

GT:  Not as close. I became more concerned as the time and my investment in this city moved forward. I'm really pleased to say I got here and we're taking a good look at what's working, what's not working, what are the things we need to tweak a little bit, how can we maximize some of the investment that's been made. We think we're positioned now, as we move forward, to begin to frame the next chapter of the book. These are chapters. And in each chapter, there are great things that happen. And there are things certainly that Dr. Alonso—who I don't know, we've had phone conversations—I bet if he was moving the chapter two within the same book, he would probably be doing the same things I'm doing, trying to figure out where was a good return on the investments that he's made. He would probably take a look at what he could accelerate faster, what things maybe haven't proven to be what he had hoped it to be.

We looked at Baltimore more because of size, it was the same size as Milwaukee, had some of the same challenges, our free and reduced lunch rates were about the same, our populations were a little different. We were a little more complex in that, if you know anything about Wisconsin, you know it's a pretty busy place, we had a lot of chartering going on, we had the largest voucher footprint in America going on, a whole lot of political conversations happening, a little less of that here. So, we were never part of a cadre with Baltimore and Milwaukee, but the issues are the same.

CP: What were your phone conversations with Dr. Alonso like?

GT: He's gone on to Harvard to do some work there and our conversation was around our continued participation in a Harvard Project. I think he'll be very available and hopefully will continue to talk about the schools here. Certainly I value the work that's been done here, and I hope that same value will be given to the work we've done in Milwaukee. The good thing in Milwaukee is that one of my deputies was promoted, so that certainly signals to me that potentially that that chapter was a pretty good chapter. Now they're off to chapter two and my advice to her was, figure out what was working, figure out what wasn't working, what do you need to do, because at the end of the day, we got one mission, only one mission, that's to change futures for kids in communities like ours, that sometimes have been difficult to get our young people to places that we want 'em to get, at least what I hear from parents as I move around the community.

CP: You mention that one of your deputies took over in Milwaukee. Obviously that didn't happen here, and I wonder if that creates challenges. There was some debate here over whether the interim head of schools Tisha Edwards would take over.

GT: Sure. I had an opportunity to meet with the interim and found that the transition was very, very smooth. I certainly had the opportunity to hear firsthand her perspective on kinda what next steps are and I think it was value added, certainly to me, as we continue to move forward. So, with respect to the selection process, I think I'm the right person. I think they made the right choice. [laughs] And I'm sure based on the work she's done, she did over the last year, I know it's greatly appreciated by the board.

CP: It's interesting to hear you say that Milwaukee was so complex, we feel like there are a lot of issues here.

GT: You don't have 34,000 children in vouchers, you don't have a charter system that's supported by the governor, supported by the mayor, who can charter schools, supported by the UW system that can charter schools, by every community college that can charter schools—and God only knows what the legislation is this year. It is a little unique, a little different, but I don't think there's one best way, I think each community does what's right for them. I'm optimistic that we're gonna make some good decisions here. You got some things to build on. You have one of the most creative contracts in the country with respect to teacher compensation, administration compensation; the next gen of that is, how do you take that move it down to the central office? Create a matrix where we don't look at how long people stay or what degree they get, but begin to look at their performance. And those intrigue me from good managerial perspective.

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CP: My wife is a high school English teacher here, and so the contract is a frequent topic of conversation.

GT: Yeah. It's creative but we gotta be certain—and it's too early to tell—has it made a difference? They have a great contract—it's great and I certainly support that. We tout that. But at the end of the day, it's not about contracts. It's about student achievement, it's about our kids. So, in the end, if our kids are not better positioned in better places that they're able to navigate and get to college and they're able to navigate and get jobs, then I'm gonna say that potentially we missed something along the way. The contract is no more than the vehicle, hopefully, to leverage correlational behaviors that change the experience for children in classrooms. Can our kids read more? Can they compute more? Can they get into college without taking remedial courses? Are they graduating from college? Are they staying in school? Those are the issues for the contract. What we want to do is create the conditions for teachers to have those skill sets to do so. That's what we're looking at now. The big question is what would be the return on the investment on the contract. And if that return doesn't manifest itself in student behavior then we've missed it. Then we gotta go back and rethink it.

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CP: There's a current dispute about changes to the teacher evaluation system—

GT: Cut scores and things of that nature? Yeah, there will continue to be that. Hopefully we can get to a good place. But I think what that's about it really trying to create a focus on excellence, so I think the conversation is good for kids. How do we create excellence in craft that hopefully creates behaviors that manifest themselves for excellence in student outcomes. That's what that work is about and I think we'll get there. I'm confident. I've met with my union partners, I think they understand it.

CP: How's that relationship going?

GT: I've been very pleased, very welcoming. Based on my initial conversations I think at the end of the day they want the same things for children. We were pretty transparent. I want my kids to be competitive. When my kids can really go to college, I want them to go into college and not have to take a remedial course. I want my kids, when they leave graduation, they have a certificate that, if they don't want to go to college, that they can go into the world and have a meaningful occupation that they can learn and grow in. I want kids to be great citizens, I want kids to stay in the community. So I got a sense of things that I hear that are very consistent with my views and my values of what public schools could be.

I believe public schools are the last vestige of America's future. That sounds a little romantic, but at the end of the day, I believe that if we don't get public schools in a better place—everyone talks about we want a great city, I want a great city, the mayor talks about "we want 10,000 new families," and I support all of that, it's great. But let me tell ya, the most critical success factor in that happening are the public schools, because that's where all our kids are. So we gotta invest and we gotta make public schools everybody's business and we gotta be transparent with our information, we gotta rethink when things are not going well, but we gotta keep focus around those outcomes for kids.

CP: The city and the state are investing a lot of money, $977 million so far, in rebuilding schools in the 21st Century Schools initiative. You come into the middle of that.

GT: That was done, I can't take credit for that. I'll go to all the ribbon-cuttings, but I can't take credit for that. I think it's a wonderful investment into the future, and it does a couple of things. One, it says to our kids and our community, "we care." You gotta admit, if you've had an opportunity to visit some of our sites, they're less desirous than others. I was amazed when I was coming in, seeing water fountains that resembled something from the '50s where it had yellow tape in front of 'em and you can't drink out of the fountain. In the '50s we weren't drinking for another reason. Here, we weren't drinking because of water quality and infrastructure and pipes. You know, kids listen to what you say, but they watch what you do. I would say what we're saying hasn't matched what we do. We haven't made that level of investment into our children's future. This is one solid way of doing that. Putting that aside, now we have an opportunity to take these buildings and make 'em transformational agents around teaching and learning, because I'm gonna tell you, this sounds hokey, this is the most exciting time ever in my life, your life, around the paradigm shift around the importance of education. At one point in time, like with my dad, education wasn't always a driving factor of one's success. There was a time where you had a strong back and a good alarm clock, there were great jobs that people could have and those days are gone.

CP: It's certainly true here.

GT: Bethlehem Steel was one. My father worked for Edgcomb Steel in Philadelphia, and we had friends at Bethlehem, and they would talk about the good old days of working and overtime. Let me tell you, these guys and ladies fed their families. It's gone. So now, we shift the paradigm. The way you're going to win in this new world is being educationally capable and ready. That's the new paradigm. And now you throw in this whole issue around technology. Now you got a digital divide. This is what the buildings will do. It'll begin to close the gaps that exist between what quality looks like and what mediocrity looks like.

CP: I remember sitting here with Dr. Alonso several years ago and him showing me how he could drill down into any school, any class, to any student, and evaluate their progress. Are you into that level of micromanagement?

GT: Accountability and data is great, but the truth is around building capacity. We gotta be certain that we're able to take data and really create information, information has to go to somebody with knowledge and that's where you get the action. We have infrastructure now with respect to computer technology. I kinda do it a little differently. We created a dashboard where I can tell you how fast every school's going, how many kids are missing, how many kids are chronically absent. Every morning I walk in and I can tell how fast this organization is going, who's not running fast enough, who's running too slow. Our strategy has been more around creating those opportunities and understandings and creating the support systems that the person closest to the child should be able to do it. For me to know how fast you're going, that's great, but the reality is, I need a classroom teacher to understand that and be making the changes in your life. We have that kind of information, I want it on a daily basis. And we look at some other key performance indicators. Are my teachers coming to work every day? There are other critical success factors in the journey of a child. But I'm using it more for capacity building, then I turn that data into training. I meet with my principals every month, met with them yesterday, Principal Institute. And what I'm constantly trying to do, with a really strong team, is really build their capacity to deliver at the classroom level in schools. That's the digital world we live in. I'm moving toward the day where potentially the textbooks may go away, I'm moving to the world where kids are having interactive conversations with kids in China. I'm moving to the world where we're there 24/7. I just moved into a very aggressive package with Comcast where we're going to wire, make the whole city hot. And due to our free and reduced lunch [population], we got to a really good place with that. We're moving to a world where the television doesn't become the focus but we're basically bringing things to laptops and handhelds. It's not a better approach, it's just chapter two. And I guarantee you, even though I look young and  I'm gonna be here for 40 years, chapter three will be something different and if it's not, then there's something wrong with the organization. They're not taking a good assessment of where they are and where they need to go.

CP: On 21st Century Schools, it was estimated that the total cost of the project would be $2.413 billion, and the state has only raised $977 million so far. Have you been involved in discussions of where the rest of the funding will come from?

GT: No, not really.

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Edie House Foster, city schools manager of public information: I think what had happened there, they were looking at the total picture of what it was going to cost, but I think in essence, they're doing phase one and then, once we've completed this piece, then they'll come back and look at how to finance the next piece. But right now, the focus is on this first round of schools.

CP: There's just a lot of money being poured in—

GT: But we've got to get a good return on investment, and there are a look of folks who are looking to see, and I acknowledge that, and that says to me that we have to be really, really deliberate in our thinking and deliberate in our actions and I think you'll get the return that we hope for. I have no problem with being held accountable, certainly if I have responsibility for the work, but to allow that to determine what phase two looks like. Let's be very candid, I wouldn't want phase two if we don't do a good job with phase one, because that's not a good return for our taxpayers and our children. One thing I've been very proud of with this 21st Century, it's not just around bricks and mortar, It's around hopes and dreams.

CP: For a lot of parents, a real concern is the amount of testing in schools. People are concerned with the Core Curriculum and the PARCC assessment, and the requirement to "teach to the test," which some see as a barrier to real learning.

GT: There's two types of tests. There's summative and formative, and we've been doing formative tests all our lives, and basically what you're doing is checking for understanding of what kids are being taught. Certainly I'm not as big an advocate as maybe I should be around high-stakes statewide assessments, because at the end of the day, it's certainly about where kids are. I talk a lot about growth and you can't expect me to run as fast as you if you have a head start some time in life. But our theory of action is getting kids to better places and really beginning to accelerate the growth that they have. At the end of the day, my job is to measure what that growth looks like and then to figure out ways, if it's not up to level and satisfaction, we can move forward.

So, I do love accountability, but I love accountability only to help me build capacity so I can grow better and faster. With PARCC coming, you know, we live in a world of accountability now. Everybody loves data. I would hate for us not to look at multiple measures of student performance. I will tell you, a measure that I look at is kids coming to school every day. Are parents being engaged in the schoolhouse every day. Are teachers coming back and creating communities that I think are very important, and those are challenges that I have that are real. I've had a lot of change in leadership in buildings. We've lost a hundred principals in the last four to five years through turnover. Those are big issues and sometimes test scores don't measure what's important.

Here's the reality in city schools that I don't think people understand: We have a diverse group of learners here, a diverse community. There are communities that you can go into that are very, very advantaged, and I've been into some communities, I was lucky to see three homes on the entire street with occupants. That's a tough life. So we gotta begin to leverage resources and our approach where sometimes kids need just a little more to get through it, a little better place.

CP: All of that sounds great, about parent and community engagement, but how do you make it happen?

GT: We have deliberately set our staffing support systems up, we have an office of engagement, it's now out. I've been out knocking on doors and inviting people, I'm sitting in living rooms to talk about those kinds of things, and we're beginning to facilitate opportunities for the school to become a hub where those things happen in the evening. What we want to do is support parents, to help them help their children. So, it's happening, not at the scale I want it to happen, but those are the seeds that are being planted that we value in moving our reform forward. I have a person, his name is Hassan Charles [Director of City Schools Engagement Office], he wakes up in the morning and figures out, "how do I engage the community in a systemic way to allow the school district to get better, and how does he begin now to bring collective impact?"

The other thing we're looking at is, we have some places where we don't have help. I go into some communities where you can't even get down the hallway because everybody's helping. It's a beautiful thing for that school, but now I gotta figure out, what am I gonna do for the school where the parents don't come? I try to get to schools as much as I can, I try to talk to parents. This week alone, I have visited two communities. One of them will go nameless, but the other, I had dinner with a group of alumni from City College. Wow. I walked out saying, "Every kid needs an alumni like City College." Every kid! Every kid needs that. You know what insulation is? Insulation is when you put something around something so it's OK. I need that insulation everywhere, so how do I take that City College model—and maybe I'm romanticizing the reality of what could be, but how do I utilize that team as a model that I can go other places and do other things—that's what this work's about. Because then I went to a school, and I won't say it, and the principal said to me, "I can't get my parents in. I hear what you're saying, Mr. CEO. You're saying get  people involved, get the community involved, get the corner stores involved." Because I say education is everybody's game now. I can't get 'em. So, how do I take the excitement of a City. They're getting ready to have—this is not a commercial for City—but they're getting ready to have their 175th anniversary. How do I create that nostalgia that sits in the hearts and souls of these—that's what I gotta get for the rest of the city. I gotta take it to scale.

And then I gotta figure out—and not me alone. I had all the [local] college presidents here, downstairs. And the message was, guys, I need you. This is a pre-K-20 walk. This is not just getting through the end of high school. Cause my kids are gonna go and graduate and they're gonna want to go to their schools and I want 'em to get in. And I need our teachers to come in and stay, so kids can have somebody they can depend on. But that's the kind of work that we're talking about doing, and it is work. Next week I'll have the pastors in. I'm not leaving an angle untouched, buddy. I'm going from high academics to prayer. We're doing a holistic approach.

CP: It sounds like Geoffrey Canada's approach.

GT: Yeah, up in the Harlem Children's Zone. I know Geoff. Yeah, it's everybody's responsibility. It's very easy to point to schools. "Schools are failing." Well, let me tell you, schools don't fail in isolation. Schools fail because conditions are such that we've not been able to create collective impact of a city. And we have a group moving now called Baltimore Promise, a group of leaders in the city trying to figure out everything from birth straight to the end. How do we have healthy births and how do we support babies when they're born, and how do we get 'em to have good pre-Ks. How do we get people to turn the televisions off and turn on other things. And then we get 'em to school, how do we get 'em to third grade and make sure they're not predictors of the third-grade-classroom-to-prison pipeline.

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One of the things that's really important to me, as we move through, is to identify what I call a standard of care, no matter where you sit in this organization, that you have a basic educational opportunity in front of you. There's schools that I have that don't have art. There's schools I have that don't have music. There's schools that I have that don't have foreign language, and most don't. There's schools that I have that don't have access to digital opportunities. So we gotta figure out what those things are, and at a very bare minimum, no matter where you live, no matter whether you can get in a van in a cul-de-sac group or take the bus across town, you can have those kind of opportunities.

As you move forward, you'll start to hear us talking about this issue of tiering school supports, giving some schools and a little more, and some schools, maybe instead of getting a little more, maybe get a little more discretion with respect to decision-making and things of that nature, because my principals have variants too. I have some superstar principals, then I have principals that have been principals for 60 days. You think they're the same? Do you think they have the same access to information? Do you think they have the same skill sets? You gotta build that. That's the kind of work in chapter two.

CP: How have you found it working with other city officials, like the mayor and the city council?

GT: I would give the mayor an A+—I better stop with the high grades. I have found that there's a tremendous amount of investment and involvement. When you walk out, there's a councilperson coming in to talk to me. Probably I talk with two or three councilpeople a week. What it says to me is, they care.

CP: What are their questions, what do you talk to them about?

GT: 21st Century is the question of the week, certainly, how's it gonna manifest, how's it gonna break out, who's coming first, who's coming second, who's gonna close, and those doubts, and those are real things down to, I really want a certain kind of school in my community. I think they're at a place to realize that this city is going to be defined by the progress of its school district. That's it. If I'm a CEO of a large corporation, and I'm coming in to place my corporation here, the first thing I want to ask for, after I get past price, show me the results of the local school district, because this is where my folks' children will go. And I gotta be positioned that I'm part of that economic success plan in creating great opportunities for these folks to bring their children and know that when they graduate from Baltimore City Schools, that they've had a good experience.

CP: How involved are you in decided which schools are going to be rebuilt and renovated as part of the 21st Century program?

GT: I'm probably too involved, but it excites me. My number one focus should be teaching and learning, but this program is so big and so important, going back to our earlier conversation, I want phase two because this doesn't do enough. It's a wonderful down payment but there's still a bill due, and so, we're there, we're actually moving very aggressively to reorganize our organization, to be good stewards and supporters of the initiative, so I'm very involved, I'm involved in every decision, but at the end of the day, I'm responsible too, so I think it's incumbent for me to be at the table, have those conversation, sometimes they're hard conversations. When you decide you're going to close a school, let me tell you this, when you look at the communities, when you drive through 'em, sometimes the school is the only thing left, man, that's it. Fire station's gone. Corner store is gone. Commercial, gone. Libraries, gone. Rec centers—that's why the mayor and I are trying to build rec centers in schools because what happens, the school becomes the hub of the community. That's why we want the school lit up with technology, so people can access technology.

CP: One of Dr. Alonso's major innovations was giving parents a lot more options in the schools their kids would go to. Does that fit with your philosophy?

GT: It does. It's very consistent. I guess I take it a step farther than that. For a very long time, we were driven by where we live, and if it didn't happen where we lived, we didn't have the opportunity to go. The only drawback of that is that transportation is a challenge in this city. So now I gotta build those opportunities throughout the city. I gotta rethink having the schools that I think they should have and have the school that people want to have, so our work will be done around portfolio development and creating access throughout the city.

What I mean by portfolio development is that, the conversations that I have with parents, and I do have a lot, is trying to build the schools they want for their children. Milwaukee for example, immersion in language was very important, so we put immersion schools and language schools, we had Chinese immersions, we have Spanish immersion, we had German immersion, we thought that was pretty important. We thought the arts were very, very important, so we had an elementary arts programs, we thought International Baccalaureate was important so we had primary years IB programs, we had middle years IB, we had diploma IB.

So the question for us and the problem for us, how do we look at our portfolio to see if these are the schools that parents want to invest in, because parents want choices. Especially parents of means have choices. For me, I want every kid in Baltimore City in Baltimore City Public Schools, so I gotta build the schools that they'll want to be a part of, not necessarily the schools that we have. So as we move and continue to develop this, you'll see a major conversation around what's the future of our schools, because there're some kids who just love the STEM stuff, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—now they're adding the arts, calling it STEAM now. There may be a STEAM school on the horizon, because it's something that kids are just excited about being a part of.

Look at our School of Design. Yesterday I was there at 5 o’clock in the morning, I was sending some kids to spend the day with the first lady of America, Mrs. Obama, and those kids are in love with school. That’s what you want, you want kids to fall in love with school, and the way you fall in love is you make it interesting. I gotta have a school around gaming. With the digital culture the way it is, my granddaughter plays kids in Europe on her little device. You know what, that same kind of conversation can be around mathematics. We gotta begin to think about building the schools of the future that certainly will excite parents about engaging their kids being part of the work.

I look at my parents as my customers, I look at my children as my customers. Any well-organized business better be thinking about and be cognizant of what their customers need. We're gonna build and we're gonna meet the needs of our customers. Because if I don't meet 'em, somebody else will. So, the conversation for us moving forward is, what does this next chapter look like, what's gonna be in it. So, I hope you will see us beginning to think in terms—and you saw a little bit, we just moved a school heavily focused around college and it's gonna be a two plus two, plus two, they're gonna get two years of college right here, when they graduate from Bard up in New York. That's what parents want. They like IB. I don't think they really care about IB, but I think what parents really like, as a parent, you can go into college as a sophomore. You know what the price of college is now? It's pretty expensive. I gotta give my parents and customers what they need.

CP: When you say someone else will get there if you don't, you mean private schools?

GT: There are private schools, and I would hate for vouchers ever to come to our community, but anything could happen. I know what keeps the competition out is having a great product. Who wants to come in when you have such a great organization to compete against? Baltimore is a city that sits on the threshold of greatness. I think we've been courageous enough to identify what our challenges are, because that's a big part. You can't fix something unless you identify what the challenges are, acknowledging our challenges. We know we got some work to do in human capital, we know we have some things do in perceptions and things of that nature, we got some work to do in better leadership and stable leadership, we got some work to do in facilities. When you acknowledge it, it positions you to really be very aggressive in the solution.

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CP: How have you been adapting to Baltimore?

GT: Before you came, I didn't have a cold. [laughs, coughs] I'm good, I feel like I'm home. I spent a tremendous amount of my years here, in the state, 17 years in the state. I worked right down the road in Montgomery County, I was the deputy superintendent down there. I grew up every summer of my formative years on the Eastern Shore with my grandparents, and so, I feel like I've come home.

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