Thornton rolls back principal autonomy in struggling schools

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton at headquarters.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton at headquarters. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton is rolling back an initiative that, for seven years, gave principals far-reaching latitude in running their schools, but led to a turnover rate among principals of more than 90 percent.

In the first major policy move he's proposed since taking over as CEO in July, Thornton is requiring the principals of more than 30 of the city's struggling schools to follow mandates — such as hiring specialized teachers and implementing certain academic programs — where the previous administration allowed them to make their own decisions.


The plan scales back a school governance structure introduced by former city schools CEO Andres Alonso in 2008. Alonso introduced "school autonomy," giving principals power over how they form their budgets, how they staff their buildings and other key decisions.

Officials say that some schools have thrived under the structure, but others have foundered.


Thornton said he believes in "earned autonomy" — whereby principals gain more control as student achievement improves.

But he said disparities that exist under the current model call for him to start with a hybrid model.

"At the end of the day, I have to be certain that no matter where you enter our [system] you have a good standard of care for your children," Thornton said.

"And I've got to close the gap between some schools and others," he said. "And I've got to raise the bar for all because even our most highly performing schools don't have what I would consider the resources to create a world-class school district."


Officials insist the new "tiered support" system is not punitive, but designed to provide help to schools that haven't moved the needle under the current structure.

"There are schools that have been able to leverage their autonomy, but there are other schools where the challenges are just so great, they need support … and supports they can rely on," said Linda Chen, chief academic officer. "This isn't about bringing down a hammer."

Under the new system, each school is placed into one of three categories. The first tier is for those with the "greatest need of support." At the other end of the spectrum are those that have "autonomy with results."

Daric Jackson, principal at Reginald F. Lewis High School, called his school's placement in the tier of schools identified as needing the most support "unfortunate."

"That means there have been years that we have not met success," Jackson said. "In terms of those young people. There were some missed opportunities."

But he said much of what was asked of him in Thornton's new system, such as focusing resources on literacy, was in line with what he was doing since he took over the school two years ago.

Jackson, who has been a principal in the city for four years, said the previous system worked well, but didn't have clear backing from the central office.

The new system infringes a little on his autonomy and budget, he said, but for the right reasons.

"It's a trade-off," Jackson said. "This isn't about whether I can get a new desk in my office. Who cares about that if the kid can't read?"

Union President Jimmy Gittings said principals were concerned that Thornton's new approach would take away school-based management, and some schools would be labeled as low performers.

He said he's been assured this wasn't the case.

"Our schools definitely need more support," Gittings said. "Principals know how to run their schools, but they need the support from central office to do it."

Principal autonomy was debated in the last years of Alonso's tenure, when it led to a revolving door of school leaders.

Alonso said that principals who were given free rein should produce results. If they did not, they were replaced.

That approach led to turnover rate during his tenure of more than 95 percent.

That turnover, Chen said, is part of the reason the district is refining the system. Many principals have struggled with managing budgets, some well over $1 million. Some have struggled to implement effective programs and interventions.

Chen said principals who have succeeded with autonomy are usually experienced, well-established in their schools, and "entrepreneurial-minded."

"That is not the average principal," Chen said.

Tracey Pratt, in her first year at Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School, said she appreciates the extra guidance tiered support will provide her as she begins her career as a principal.

She said she appreciated that her school is receiving support according to its particular needs.

"I feel a little special, because it was very specific," she said. "So, we expect very specific results."

Both Jackson and Pratt said the new structure will make them feel less isolated, and connect them with school leaders that have similar struggles.

Thornton is introducing the new system as the district faces a deficit that he said will force him to reduce the size of the central office. And based on the amount of money allocated to schools this year, some of the neediest will struggle to pay for the extra teachers they are required to hire under the system.

But Thornton said he has made the system a priority, and has set aside nearly $800,000 to help pay for a group of highly trained "lead teachers" for struggling schools.

Next year, Thornton said, he will look to tweak the district's per-pupil funding program, called "Fair Student Funding," which also started under Alonso.