Welcome, Mr. Thornton [Editorial]

Baltimore's next schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, is no stranger to the city. Though he has most recently led Milwaukee's schools and previously worked in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, he interviewed for the top job here in 2007, ultimately losing out to Andrés Alonso. And he visited earlier in his career, when he worked in the Washington suburbs. We are eager to hear more about his ideas for Baltimore, and we hope he meets with great success here.

Having said that, however, there are a few things the new schools CEO might find useful to know about Baltimore that someone in his position is only likely to learn from actually working here. Mr. Thornton arrives at a time when the city is focused on a Sun report about violence against teachers in the classroom. Crises like that will regularly demand his attention, and he will need to bring great skill to bear to resolve them. But he cannot let them detract from the mission of refashioning a system that has failed too many children for too many years.


If Baltimore is to prosper, it must make itself an attractive place to live for families with children. That can't happen unless its schools are seen as being competitive not only with the those in the surrounding suburbs but with the best school systems in the state. The more rapidly the schools improve, the better chance Baltimore will have of sustaining it's urban renaissance.

That's why Mr. Thornton needn't worry about moving too quickly. This is a city that has already accepted the idea of a schools chief who's willing to go full steam ahead for the benefit of children and to push the bureaucracy to be more nimble and responsive. It's easy to say school reform can show results after five or 10 years, but the reality is that kids can't wait that long; they're going to grow up regardless, and every day they continue to attend schools that are below par is a day an opportunity has been stolen from their future.

Mr. Alonso got Baltimore used to the idea that if reforms aren't implemented quickly, they aren't really reforms at all. He closed failing schools and replaced them with innovative charter and transformation schools, backed bringing bright young people into classrooms through Teach for America and ordered principals to drastically reduce the number of young people suspended from school. He negotiated an innovative contract with city teachers and, along with advocates and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, convinced the legislature to back a plan that will pump $1.1 billion into school construction and renovations during the next few years. In almost every aspect of school governance he was willing to try out new approaches that had the potential to rapidly boost student achievement.

Mr. Alonso accomplished a great deal but not enough. Mr. Thornton will need to build on Mr. Alonso's successes in reforming school governance to improve classroom education and find ways to ensure that children are prepared to learn.

Anyone who comes to Baltimore has to be cognizant of the substantial obstacles in the way of progress. This is a city with entrenched, inter-generational poverty of a severity rarely seen in other large cities. Many children come from broken homes and grow up without adequate support from parents or relatives. They arrive at school without having eaten a good breakfast go home to domestic environments that are often dysfunctional and in turmoil. No schools CEO can afford to ignore these realities or fail to see education as an endeavor that extends beyond the schools' walls into the communities they serve.

Finally, Mr. Thornton should know that he needs to hit the ground running. His ability to influence what happens over the next few years will never be greater than during his first 12 months at the helm, and he must make the most of that opportunity. The city will support him if takes the time to meet with all its stakeholders, listens to their concerns and then comes up with a decisive plan to take the schools to the next level.

At a time when the rapid gains of the Alonso era have begun to taper off, the system needs a new infusion of energy and enthusiasm. Mr. Thornton cannot afford to see himself as a caretaker or to view Baltimore as one more stop in his long and accomplished career. We have grown accustomed to a schools leader who approaches the job with missionary zeal. We do not expect perfection, and we can handle controversy, but we do demand an unwavering dedication to every child in the public school system. If Mr. Thornton can provide it, he will find Baltimore a very welcoming home.

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