New Baltimore School CEO Thornton pledges to stay, improve system

BALTIMORE - For Gregory Thornton, Baltimore is the latest stop in a career that spans four decades, five states and more than a dozen positions.

But Thornton, tapped this week as the next CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, made one thing clear. His roots run deep in Maryland.

And he says once he assumes the position in July, he’s in it for the long haul. 

"I'm prepared to sign a pretty long term contract, if they're willing to give it," Thornton told members of the media this week. “They want to test drive me.”

Thornton, 59, follows Andres Alonso, who resigned in 2013 after six years at the helm of the troubled city school system. He has served as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools since 2010.

Those who have worked with Thornton, a Philadelphia native, said he always made it known that he wanted to return to the East Coast. He has family in the area and was a finalist for the Baltimore job when Alonso was hired.

TIMELINE | Thornton's work history

And they think he’ll stay here, despite a pattern of staying only a few years at a time at each school district.

“He’s closer to home,” said Terrence Falk, a member of the board of school directors for Milwaukee Public Schools. “I think that’s what he was trying to find.”

In an emailed interview, Thornton said he's been presented with some "incredible opportunities."

"I've been lucky enough to spend my career working hard to improve the lives of children," Thornton said. "Baltimore certainly is committed to doing that and I look forward to being here and doing that work with others for as long as my efforts are helpful to this community." 

Mike Hickley, a director of instructional leadership and professional development at Towson University, said it takes between seven and 10 years to see real change in a school district. But on average, leaders of urban school systems don’t stick around that long.

“It does a disservice to the school system,” Hickey said. “When a new leader comes in, it’s a huge cultural shift and takes time for everyone to adjust. In an urban system, so many factors come into play -- it’s not about running the school -- it’s about running a large, complex system with a large budget.” 

Varied career

Former colleagues over the years described Thornton as an outgoing man with a passion for educating children – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Kelly Griffith, interim superintendent for Talbot County Public Schools, where Thornton began his career as a math teacher, recalled him as someone who “always made sure education was first.”

Don Martin, former superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina, hired Thornton as an assistant superintendent of middle schools in the late 1990s.

At the time, Thornton pushed for uniformity among the 17 or 18 middle schools, adamant that all students get the same opportunities.

“What he was all about was … we can’t use [a student’s] individual circumstances as an excuse not to educate them,” said Martin, now a professor of educational leadership at High Point University in High Point, N.C.

Kenneth Simington, now an assistant superintendent at Winston-Salem/Forsyth, remembered Thornton as an innovator. He brought the Advancement Via Individual Determination program to the district, a program that focuses on making average students more academically successful. It's been popular in some school systems in Maryland. 

A school district like Baltimore "is right up his alley," Simington said. 

Thornton had a few struggles along the way. In 2001, the Hartford Courant in Connecticut reported Thornton was a finalist for superintendent of Bloomfield Public Schools. The school board decided to extend its search shortly after Thornton confirmed filing for bankruptcy in Maryland in the 1990s, according to reports at the time.

In 2004, when he was chief academic officer of the School District of Philadelphia, Thornton’s ethics were questioned when he signed off on a no-bid contract with a company that partially financed his trip to Africa when he was in working in Montgomery County in Maryland.

He was never disciplined, according to media reports.

"My professional record speaks for itself," Thornton said. 

Martin acknowledged Thornton’s frequent job changes might raise a few eyebrows, but added he was recruited in several cases. Montgomery County Public Schools, where Thornton worked as a community and then a deputy superintendent, recruited him from Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Martin said.

“The moves made a lot of sense at the time,” Martin said.

One of those moves was to the Chester Upland School District outside of Philadelphia, where he was recruited by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to serve as superintendent.

Gregory Shannon, now superintendent at Chester Upland, worked with Thornton and said he made sure to hold educators responsible for their actions.

“He expected you to work hard and make a difference,” he said.

While superintendent, Thornton started two high school programs,

one in health careers and one in science and technology. He also partnered with the nonprofit Chester Fund for Education and the Arts to open the Chester Upland School of the Arts.

But according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the school system remains one of the lowest performing districts in the state.

Thornton said he's learned there are three factors to a successful school district: An engaged community, strong curriculum and committed workforce. 

"I want to spend time in Baltimore learning about what's working and listening to community expectations for Baltimore City Public Schools," he said. 

“Very gregarious”

Thornton’s colleagues in Milwaukee said his personality helped secure $79 million in grants for the district since 2012.  

Meagan Holman, vice president of the board of school directors, said the state government as well as the private sector could be reluctant to invest in Milwaukee’s “complicated” school district. That appeared to change under Thornton’s leadership.

“He’s very, very gregarious,” Holman said.

Michael Bonds, president of the board of school directors, said Thornton immediately stood out when he interviewed for the superintendent position four years ago.

“I went home and said to my wife, 'this guy really gets it.' He knows what it’s like to run a major urban school district,” Bonds said.

Aside from an understanding of poverty issues and academic challenges, “you could feel his compassion for kids,” Bonds said. 

But how Thornton will be remembered in Milwaukee, Falk said, depends largely on how he handles his departure to Maryland.

Will he look to tie up loose ends in Milwaukee, or will his mind be on Baltimore?  

“Quite frankly, we wish he would have waited until the end of his contract,” Falk said.

Thornton was lauded in Milwaukee for cutting the district’s pension liabilities from $2.8 billion to $1.4 billion during his tenure, as well as reducing suspensions and beefing up the district’s arts, music and physical education programs.

Falk also credited him for streamlining one of the most “decentralized” school districts in the country. For example, when he was hired, the district had 15 to 20 separate reading programs, rather than one individual program for all students.

There were also times when he butted heads with the board.

Thornton tended to favor privatization of school services, such as food service, which the board opposed. He also wanted more charter schools, though Milwaukee had more charter schools than the rest of the state, Falk said.

The nature of the board’s relationship with the superintendent can be adversarial, Holman said. But Thornton wasn’t known for holding a grudge.

“Most of the time, it was easy enough to build a consensus with him,” she said.

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