By Lynda Jones
Marquette University Law School convened a panel of four former superintendents of the Milwaukee Public Schools to address the challenges and opportunities facing the state’s largest district recently. “Leadership Lessons: Insights from Former MPS Superintendents on the Challenges of Leading Milwaukee’s Schools- -Then and Now” featured a candid conversation with former MPS Superintendents Robert Peterkin, Howard Fuller, Barbara Horton and Spence Korte on Monday, April 12, at Marquette’s Law School.
As MPS leadership transitions amid headlines about struggling schools, the nation’s worst achievement gap, serious fiscal challenges and a call for dramatic change in school governance, these education leaders reflected on lessons learned during their tenures and their perspectives now about what can be done for the district’s future. Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School, moderated the panel.
The audience was comprised of educators, community activists, school board members, and ordinary citizens. Also seated in the audience were the current MPS superintendent, William Andrekopoulos, and the incoming MPS superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton.
The panelists and the time that they worked with MPS:
Robert S. Peterkin, Francis Keppel Professor of Educational Policy and Administration and Director, Urban Superintendents Program, Harvard University, MPS Superintendent 1988-1991.
Howard L. Fuller, Director and Distinguished Professor- Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University, MPS Superintendent 1991-1995.
Barbara Horton, executive director, The Darrell Lynn Hines College Preparatory Academy of Excellence, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Acting MPS Superintendent 1997 and School Board Director 2002-2007.
Spence Korte, Retired, MPS Superintendent 1999- 2002.
When asked what advice would each past superintendent pass on to Dr. Thornton, Dr. Howard Fuller said.
“I would never offer the incoming superintendent public advice. But, I am available at any time if Dr. Thornton would like to ask me anything in private.”
The other three panelists took the approach of not necessarily offering advice, but simply sharing some of their own experiences and challenges that they faced when they had the position.
The common denominator that was shared was the feeling of having a lack of control, and the frustrations that came from being restricted in what they could actually do as a superintendent.
Dr. Fuller expressed his frustration when it came to having the ability to fire teachers, that were not performing up to expectations. He even cited an example of a teacher putting a students face in a soiled toilet, and when his decision was to fire this teacher, he was told that he did not have the authority to do so.
Dr. Peterkin expressed similar frustration, he had served his term right before Fuller came in. In fact, Fuller was forced to hire back eight teachers that Peterkin had fired during his tenure as MPS superintendent. Peterkin and Fuller stated that their ability to work with the School Board was not an issue.
All four panelists agreed that everyone of MPS except for the children have union representation, and the children are the most important ingredient. At the end, all agreed that the students are the most important, and that Wisconsin having the lowest fourth grade reading scores is a urgent concern.
Thornton reportedly said during his visit to Milwaukee last week, that he was excited about taking on the job in Milwaukee, because he thinks Milwaukee is at a very key place. “I think we’re at a tipping point…I believe we need to tip this thing in a way that young people can be successful.”
The incoming superintendent also has weighed in on the proposed legislation giving the state superintendent Tony Evers more authority over MPS.
In his letter he states that his hope is:”…that the legislative process continues to partner to ensure that we create and support high quality instructional programs for the children of Milwaukee and throughout the state of Wisconsin.”
“I regret that I was unavailable to attend the press conference announcing the legislation. Thank you for inviting me. Through the advantage of the internet, I was able to view an excerpt of the press conference. I was surprised to hear that the legislation includes the removal of principals as part of the scope of control. At no time was there any discussion of Principal removal. I am hopeful that this component, along with several others, will be deleted from the final product. I have attempted to be positive and transparent throughout the process and I am hopeful that this will become the foundation of our relationship.” He concluded;
“I would like to establish schedule of quarterly meetings (in your Milwaukee Office!) so that we may continue conversation and collaboration for the benefit of the Milwaukee community. I will have staff reach out to your office to schedule.”