James Sonnenberg has a request for Gregory Thornton, the new superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools: “Give me the best you have, to work with the children who need the most.”
It’s a logical request. Most business leaders put the most capable employees in the most demanding situations.
But it’s also a very tough request, because, in general, that isn’t the way it works in education, where quality flows uphill, away from the lowest-performing schools and students. As teachers build up experience, seniority and, experts generally say, competence, they head for higher-performing kids, higher-performing schools and, frequently, the suburbs.
Sonnenberg is the highly regarded principal of West Side Academy, an MPS kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in a tough neighborhood, around N. 35th St. and W. Lisbon Ave. His pursuit of a strong teaching staff is one vignette in a story that runs deep in schools serving high-needs children all across the nation.
Sonnenberg has plenty of weight to put behind his quest for more star power on his teaching staff. Federal law calls for doing more to put good teachers in front of the kids most likely to falter. Research shows those children are likely to benefit the most from having star teachers. There is wide agreement that it is a worthy goal.