Driver as­sesses state of Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN - Alan J. Borsuk is se­nior fel­low in law and pub­lic pol­icy at Mar­quette Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk @mar­quette.edu.

I can sort of get my head around how pri­vate schools in Mil­wau­kee are do­ing (over­all, some­what bet­ter, but still a long way to go). I can sort of get my head around how char­ter schools in Mil­wau­kee are do­ing (some of them are out­stand­ing, but the movement as a whole has slowed).

But I strug­gle to get my head around how Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools is do­ing.

For one thing, the sys­tem is so big — en­roll­ment in con­ven­tional MPS schools has been de­clin­ing for years but was still over 65,000 as of last year. And MPS en­com­passes so much — some of the best, some of the worst, some great re­sults, over­all bad re­sults, lots of great kids, lots of kids who are se­ri­ously not on track, and on and on.

So how is MPS do­ing? Maybe the best and broad­est an­swer I’d give is: Some­what bet­ter, prob­a­bly bet­ter than a lot of peo­ple think, but there is still a moun­tain to climb and rea­sons to worry.

That’s not much dif­fer­ent from the an­swer MPS Su­per­in­ten­dent Dari­enne Driver gives. As she starts her fourth year at the top of the sys­tem, I asked her what shape things are in.

“Big-pic­ture wise, we have def­i­nitely made some progress,” Driver said. “We’ve been will­ing to make some tough de­ci­sions around our in­fra­struc­ture and how we are or­ga­nized, how we are pri­or­i­tiz­ing things to get things done. But it’s clear we have a long way to go.”

Driver is an en­er­getic booster for MPS. She can rat­tle off ini­tia­tives and changes that are en­cour­ag­ing — ex­pan­sion of suc­cess­ful pro­grams, new of­fer­ings, some im­prove­ments in ACT scores, at­ten­dance and sus­pen­sion rates. The large ma­jor­ity of MPS schools now have poli­cies for kids to wear uni­forms and many schools started in mid-Au­gust, in­stead of in Septem­ber.

But she ac­knowl­edges a lot of re­sults haven’t changed (or changed only slightly) — grad­u­a­tion rates, test scores over­all, achieve­ment gaps and so on.

If MPS as a whole is too much to take on in this space, let’s fo­cus on a few sub­jects.

Read­ing. Fewer than 20% of MPS stu­dents were rated pro­fi­cient in read­ing in state tests in 2016. The same is true over­all for Mil­wau­kee stu­dents at­tend­ing pri­vate schools us­ing pub­licly funded vouch­ers. (Re­sults for 2017 have not been re­leased yet.) Low read­ing suc­cess is a cri­sis, a ma­jor road­block to good fu­tures for thou­sands of Mil­wau­kee chil­dren.

What would it take to get much broader read­ing suc­cess?

Driver agreed that changes in how read­ing is taught haven’t achieved much. Good ini­tia­tives, she said, “make a dif­fer­ence, but the im­prove­ment rate, it’s just slow.” She said she used to think a great read­ing pro­gram would make the dif­fer­ence. Now, she thinks, the so­lu­tions have to come from much broader ef­forts.

“It has to be be­yond what’s hap­pen­ing in the class­room,” Driver said. Par­ents have to be en­gaged, and the com­mu­nity has to get into read­ing a lot more.

“We have to make read­ing as ex­cit­ing and en­gag­ing as we do video games, as we do amuse­ment ac­tiv­i­ties,” she said. “I just don’t know that as a so­ci­ety any­more we re­ally truly em­pha­size lit­er­acy and read­ing and a love of that the way that we should.”

Adult lit­er­acy needs to be a higher pri­or­ity, she said. Func­tional il­lit­er­acy rates among adults in Mil­wau­kee are high, and it has long been known that grow­ing up in a home with books around has pos­i­tive ef­fects on read­ing — and vice versa.

“Find­ing ways that we just bring every­one into the con­ver­sa­tion and give them an op­por­tu­nity to love read­ing” would help, Driver said.

And every­one in ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing across the var­i­ous sec­tors of schools, needs to work to­gether.

“Enough with the com­pe­ti­tion con­ver­sa­tion. Can we all just work to­gether to fig­ure out how we’re go­ing to im­prove this?” Driver said.

“But don’t lose hope,” she said. “I don’t want peo­ple to give up, it’s some­thing you’ve got to stay the course on.”

Eq­uity and race. Driver said she was proud of new MPS poli­cies on gen­der in­clu­siv­ity and eq­uity in ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity, as well as the open­ing of an of­fice fo­cused on im­prov­ing achieve­ment for black and His­panic males. Some peo­ple think these things are just talk, she said, but MPS is com­mit­ted to be­ing de­lib­er­ate and in­ten­tional about im­prove­ment.

“That gives me en­cour­age­ment, that we’re all talk­ing about this. Look at the (hate­ful) rhetoric out there (na­tion­wide),” she said. “We’re a dis­trict fam­ily that stands up for peo­ple.”

She sud­denly choked up. Then, she con­tin­ued. “I get emo­tional very eas­ily. It mat­ters. God, I never thought I’d have to say things like that in 2017, but it’s real.” Dari­enne Driver her­self. One rea­son MPS was not the tar­get of ma­jor leg­isla­tive med­dling this year is be­cause Driver re­mains held in high es­teem across a wide range of view­points. But, even though her con­tract goes into 2019, peo­ple fre­quently won­der how long she’ll stay. She is not a na­tive of Mil­wau­kee, she’s well known in ed­u­ca­tion cir­cles na­tion­wide, she has ex­cel­lent cre­den­tials — and she’s not yet 40.

She says she’s com­mit­ted to Mil­wau­kee.

“I’m still very ex­cited. I feel like we’re just get­ting started . . . . I just want to see us fly.”

“I love it here, I love what I do, I love my team, I love my kids. This is home. I’ve been here five years now (in­clud­ing two be­fore be­com­ing su­per­in­ten­dent) and this re­ally is home. I can’t see my­self do­ing any­thing else for a while — for a long while.”

She laughs. “You guys are stuck with me a lit­tle longer, Alan.”

Best as I can see, es­pe­cially from the stand­point of MPS, that’s a pos­i­tive state­ment.

Driver

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