When she was ap­pointed su­per­in­ten­dent, Darienne Driver was the youngest per­son to head MPS, and the first woman to do it per­ma­nently. Three years into her ten­ure, the big­gest anom­aly is that she’s so well liked.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - By Ge­or­gia Pabst

MPS Su­per­in­ten­dent Darienne Driver says she doesn’t let the “neg­a­tive statis­tics of our city” stop her from the work she needs to do to help stu­dents suc­ceed. Her pas­sion and lead­er­ship draw praise, but will her ten­ure be short, based on pre­vi­ous chiefs?

It’s the rea­son she’s of­ten out the door at 7:30 a.m. for early morn­ing com­mu­nity meet­ings be­fore head­ing to the Cen­tral Of­fice, and why her day of­ten doesn’t end un­til af­ter 10 p.m. with board and other meet­ings.

It’s not just her work­load that has her clock­ing in 12-hour days – al­though there is that. Also fu­el­ing her worka­holic ten­den­cies is a clock no one can see that ticks with­out pause in her mind. The district has pre­cious lit­tle time to teach and pre­pare its ap­prox­i­mately 77,000 stu­dents for life af­ter school. “It’s the pres­sure of need­ing more time to en­sure that all of our stu­dents are on track,” she says. “There is a great ur­gency due to the fact we only have our stu­dents for a lim­ited time.”

That’s one rea­son the school cal­en­dar has been changed to start in Au­gust, rather than Septem­ber, to al­low for more time for re­me­di­a­tion in June and to try to in­crease grad­u­a­tion and pro­mo­tion rates, she says. It’s just one of the changes she’s made to shake up busi­ness as usual, earn­ing plau­dits for her out­reach and her focus on kids.

Driver took over the top job at MPS in 2014, putting her in com­mand of about 10,000 em­ploy­ees, 160 schools and a $1.2 bil­lion bud­get. Like most ur­ban dis­tricts, Mil­wau­kee faces daunt­ing chal­lenges: high poverty, vi­o­lence, home­less­ness, trauma and more. There are also low test scores to con­tend with, low grad­u­a­tion rates, and a com­pli­cated fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment that leaves MPS with less rev­enue per pupil than af­flu­ent sub­urbs with pro­por­tion­ately higher prop­erty val­ues.

Driver doesn’t dwell too much on the stats, bleak as they are. “Peo­ple are well versed in the neg­a­tive statis­tics of our city, but some­times in Mil­wau­kee we al­low our statis­tics to par­a­lyze us from tak­ing the nec­es­sary ac­tions to change the nar­ra­tive,” she says. Her focus is on ral­ly­ing the com­mu­nity to be­lieve that things can im­prove, and stu­dents can suc­ceed, de­spite the odds.

She also faces an­other sort of clock: the ex­pec­ta­tion, spo­ken and un­spo­ken, that she’ll giddy-up out of town at any mo­ment, that her ten­ure ticks down to an in­evitable end that’s only a ques­tion of when, not if. Su­per­in­ten­dents in ur­ban dis­tricts last, on av­er­age, three years. Driver took over in 2014. De­spite any as­sur­ances she may of­fer, she’ll al­ways face skep­ti­cism and ques­tions about her next career move. It’s the con­se­quence of her job and an ac­knowl­edg­ment that she’s in de­mand na­tion­ally. Tick, tick, tick …

Driver was

just 6 years old when she de­cided she wanted to be an ed­u­ca­tor. It was be­cause of Mrs. Wright, her first-grade teacher.

“I re­mem­ber I talked a lot and I talked re­ally fast,” Driver says. “I would get my work done re­ally quickly. I would work with other kids, so I was like her lit­tle helper. She re­ally sup­ported that dream for me to be a teacher.”

Her sis­ter, four years older, was “a per­fect role model.” She was an avid reader,

into sports, arts and mu­sic – and fo­cused. She wanted to be a doc­tor.

“We used to have a deal grow­ing up,” says Driver. “She said, ‘I'll de­liver them, if you teach them.” Her sis­ter's now a neona­tol­o­gist.

Driver spent her early years in Vir­ginia Beach, Vir­ginia. In the eighth grade, her fam­ily moved to Pitts­burgh. Her fa­ther is a health ser­vices ad­min­is­tra­tor, her mom a re­cently re­tired med­i­cal tech­nol­o­gist. They were ac­tive in the church, sang in sev­eral choirs around town and were in­volved in the com­mu­nity.

Driver at­tended a sub­ur­ban Pitts­burgh high school that was 80 per­cent white. Her school in Vir­ginia had been more racially bal­anced.

She got very in­volved in ex­tracur­ric­u­lars: march­ing in the color guard, danc­ing mod­ern and bal­let and play­ing bass clar­inet. But there were times she says she felt iso­lated and alone. “I didn't want to be re­ferred to as a mi­nor­ity be­cause mi­nor­ity im­plies that you are less than.”

When it came time to go to col­lege, Driver knew she wanted to go to a his­tor­i­cally black col­lege or univer­sity, like her par­ents, her grand­mother and sev­eral aunts. She calls go­ing to Spel­man Col­lege, in Atlanta, one of the best de­ci­sions she ever made. “I learned so much about who I am as a per­son. I wasn't looked upon as a mi­nor­ity. I em­braced who I am – an African-Amer­i­can woman with the power that comes with that. Hav­ing that solid foun­da­tion let me be able to go out and do great things in the world.”

Driver grad­u­ated from Spel­man with a de­gree in child devel­op­ment, then went to the Univer­sity of Michi­gan for a mas­ters in cur­ricu­lum devel­op­ment. Orig­i­nally, she thought she'd teach in a sub­ur­ban district be­cause in her en­tire K-12 ex­pe­ri­ence she had only one black teacher.

“But at Spel­man, I re­al­ized the need and the op­por­tu­nity that be­ing in an ur­ban sys­tem pre­sented, and I quickly shifted to ur­ban education,” she says.

Her first teach­ing job was in Detroit. She taught fourth grade and was the cheer­lead­ing coach. Af­ter four years she de­cided she wanted to be a prin­ci­pal.

As a teacher, she was laid off twice, and en­roll­ment at her school dropped from about 650 to 250 stu­dents as the city strug­gled. “I al­ways felt schools are re­ally your an­chors in the com­mu­nity. Schools los­ing en­roll­ment im­pacts the en­tire com­mu­nity. That led me to want to be a su­per­in­ten­dent. At that level you can start to make an im­pact,” she says.

For her doc­tor­ate, she at­tended Har­vard's ur­ban su­per­in­ten­dent pro­gram. In the process of com­plet­ing her de­gree, she served as co­or­di­na­tor of strate­gic man­age­ment and ac­count­abil­ity within the Clay­ton County, Ge­or­gia, schools for a year and a half.

She spent the next four years in Philadel­phia, where she ran a turn­around schools pro­gram for about 100 schools. Driver says she met her Mil­wau­kee pre­de­ces­sor, Gre­gory Thorn­ton, at a con­fer­ence in early 2012. “We had a great conversation,” she says. A few months later he called and of­fered her the job of chief in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer at MPS.

“My whole his­tory has been in turn­around sit­u­a­tions or in schools [in Clay­ton County] where I did strate­gic plan­ning,” she says.

When Thorn­ton left in 2014 to head the school sys­tem in Bal­ti­more, the Mil­wau­kee school board named Driver in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent, then su­per­in­ten­dent.

Driver's am­bi­tion to make changes across a sprawl­ing ur­ban district, borne orig­i­nally of frus­tra­tions as a teacher in Detroit, came true. She was 36 years old, the youngest ever to lead Mil­wau­kee's schools and the first per­ma­nent fe­male su­per­in­ten­dent. Now 39, Driver is part of a new gen­er­a­tion of ur­ban su­per­in­ten­dents who are tech-savvy, raised in a di­verse en­vi­ron­ment and com­mit­ted to com­mu­nity out­reach.

While highly vis­i­ble pub­licly, Driver guards her per­sonal life and will say only that she's sin­gle and lives in Mil­wau­kee. She en­joys Pi­lates and yoga, a good con­cert or movie. “I know it sounds corny, but I love to vol­un­teer,” she says.

Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools

was de­signed for 120,000 stu­dents, and, due to in­fra­struc­ture and re­tire­ment costs, an en­roll­ment of less than the cur­rent 77,000 isn't

sus­tain­able. Hold­ing onto stu­dents isn't easy. In ad­di­tion to the pre­dictable sub­ur­ban drift, MPS faces com­pe­ti­tion for stu­dents and tax dol­lars from char­ter schools and “choice” or voucher schools. Voucher schools are pri­vate or re­li­gious schools that re­ceive tax­payer funds for low- and mod­er­ate-in­come stu­dents.

The hy­per-com­pet­i­tive land­scape ex­plains why Driver's work­ing to ex­pand MPS pro­grams, like in-de­mand Montes­sori and lan­guage-im­mer­sion schools.

But she's also de­vel­oped a strate­gic plan of “eight big ideas” to move the district for­ward. Says school board mem­ber Carol Voss: “For the first time in a long time we have a strate­gic plan. Driver uses data and mea­sure­able out­comes. She's brought a lot of great ideas to the district. And there's a col­lab­o­ra­tive re­la­tion­ship.”

Her ideas in­clude aca­demic achieve­ment, in­clud­ing clos­ing the wide achieve­ment gap that sep­a­rates stu­dents of color and whites; stu­dent, fam­ily and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment; and ef­fi­cient op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing the devel­op­ment and sup­port for teach­ers and em­ploy­ees. Each school now has a par­ent co­or­di­na­tor.

In the next year, Driver says she wants to ad­dress the per­for­mance gap, par­tic­u­larly in read­ing, math and ab­sen­teeism, and she's launch­ing the MPS De­part­ment of Black and Latino Male Achieve­ment as part of the ef­fort.

Driver also wants to ex­pand stu­dent in­tern­ships and in­crease the num­ber of busi­ness part­ners in ev­ery school through the Adopt-a-School pro­gram.

Ear­lier this year, she won board ap­proval for school uni­forms (al­though schools can opt out). Uni­forms put the focus on learning and teach­ing, she says, and the district will help fam­i­lies who can't af­ford them.

And she's try­ing to ex­pand pro­grams that show prom­ise, such as the Com­mu­nity Schools pro­gram, a part­ner­ship with United Way and oth­ers that pro­vides health and so­cial ser­vices to stu­dents and fam­i­lies at a num­ber of schools.

Changes made to the early-child­hood cur­ricu­lum for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in kinder­garten have started to pay off, Driver says. Early lit­er­acy skills have in­creased from 45% of stu­dents on tar­get to 60% in K5 and first grade, ac­cord­ing to the state as­sess­ment.

Many say progress – though slow – is be­ing made. But oth­ers may think change is not hap­pen­ing fast enough. Driver ad­mits she gets im­pa­tient with the pace of im­prove­ment some­times. “I take this work very se­ri­ously, which leads to frus­tra­tion when oth­ers don't share the same pas­sion,” she says.

An­nie Wood­ward, on the school board since 2009, likes that Driver lis­tens. “She's some­one I can talk to, and she cares about the en­tire district,” says Wood­ward – in­clud­ing the prob­lems in Wood­ward's very poor district.

In 2015,

MPS be­came the tar­get of a law passed by the state Leg­is­la­ture that put Mil­wau­kee County Ex­ec­u­tive Chris Abele in charge of a turn­around district for some fail­ing schools. The plan sank due to var­i­ous cir­cum­stances (in­clud­ing the de­par­ture of De­mond Means, se­lected by Abele to run the pro­gram), but it gave district groups that had clashed in the past the op­por­tu­nity to forge a uni­fied front against it.

The school board, Driver and the Mil­wau­kee Teach­ers' Education As­so­ci­a­tion – the in­flu­en­tial em­ploy­ees' union – all fought the plan, called the Op­por­tu­nity Schools and Part­ner­ship Pro­gram. “I don't know if we would have been able to bat­tle the takeover and been suc­cess­ful with­out hav­ing the strong part­ner we had in Dr. Driver,” says Kim Schroeder, the pres­i­dent of MTEA. “We have a great re­la­tion­ship with Dr. Driver. We don't al­ways agree, but we agree on more things than not.” He says union of­fi­cials meet monthly with Driver.

The union and Driver aren't in ac­cord about ev­ery­thing. They dis­agreed strongly on MPS' move to place Car­men High School of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, a high­per­form­ing char­ter school with a non-union­ized staff, in­side Pu­laski High School in 2015. The mea­sure, sup­ported by Driver, passed the board in a nar­row vote.

“That tested our re­la­tion­ship the most,” Schroeder says. “It re­mains to be seen how it will work, but ev­ery­one in the build­ing is try­ing to make it work."

The union was also dis­ap­pointed that in the 2017-2018 district bud­get, there was a “pause” as Driver called it, or no salary in­creases. “Peo­ple were up­set and we dis­agree with the de­ci­sion over­all, but it's not af­fected our re­la­tion­ship,” Schroeder says.

It was a mat­ter of pri­or­i­ties, he says. The district had rev­enues re­duced by $21 mil­lion. And un­der Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker's seis­mic 2011 anti-union bill, the union has lim­ited power to bar­gain over wages.

Still, Schroeder says he thinks Driver is do­ing a good job given the chal­lenges she faces,

es­pe­cially with fund­ing cuts from the state, which means do­ing more with less to pro­vide pro­grams and be in­no­va­tive.

State Sen. Al­berta Dar­ling, R-River Hills, who co-au­thored the "Op­por­tu­nity Schools" leg­is­la­tion, says she’s “very im­pressed” with Driver, her ideas and lead­er­ship skills. But Dar­ling says it’s the school board that stands in the way of in­no­va­tion and change to get re­sults.

Abele largely agrees. “Dr. Driver is smart and tal­ented, but needs more tools and more abil­ity to man­age,” he says.

When stu­dents speak

out, Driver perks up. At a pub­lic hear­ing in March on a res­o­lu­tion declar­ing MPS a “safe haven” for im­mi­grant stu­dents and fam­i­lies fac­ing de­por­ta­tion, Driver lis­tened in­tently as stu­dents tes­ti­fied about their jour­neys and fears of be­ing de­ported or hav­ing par­ents de­ported. At one point, she reached for a tis­sue to dab her eyes. At the end of the hear­ing, she turned to the stu­dents and told them how proud she was of them for stand­ing up and speak­ing out. “It’s an honor to serve all of you,” she said.

While aca­demic achieve­ment is im­por­tant, so is “ed­u­cat­ing the whole child with so­cial and emo­tional sup­port,” says Driver. And reach­ing into the com­mu­nity for sup­port is nec­es­sary. “That’s not some­thing I can do my­self,” she says, “or our teach­ers can do on their own. It’s go­ing to take ev­ery­one.”

Tim Sheehy, pres­i­dent of the Metropoli­tan Mil­wau­kee As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­merce, says that he’s worked closely with 11 su­per­in­ten­dents over the past 30 years. “She’s one of the best be­cause it’s her pas­sion for do­ing what’s right for kids. It’s not some step­ping stone to an­other job,” he says.

It’s im­per­a­tive for MPS to suc­ceed be­cause of the work­force needs of busi­ness, Sheehy says, not­ing that the next decade will bring 42,000 new job open­ings and 46,000 jobs created by re­tire­ments.

Three years ago, with Driver’s sup­port, the MMAC launched “Be the Spark,” a pro­gram in which sev­enth graders spend a day in a com­pany. Stu­dents have gone to the air­port to talk to a pi­lot, main­te­nance work­ers and bag­gage han­dlers. Some went to ar­chi­tec­tural firms or man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies.

When Jen­nifer Bar­tolotta and her hus­band, Joe, ap­proached Driver and her team in Jan­uary 2016 and pro­posed a ProS­tart culi­nary arts and hos­pi­tal­ity pro­gram to pre­pare stu­dents for ca­reers in that booming field with the Bar­tolotta Restau­rants group, SURG, and other part­ners, she ex­pected a slow, drawn-out process. She got nei­ther.

“Driver told her team: ‘Let’s do it in the fall. Get it done,’ and walked out,” Jen­nifer Bar­tolotta says. “She’s thought­ful and de­ci­sive.”

In the 2016-2017 school year, 327 stu­dents in four high schools were in the pro­gram. To sup­port it, the Bar­tolot­tas threw a gala and raised $400,000.

To fur­ther sup­port Driver and her ideas, the non­profit MPS Foun­da­tion was restarted by a group of phi­lan­thropists and oth­ers, says John Kersey, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Zil­ber Ltd. and chair­man of the foun­da­tion board.

“We want to get back to where kids can have pride to go to MPS and we want to sup­port teach­ers,” he says.

This year, the foun­da­tion’s goal is to raise $1 mil­lion, in­clud­ing launch­ing the first alumni giv­ing cam­paign, to fund teacher grants, schol­ar­ships and field trips for stu­dents, says Kersey.

Na­tion­ally, Driver’s pro­file has grown, too. In sum­mer 2017, she be­came the chair of the Coun­cil of the Great City Schools, which rep­re­sents 68 large-city school dis­tricts that share in­for­ma­tion and ad­vo­cate for in­ner city stu­dents. She’s also been elected to the Har­vard Board of Overseers.

Oc­to­ber 1 is her third an­niver­sary at the helm of MPS – again, about the av­er­age ten­ure for an ur­ban school su­per­in­ten­dent. Her salary is $255,000. Her con­tract ex­tends to 2019.

So the ques­tion arises: Does she in­tend to stay?

“I do,” she replies. “I’m hon­ored to be here.”

She adds: “I feel like I’m just get­ting started.”

Driver meets in May with stu­dents at South Divi­sion High School par­tic­i­pat­ing in a spe­cial fi­nan­cial academy, of­fer­ing in­for­ma­tion on money, fi­nances and sav­ings, She tells them good grades will help them win col­lege schol­ar­ships.

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