Darienne Driver is the first female superintendent of MPS – and one of its youngest. It’s a pressure-cooker job, but she is prepped for the test.
What has prepared you to be the superintendent of a major urban district at age 36?
I started my career as a teacher in Detroit Public Schools. Having experiences at the classroom level, and seeing what worked and what didn’t work, is really what sparked this idea that I could do something about this. That’s what led me to the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University, and then to Philadelphia, where I did a lot of work around turnaround schools, taking schools that were historically underperforming and rallying them together to help improve outcomes for students. Then coming here [in July 2012] as the Chief Innovation Officer, I had two really positive years with Milwaukee Public Schools. I’m very hands-on. I believe in transparency. I try to create an environment around collaboration and communication.
What did you do as Chief Innovation Officer?
It was designed to challenge the status quo and for us to look at rethinking existing models. We have the research and development office looking at best practices from around the country: class size reduction, support for bilingual education, strategies that work for young men of color. It also includes work with our charter schools, as well as our partnership schools, for students where a traditional school setting hasn’t yielded the best results.
The latest state report cards rate MPS and 52 of its schools as “failing to meet expectations.” How do you turn that around?
We’re starting to see growth, but we have to accelerate the growth, and so we have pushed a number of different resources into the schools this year: parent coordinators, who are focused on parent and community engagement; school support teachers, that instructional leadership support; our Commitment Schools initiative. We gave 14 grants [of up to $300,000 each] to the Commitment Schools to design a plan to help turn around achievement.
One of the schools with failing grades was Bradley Tech, where the business community has donated a lot of money. What are your plans for that school?
We have a new principal on special assignment. There’s a Bradley Tech Commission. We’re working closely with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to help us figure out what pieces aren’t working. We’re also looking at how we can do a better job of recruiting students into the technical trades at a younger age.
More than four out of five MPS students are economically disadvantaged, and more than one out of five has some disability.
We have a number of partnerships around the community: the Running Rebels and our Violence Free Zone; and with our police department, a special curriculum called S.T.O.P. [Students Talking it Over with Police] that allows us to focus on building positive relationships with our students. We have Learning Journeys, exposing our students to all that Milwaukee has to offer: going to the farm [Oak Ridge Farm in Waukesha County], the science museum, Discovery World. We have a partnership with the Council of Small Business Executives where 25 schools are sending seventh graders to look at different businesses. Education is a great equalizer, and with it, you can do anything.
MPS competes with independent charter and voucher schools. What relationship should MPS have with these schools?
We all want our city to be prosperous. We want our students to be successful. That’s the common ground that we have. We have examples of cross-collaborations that have had positive impacts on our students.
In the independent charter schools, students face similar socioeconomic challenges, yet their four-year high school graduation rates are higher than their MPS counterparts.
Our six-year graduation rate now is at 73 percent. Now our challenge is: How do we improve the five-year rate? How do we improve the four-year rate? We’ve been having a number of conversations about how we rethink high schools. We know we have a traditional model that doesn’t work for all students.
The district has been accused of dragging its feet on selling unused or underused schools to avoid giving buildings to competitors.
For us, it’s not about keeping others out, but about looking at what’s working here and how we can expand upon that. We have a portfolio of schools, and trying to have equal offerings in every region has been a priority of mine – the Montessori program, languages, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math].
The average tenure of an urban superintendent is four years. The longest at MPS in recent memory is eight. How long do you expect to stay?
As long as the district will have me. I can’t see myself anywhere else in the near future. Possibilities are just limitless here.
Condensed and edited from a longer interview.