Photos by Sara Stathas
Time. It’s the one enemy that Darienne Driver, the popular superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools system, battles every day.
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, there 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 acknowledgement 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 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.
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 School 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. 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 high-performing 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.” ◆
We hardly knew ye
Tenures of MPS chiefs have been short more often than long in the past 40 years.
Hawthorne Faison (acting)
Barbara Horton (acting)
Source: state Department of Public Instruction report card for Milwaukee Public Schools, 2015-2016.
Students with disabilities
Limited English proficiency
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Sept. 28 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.