Darienne Driver, Ed.M.'06, Ed.D.'14, is as creative and energetic as they come. Now, entering her fourth year as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, she has already crossed from her list of goals significant reforms: Earlier start to the school year. Check. School uniforms. Check. Partnerships with community organizations. Check. Higher graduation rate. Check. Increase in attendance. Check.
After speaking with Driver for a few minutes, it becomes clear that she shows no signs of slowing down. She speaks quickly, praising Milwaukee schools and its people. Driver is the first woman superintendent in the district, a role she could have only dreamed of in the first grade when she decided to become an educator.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” says Driver, who comes from a family of female educators. “I believe education is transformational and a great equalizer. We need to do everything we can to benefit from education because that’s how you preserve the future with those coming behind us.”
Though she began her career as an elementary school teacher, working in Atlanta and Detroit, Driver aspired to lead one day. Wanting to know more about systems brought her to HGSE to study in the former Urban Superintendents Program (USP), the cohort model of which taught her the importance of teamwork. “If you don’t have people willing to work across offices, different groups, different agendas then you are stuck before you start,” she says.
Equity is a big motivator for Driver, whose key leadership initiative — the Eight Big Ideas — grew out of many of those earlier conversations at HGSE. Additionally, many significant conversations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina forced an awakening about equity. “That’s when we really unpacked what opportunity for all students really means,” she says.
The Eight Big Ideas is a strategic plan aimed at specific objectives that are aligned, prioritized, and funded throughout the schools. Equity is at the plan’s heart, which is important considering the city’s demographics. Milwaukee public schools serve over 77,000 students — 87 percent are students of color, 80 percent live in poverty, 20 percent receive specialized education, and 10 percent are English language learners. The demographics and opportunity gaps have forced Driver to think outside of the box about how to use resources, people, and time.
“Milwaukee has the worst demographics in terms of segregation, which leads to a lot of problems in the city. That bothers me because the effects are so pervasive,” she says. “We’ve got to make sure school is a positive experience that our students have the energy to go on.”
With the graduation rate hovering at 58 percent, Driver is pragmatic. “It’s a call to action. No one wants this stat to stay where it is. So, we must be willing to do things differently to make sure every child that walks through our doors is successful,” she says.
One way to do things differently: start the school year earlier in August and end it earlier in May. This simple shift, creates a block of time in June for students on the verge of not finishing a grade level to continue learning and — hopefully — pass. This is especially important to those who need a little extra time to graduate. After its first summer, in which the J-Term was piloted in three schools, 100 students were helped toward graduation. Next summer J-Term is planned for all of Milwaukee’s 24 high schools.
Driver wants to ensure that her students are afforded all the opportunities that are available in other more affluent districts. As a result of the Year of the Arts program in partnership with Cre8MKE, a citywide collaborative of community partners and institutions, schools will offer opportunities for dance, visual arts, and theater. “I want that for my kids,” she says. “It shouldn’t be something just for suburban districts.”
Professor Bob Peterkin, former director of USP, says that the tenacity Driver demonstrated as a student now benefits Milwaukee, where he knows her deep commitment to the promise of public education will see the work through.
Driver credits her participation in Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Project and as chair of the Council of the Great City Schools as keeping her focused and moving forward. And, she has no intentions of leaving Milwaukee any time soon.
“We are just getting started,” she says. “This is not an overnight success story. There are a lot of areas we are trying to make improvements. This is the beginning of an era.”