Milwaukee Talks: MPS superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver

Yesterday, on the morning she officially began work as permanent MPS superintendent — becoming the first woman to hold that office — we sat down with Dr. Darienne Driver to chat.

Driver — at 36 surely one of the younger urban superintendents in the country — was named acting superintendent in June after having served as the district’s chief innovation officer since 2012. She arrived from Philadelphia, where she worked as deputy chief of the turnaround schools in the district, and before that she was a classroom teacher in Detroit Public Schools. 

This summer, Driver earned her doctorate in Harvard’s Urban Superintendency program. She takes the reigns from Dr. Gregory Thornton, who departed on June 30 to assume the role of CEO of Baltimore City Schools.

Enjoy this latest installment of Milwaukee Talks. Now that your position has changed, is that going to change your approach?

DD: No.

OMC: Have you been working as if you’re …

DD: Already in the job?

OMC: Already in the job.

DD: Sure, absolutely. Since day one. This is a full-time job. It’s really 24/7. Our kids can’t really afford to wait and we have to have urgency and it takes a team effort — a very committed effort — to improving outcomes for kids in our district. I’m working as hard as I did on day one. I think the only thing now is that pressure of, you know, what’s going to happen? It’s not about me anymore. We can really focus on what we’re doing for kids.

OMC: Right. And this is sort of unprecedented to have an interim become permanent.

DD: It is.

OMC: Is it good in the sense that you can hit the ground running?

DD: It is. I think, having been working in the district for two years and then even this summer, we focused a lot around systems. So, creating a school opening dashboard, we have a system for delivering professional development that we didn’t have before. We have a new student information system. We have a new website. Just a number of systems that help us preserve institutional history and that help us have a stronger infrastructure to support schools.

I think it’s a very seamless transition. Obviously, there were some things that we need to change and address, but at least, you know, the newness, having to, you know, onboard someone for those first six months, and things like that, is over with and we can really focus on the work.

OMC: Quick aside about the new systems: Have most of those hiccups that occurred that first week of school been corrected? Like with the buses and marking kids absent that were being phased in.

DD: It has. In a new system, you’re always going to have issues, but, we had a SWAT team, literally, just kind of come together, to help our schools. We actually had a few assistant principals that were working outside of assignment to help us, so it was really all-hands-on-deck to correct those issues.

I mentioned the dashboard that we had. We also had meetings every day, after school, just going through school by school, to see what the challenges were, so that we could fix them quickly, so, now, a month in, we’re smooth sailing. Things are much better. (Laughs)

OMC: Talk a little bit, if you would, about the work that you inherited from Dr. Thorton. Are you compelled to follow that path that he set out on or do you feel that you can … especially now that you have this mandate from the board… They were clearly thrilled to do this. I listened on the radio (to the board meeting) and you can hear that … It sounded like you guys were having a party in here.

DD: Just a little bit. We had to bring it back together. (Laughs)

OMC: Before, did you feel constrained a little to stick to what he started and do you still feel that, now that you have this, what I’ll call a mandate?

DD: Well, I think that I have been given the opportunity to lead in the way that I see best. Even from day one. The good news is that Dr. Thornton really laid the groundwork, in terms of community relationships and business relationships. So, being able to get our message out to the community is really a priority for me. I think it’s always a challenge. You can never communicate enough and you can never articulate your initiatives enough and so, that gave me a really good place to start.

OMC: Have you had meetings already?

DD: Yeah, meetings with a number of different foundations, organizations, but it is mainly the heads of those organizations. That’s how you start, but in November, we’re really excited about starting to have mass meetings with different people from the community to start getting the word out about what we’re trying to do, and also about articulating what our needs are. So, that really put me in a good place.

I come from a strong instructional background. My first love was always teaching, and so, I have a focus on teaching and learning and instruction in our schools. So, being here for two years and having the opportunity to work with the GE schools, and working with a number of different initiatives through the school improvement grant, really gave me my own entrance into this position and there’s an expectation that there will be a focus on teaching and learning. So, again, I feel I’ve really been given the opportunity to just be myself, but also for my team to come together.

It’s evident that I’m here because of my team. You know, this isn’t a one-woman show, by any means, so I think that we’re well-positioned, but we have a lot of work to do. I think one piece, with our initiatives, the three to five years that you need to really see things implemented is always tough because we’re in this constant pressure to make sure that we deliver right away.

OMC: Well, and three to five years is the zone of an average superintendent’s tenure, too, so, do you feel that pressure?

DD: No. You know, I think this community welcomes superintendents stay for a long period of time. And so, for me, the clock is ticking for my kids, not for myself. We only have them for a short period of time during the day, for a limited amount of years. Trying to make sure that when they leave us, they’re ready for college. They’re ready for their careers. That’s the pressure that I feel. But, for me, myself, no. We just have to get the work done.

OMC: Well, congratulations, too, because I have not heard anybody ask, yet, if you’re looking for another job.

DD: Not at all!

OMC: It seemed like when Dr. Thornton got here people were immediately wondering when he would be gone, which was an interesting pressure on him.

DD: Mmm hmm. Yeah, I’m not going anywhere. I really want to see this district succeed. I believe in our kids. I believe in our leaders and our teachers and I think we just have to organize ourselves in a way where we can start to get the results we need.

OMC: This is my last question with the name Dr. Thornton in it, but, I talk to a lot of principals, a lot of teachers, a lot of people in the district and there was a sense that he was not as much of a people person within the school buildings as he was with the press and with community groups. But everybody seems to love you. They all think you’re very responsive and you listen and you’re respectful. Does that come from your teaching background?

DD: I think it’s a combination of all of my experiences. I grew up in the South, where just typically, it’s a lot more hospitable. I was always raised to be respectful. You want people to treat you the way that … you know, the golden rule: to treat others as you would have them treat you. I think, also, just my love for this work. The passion that I have for this work. I remember how hard it was to teach. I taught on the east side of Detroit. You never forget those experiences.

I think even working in Philadelphia, we had 100, over 100 turnaround schools that we were working with and that constant pressure, but the beauty that came when we stuck together, when we treated each other well, you never forget that. So, it’s really who I am but it’s also that combination of different experiences that were shaped by all the people we come across throughout life.

OMC: What does enrollment look like a couple weeks after third Friday?

DD: Right now, we’re looking really good. We’re about 83 students over.

OMC: Over projection?

DD: Over our projection.

OMC: Was projection to be up or down from last year?

DD: Slightly down from last year; within the hundreds. I don’t think it was 1,000 less, but what’s interesting is third Friday is one day, but we have to actually look at the two weeks before and the two weeks after. It gives us the real count, so Oct. 3 is when we’ll really know.

OMC: There are those kids who, they may still show up in the two weeks after, then they get counted.

DD: Mmm hmm. That’s why it’s a little tricky because we all think it’s just one day but it’s really not. It’s a window of two weeks before that and two weeks after. So, on Friday, we will have an actual number.

OMC: Last year there was growth for the first time in a long time. How important is that focus on market share? Is that something you’re heavily focused on?

DD: Well, we have to be. At the end of the day this is a system and we have to have our students there if we want to continue to function. I think what’s also just as important, as soon as the students come, is to make sure that we’re delivering the services and quality instruction that’s going to keep them there. And then how do we engage the families in what we’re trying to do; to help us? I think that learning has to be 24/7. I think that the better we’re able to accomplish that, the issues that we have around market share or enrollment … they take care of themselves when you have high-quality programs.

OMC: Is that the solution to enrollment discussion: high quality programs?

DD: To an extent. I mean, I think the other piece is really working with our communities and engaging our students and their families just around the importance of coming to school and delivering on that promise of public education. I always went to public schools, so I really feel strongly in what is possible if we invest in our schools.

So, I think that has to be a part of the conversation, just as much as we’re talking about the numbers of our market share, and things of that nature. I believe that instruction alone doesn’t solve it. We have to have a number of activities and programs for our students that better engage them. So, that’s everything from the increase in art and music and phy-ed programs.

I was in the band when I was in high school — actually, I was in the color guard. We were more of a drum and bugle core model, so I spun flags, rifles, sabres, all those good things, and I did play the clarinet in the winter time, in the band. So, I know what it did for me and I just, you know, again, I think having those activities just makes you want to go to school every day. I think it’s really the key to a high quality education.

OMC: Is there a big need in Milwaukee to change the discussion for you to somehow get the community away from this knee-jerk, not just even dismissal of public schools, but anger and, sort of, rage towards public schools? You only have to read online comments to know what I’m talking about. How do you change what people think about the district?

DD: Obviously, we want to change the conversation. I think a big piece of that is around more deliberate communication and just sharing the good news. There are so many things that go on in our schools and we may know on a small scale, if you go to the school’s website, or if you live in the community, but I think that really bombarding people with the good things that are happening here. But also, being honest about where we are and then calling people to come and help us do this work.

There are a number of foundations, partners, organizations that have expressed interest in wanting to help and that’s been one of the most pleasant surprises for me, just in the interim.

And the fact that there are a lot of people who want to see change in our city and our schools are at the heart of that. They’re at the beginning of that and so I think the conversation has to change.

Do we need to be given a chance? Sure. But we also have to deliver and I think just more deliberate action and getting out into communities, having these tough conversations, and, you know, as we take the criticism, we’re also making sure people understand what it takes to really get things to change.

I see it as mission critical to the survival to the city, you know. What we’re talking about is really a systems thinking approach. If you think of schools as learning communities and how that affects everything around the school. So, I think the more that people come to understand that and the more that, again, we deliver, we communicate, we partner. I think that’s how you change the conversation. Because you can’t just change how someone thinks overnight, but you can always show someone better than you can tell them.

OMC: I want to hear about Malcolm X and your response to people about how we as a city use our public buildings to further build MPS?

DD: It’s about providing quality options for students so we want a high performing school in that neighborhood (Malcolm X). We have a number of different examples where we have expanded. Like Golda Meir expanded. We had Carmen Northwest that expanded to the North Side, and so, for me, it’s really about what is the need in the community that we’re serving and how can we bring a high-quality program there?

I know it’s never that simple, but that’s really the approach that I take. I see it as a fresh start, to revitalize a community, on top of the school, the programming that we plan on putting in place there, there’s also an amphitheater that comes with that. We’ve had a number of conversations about classrooms of the future; how they could possibly look. So, this gives us an opportunity to bring some of that to the Milwaukee community.

OMC: When you look at the empty buildings in the district, do you see them as places to reopen and fill with kids or places to just get off the ledgers?

DD: Every building is different, so there’s everything from properties that have been already identified as surplus properties that we see as no need for. There are some that can be reopened as schools.

There are a number of opportunities, like Dover was, as you know, turned into a housing unit. There were a few other schools that Community First has expressed interest in. So, there are multiple uses for these buildings. It’s not just, “open it and put kids in.” Each building is different. The purposes they served, a long time ago, were different, in some instances.

It really is about being very specific about the building, the community it’s in, and then what are the needs of that community and how can we best service it.

OMC: What’s your take on the community school idea at Lee? Is that something you think will go forward?

DD: Well, I think community schools, in general, is a concept that helps us just rethink the purpose of schools and what schools can contribute to the communities and the neighborhoods that they’re in. If you look at Oakland, you look at Cincinnati, I think it’s a model that has a lot of merit.

There are a number of foundations now that are actually adopting neighborhoods around the city and it’s buying into that concept that schools really are the cornerstones of the community. But it’s going to take all the different resources and partners in those communities to really make it successful.

I think the idea in and of itself has a lot of merit. What we’re trying to do now and I know that Lee is a school that you asked about specifically, but we already have six neighborhoods that our funders have identified, that we’re working with certain schools, to try to help bring more resources, and improve the quality of instruction and really the quality of life, for the students and their families.

I think the concept is something that’s important. I think it also helps change that conversation. When you see people from different sectors, different walks of life, coming together and wrapping their arms around the schools and the kids, that’s how you start to change the conversation about education in Milwaukee.

OMC: Well, and in a sense, we’ve been asking schools to do all these things, but without the outside organizations.

DD: Mmm hmm. And I think, too, this gives us a better way to coordinate it. Because when so many people say, “we need help,” or, “we’re here to help you,” and trying to figure out how that all fits. Because it sounds so simple, but really, it isn’t, in a system this large.
But again, this gives us structure and framework for how you can go about doing that and then how you coordinate those resources at the school level. So, multiple opportunities.
This is a really exciting time, I think, for education, especially for Milwaukee. So, there are great things to come!

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