With a mandate, Driver must now row harder than ever

In what appears to be a pretty unprecedented move Tuesday night, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors called off the search for a permanent replacement for former superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton and named interim supe Dr. Darienne Driver to the post, beginning today.

Hey, Dr. Driver, no pressure.

But, Driver now has what can clearly be called a mandate. In fact, after she’d served just a few months as boss, the school board was downright giddy as Director Meagan Holman made the motion to offer the position to Driver Tuesday night and as at least two fellow board members jumped to second.

Some board members were so eager to have Driver ink the deal then and there that they had to be reminded they were still on the air at 88.9 FM. It was an encouraging moment of enthusiasm in a city where most conversations about schools are often heated and heavy.

The first woman to hold the post of permanent MPS superintendent (there have been assistants and interims dating back to 1919) Driver knows the district. Before being tabbed as temporary top dog in June, she worked as the district’s chief innovation officer and was instrumental in rolling out the district’s MPS-GEF Demonstration Schools, funded by a grant from the industrial giant.

She also led the district’s implementation of Common Core standards. Driver’s background includes teaching in Detroit Public Schools and was deputy chief of Philadelphia’s Empowerment Schools.

So, she knows what she needs to do — did I mention she recently earned her doctorate in Harvard’s Urban Superintendency program? — and I suspect she at least has a sense of how to do it. And it sure sounds like that, at least for now, she has the board on her side.

With enrollment appearing basically stagnant this year — very slightly down, though no official numbers have yet been released — after a slight tick upward last year, reversing a decades-long trend of falling enrollment, Driver must repeat Thornton’s mantra of growing market share.

And surely she gets that one way to not only draw more enrollment into the district, but to improve outcomes for existing students, is through specialty programs, be it language immersion, be it International Baccalaureate, be it Montessori, be it GE schools, be it bolstered resources for so-called commitment schools, be it district charters that have the leeway to experiment, and then — as was the goal of the earliest charter advocates — share best practices with other schools.

Instead of selling empty buildings, MPS must fill them.

With the support of the board, Driver can and should be bold.

But that alone will not be enough. She needs to change the narrative. Again, school talk in Milwaukee is toxic. Some vocal segments of the population have so lost faith in public schooling here that any district announcement of success is met with scorn, disbelief and partisan rage.

Without selling public schools down the river, Dr. Driver must guide the city to a place where every child is offered a great education. And because she leads what is by far the largest of what folks call the three streams — public, charter and choice schools — she is best positioned to do it. With 80,000 kids under her daily care, it is also her duty.

But the streams flow uphill in many ways, with poverty, violence, segregation, partisanship and perception throwing up dams like so many bands of eager beavers. That means that Driver will have to paddle for dear life to make progress.

Luckily for her, there are many in Milwaukee who still believe in public schools and are willing to row alongside her.

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