By Colton Dunham Staff Writer Published Apr 15, 2015 at 4:16 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

According to MPS superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver, there's a lot of work that needs to be done in education in Milwaukee, but it willl take a collective effort to ensure a brighter future. 

"Public education is an investment, not an expense," MPS superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver said at Wednesday's YP Week "State of Education" event at the U.S. Bank Building, 777 E. Wisconsin Ave. 

For nearly an hour, Dr. Driver spoke to a crowd of early birds about some of the work that's been happening, as well as some of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

"Despite what you hear, there are a lot of people who really do care about what’s happening in the public schools, who are connected to the public schools," Driver said. "They either work there, they attended the public schools, they’re volunteering there now or they’re putting their heads together to try figure out how we can create positive change for our schools.

"Keep that in your mind because, again, a lot of times all you hear is the negatives, but there really are so many tremendous positives." 

Since she became superintendent – initially on an interim basis – last July, Driver has faced critical questions like, "What is our outlook for the next five years? Where do we start now? And what do we need to do?

"We looked at our big three goals: Academic Achievement; Student Family and Community Engagement; and Effective Efficient operations and said, 'What if we create some objectives?' Let’s start doing some research to find out what works and how we can start to make improvements in our schools," Driver said. 

In her talk, Driver laid out three major goals and provided bullet points detailing how MPS plans to improve student achievement in Milwaukee:

1. Academic Achievement 

  • Closing The Gap

"If you heard anything about education in Wisconsin, sadly, this has been labeled as the worst state to educate African-American children," Driver said. "That's very hard news to take when you're an African-American superintendent. We're going to change that. I think there are a number of people stepping up to this challenge. It's everything from having difficult conversations around race and class, but not just acknowledging the problem, but figuring out ways to create solutions." 

  • Educating The Whole Child

"It's one thing to say we have 84 percent of our children living in poverty, but really understanding what that is and what comes with that: what it means to be homeless, what it means to be in foster care, what it means to live in an area that has crime, what it means to not live with both of your parents," Driver said. "We need training for that. We need tools for that.

"It's something that doesn't always come up naturally on how we can support children and not pity them, but having empathy and still setting those expectations so they can be successful." 

Driver said that MPS works with a number of organizations such as the Children's Hospital, United Way, COA and a number of different community groups to educate the whole child – mind, body and spirit. 

  • Redefining The MPS Experience

"This is where we talk about expansion of the arts, expansion of athletics, expansion of student clubs and really making sure that students have a well-rounded educational experience," Driver said. "This is also where we're starting our first back-up organization around the arts. It's a community group. It has to be about 40 different organizations who are coming together – visual arts, music, theater, drama – to help us figure how we expand the offerings that we have."

  • Rethinking High Schools 

"If you look at our list of failing schools, many of them are high schools," Driver said. "We're also seeing a phenomenon where some of our historically higher performing high schools are now starting to slide back. Now we know the model we have in place is not working for all of our young people so we have to think differently about the infrastructure that we have to support the essential services.

"How do we make sure we understand programming that we understand what it means to be college or career ready making sure our young people have those up skills in the high school experience, the apprenticeships, the internships and still have the academic skills that they need to be successful." 

Driver said another important factor is the student voice in high schools. She said she recognizes it is key to engage students in learning and help them take ownership of their education.

2. Student, Family and Community Engagement

  • Re-envisioning Partnerships

"This is a big one for us," Driver said. "The root of this is reconstituting the MPS Foundation. We have a foundation and many people do not know that. Most of the funds have been raised by our employees, which is really exciting because people are giving back directly to our organization. We want to make sure that this is something that's known.

"This is a really big way for us to engage our alumni. We want our alumni to come back not just for homecoming or for the cookout in the summer, but really building those relationships with our young people to help them realize that you can be successful in this city." 

  • Communication & Outreach

"We're doing a great deal internally and externally around communication," Driver said. "There are apps now. There are things you can access online. You can't communicate enough. So this is something, again, through our listening sessions, we're trying to figure out how we do this better. There are good things happening here. There are challenges, but there are good things. How do we get that out? How do we let people know how to get involved?"

3. Effective and Efficient Operations

  • Workforce Development

"We want to make sure we have a viable workforce in Milwaukee," Driver said. "We have to figure out how we're going to recruit and retain high quality staff to our city, to work in our schools and to stay in our schools."

  • Organizational Processes

"This is a big one for us as well because a lot of times, especially in education, there are so many different changes that are happening," Driver said. "People feel like, 'Oh, they're just throwing things on the wall and seeing what sticks. This is way for us to get systems in place on how we make decisions, not just operationally but also in terms of our academic programming."

Despite perceptions to the contrary, MPS' finances are in order, the superintendent said.

"You'll hear a lot of people say, 'Oh, the district's finances. They're a mess.' No they're not. We're a financially solvent district. It came through many sacrifices and hard decisions that were made by my predecessor (Gregory Thornton) and my predecessor's predecessor (William Andrekopoulous). We are constantly trying to find ways to save dollars and to get those dollars back into the classroom where they're needed most."  

To meet these goals, Driver said it is the power of the collective that will make a difference.

"There are so many organizations who are working together every single day to help our schools and that's something that we have to continue," Driver said. "When you talk about things that are making it better for our young people, it takes a village. It takes numerous people walking arms together, putting resources together, and strategic thinking together to help make this possible."

Colton Dunham Staff Writer

Colton Dunham's passion for movies began back as far as he can remember. Before he reached double digits in age, he stayed up on Saturday nights and watched numerous classic horror movies with his grandfather. Eventually, he branched out to other genres and the passion grew to what it is today.

Only this time, he's writing about his response to each movie he sees, whether it's a review for a website, or a short, 140-character review on Twitter. When he's not inside of a movie theater, at home binge watching a television show, or bragging that he's a published author, he's pursuing to keep movies a huge part of his life, whether it's as a journalist/critic or, ahem, a screenwriter.