Amid Continuing Concerns, MPS Chief Highlights Progress in School Initiatives

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Category: Education & Law, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public, Speakers at Marquette
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“I’m very impatient and I want everything changed overnight. But it doesn’t happen that way.”

How does it happen? I Supt takes time. It takes the involvement of pretty much everyone in the community. It takes a willingness to make changes, but then stick with them so that they can take root and grow.

Those were among the broad and important lessons Darienne Driver, the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, offered at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Wednesday. Driver was enthusiastic about progress being made within MPS and about the prospects for success growing. But she was also realistic about MPS’s problems, and about how it will take time before the impact of current initiatives can be judged.

Walking a path with optimism on one side and worries on the other, and doing so with a combination of patience and impatience, offers challenges for Driver. In her third year as superintendent, Driver has become a central – perhaps the central – player on the location education scene, with people across the spectrum of education involvement speaking highly of her.

Gousha gave her a chance both to brag about what is going on in MPS and to fret about problems.

On the bragging side, Driver talked about a new system-wide policy calling for all schools to require students to wear uniforms (generally polo shirts and khakis), saying it will improve school culture and climate. She said a new push to change the school calendar so the regular academic year starts in late August and ends in May will provide “an opportunity to think very differently about how we use time,” including a new “J-term” in June with classes for accelerated students, as well as those who have failed classes. She said after school and weekend programming was increasing and more high schools were offering Advanced Placement and foreign language classes. Reading performance of kindergarten and first grade students is up from prior years, based on standardized tests (but not the ones used by Wisconsin for students in third grade and higher).

“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress” on initiatives, Driver said, and she feels there is a groundswell of support for MPS.

On the fretting side, there is the low graduation rate (less than 60% of students in the Class of 2015 graduated in four years) and chronic weak performance in reading (in all grades combined, about one in five MPS students are rated proficient in reading on state standardized tests). Among MPS’ student body of about 78,000, Driver said, about 3,500 students are homeless, which creates many problems. And a large number of students need social and emotional help.

Asked by Gousha about Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal, which would increase state aid across Wisconsin by $200 next year and an additional $204 the following year, Driver said, “It’s encouraging to have a budget that is focused around education.” Now, the issue will be holding on to the increases as the budget moves through the legislature, she said. Gousha asked, Are you worried about that? “Always,” Driver said.

Asked by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter in the audience whether it was correct that MPS was facing a gap of $30 million to $40 million between anticipated revenue for next year and what it would cost to continue this year’s level of services, Driver acknowledged that was looming. Multiple factors underlie that, such as changes in federal aid and pension costs, she said.

But her basic demeanor was positive. The overall health of MPS is good, she said, “and I’m really excited about the progress we’re making.”

There is still a long way to go, she said, which gets back to the pace of change. “You’re not going to go from 20 percent to 80 percent over night,” Driver said, referring to the data on reading performance. But, Driver, who is 38, said she expects to be involved in Milwaukee for a long time, especially if the community as a whole is involved. “I feel we’re just getting started,” she said.

To view video of the program, click here. 

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