Dr. Darienne Driver was appointed to lead Wisconsin’s largest school district in 2014, when at age 36, she became Milwaukee’s youngest school superintendent and the only woman to hold the position permanently. Dr. Driver received an Ed.D. in urban superintendency from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and serves on several boards, including the City Year Milwaukee board.
Under Dr. Driver’s leadership, Milwaukee Public Schools has joined the newly launched City Year’s District Learning Network, a national learning community where school system leaders share best practices and develop plans to accelerate school improvement.
In May 2018, Dr. Driver returned to Detroit, where she once taught, to become the new president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. City Year is grateful to Dr. Driver for her leadership and collaboration in Milwaukee Public Schools and we look forward to continuing to work together to support students in Detroit.
Q: What aspects of City Year’s work in schools stands out as being most important for you?
What I love most about City Year is that it’s an organization that is truly fueled and powered by young people.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact that City Year can have on students, schools and communities. My team and I meet with City Year AmeriCorps members a few times a year—we want to keep the lines of communication open. What I find is that the young adults who chose to serve with City Year have a real commitment to our students and our schools. Some of them decide to enter teaching after their service year, which is really exciting.
The AmeriCorps members who are coming to Milwaukee understand the challenges that exist here. They are willing to take them head on. They are not shying away from them. Instead, they bring a spirit of uplift and resilience and an unwillingness to settle for the status quo.
Q: Do you have a “favorite” City Year moment?
A: Two years ago, I was scheduled to co-host City Year’s annual evening gala in Milwaukee – usually an event I look forward to. On this day, however, I was running late because I had attended a student’s funeral that afternoon. This student was just an innocent bystander, and she was killed right outside of her house. I was having a hard time and I thought about calling City Year to say I just couldn’t make it.
In the end, I drove to the event, though I couldn’t make myself get out of the car for quite some time. Finally, I got it together and forced myself to walk into the building where the gala was being held. At the entrance were City Year AmeriCorps members, singing and clapping and welcoming everyone – a power greeting just like they do every morning in our schools. No matter how badly I was feeling, their singing made me feel like I had enough energy to be there. I saw that there was a group of people who were supporting me, and it really helped.
Then I realized—this is what City Year feels like for so many of our kids.
On your darkest days, just to have people there who are waiting for you, to greet you, to love you, to inspire you, to encourage you, is really powerful. In our roles as teachers, mentors and role models, we can experience trauma, too. In Milwaukee and Detroit and many other U.S. cities, there are students who live with loss and violence and heartache every day.
That is why City Year is so necessary. City Year AmeriCorps members bring joy. And you can’t underestimate the power of joy, especially in our neighborhoods that are most in need of optimism, resilience and social justice.
Q: Would you encourage young adults in Milwaukee and around the country to consider serving with us?
A: I would love to see even more young people between the ages of 18 to 25 choose to serve with City Year. Our students need to have near-peer mentors they can confide in and work with. They need to see young adults who have had similar experiences and who are from the same city and who are successful. They need to see what is possible for them. That’s who City Year AmeriCorps members are for our students.
My vision and my dream for our students is truly that they have the skills and tools necessary to navigate life, including the self-efficacy necessary to overcome any burdens that are brought their way and the courage to accomplish anything that they want.
Above all, we want our students to know that they can. There are too many painful reminders in our cities that tell students, again and again, that they can’t or won’t or that they will never be. We have to make sure that as an educational system, we are removing any barriers, any roadblocks that could possibly get in the way of our students being successful. City Year is such an important partner for us in Milwaukee and for cities across the country to really deliver the best outcomes for kids.
These excerpts from a recent conversation with Dr. Driver that have been edited for clarity and length.