Many organizations are trying to fix Milwaukee’s beleaguered educational system. It’s one magnetic woman’s job to get them all talking and working together.

When it comes to making Milwaukee’s children the best they can be, hundreds of organizations are bringing their ideas and energy to the table to improve education in a city plagued with significant challenges in cultivating, nurturing and instructing its young.

In the middle of all of those good intentions – and collisions of missions, approaches, histories and egos – is Danae Davis

As executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds, Davis’ task is to coordinate and unify the many organizations around the city that have efforts in place to improve education. It’s a role that calls for the diplomatic skills of a secretary of state and the wisdom of Solomon. That’s not the recipe, it would seem, for having all those folks think of you, smile and wax affectionate. But they do. That’s the Danae effect.

She enters a room in a riot of color and flowing fabric, wearing raucous, Titian curls. She has warm, benevolent eyes, a ready grin and the dignified posture of a mother superior. It appears she will brook no nonsense. She is clearly in control and riveted on the task at hand.

Her days are booked with nonstop commitments, end to end, yet she somehow arrives at each of them looking fresh and acting focused. A typical Danae day might begin with a tour of a community organization, move to a meeting with educators at a school, shift to a series of board meetings with CEOs and end with her singing charity karaoke for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s educational challenges have attracted good ideas and hard work from myriad programs, but each addresses a separate piece of the puzzle. Milwaukee Succeeds acts as a clearinghouse for these patchwork efforts, minimizing duplication and enhancing collaboration with a goal of improving kindergarten, school, college and career readiness for Milwaukee children. Many Milwaukee organizations and leaders already are passionate about addressing the city’s education problems; Davis’ task is to get them around the same table, trying new approaches and letting go of things that haven’t worked well.

Here’s what she’s trying to do: dramatically improve outcomes for every child in every Milwaukee school, cradle to career. Regardless of race, regardless of school, regardless of neighborhood, every child, every outcome gets better.

Here’s how she’s trying to do it: by basing decision-making on data and proven results about what has the greatest effect, continuously improving methods and approaches, and using a technique called collective impact. “We are stronger working together and working while being aware of what each other is doing,” Davis says.

Here’s what’s tough about that: Milwaukee Public Schools face well-documented and significant challenges. In 2016, Wisconsin Public Radio reported that the district continues to be heavily segregated, with most schools of any type having a student body made up of just one race, African American, Hispanic or Hmong. Census data reveal that in 2016, 38.2 percent of Milwaukee’s children were living in poverty; by comparison, Waukesha’s figure was 16.2 percent, Minneapolis was 27.3 percent and Detroit was 50.8 percent. Enrollment is declining as MPS hemorrhages students to charter and private schools, sliding from 95,762 in 2000 to a forecast of 65,881 for this fall. The students who remain are underperforming in devastating numbers: in 2016-17, 84.5 percent of MPS students were below basic levels on state tests in math, and 79.7 percent were below basic in language arts. And budget forecasts predict deficits and service cuts, hobbling efforts to address these problems.

The task is enormous and the cause pressing, but Davis is armed with particular skills that make her the right woman for the job at this moment. Diplomacy. The ability to act as a catalyst. And this: She is an acute, ferocious, absorbed listener. Being so well-attended makes a person listen back, and Davis has clear messages to send: We need to fix this, and now. Bathed in the light of that concentrated attention, strangers begin to see Davis as a friend and soon are swept up in her intensity.

“She not only listens, she discerns what the issues are, where people are coming from,” says friend Howard Fuller, past superintendent of MPS. “And then she finds the point we can come together.”

The bottom line: People just like working with Davis.

“When people trust each other, they do better,” she says. “People trust me.”

Read the full article at Milwaukee Magazine

Photo Credit: John Sturdy

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