Only 13 years ago, Darienne Driver was teaching school in Detroit and waiting tables on the side. She’ll return in July as the new president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan — still focused on children, she said, and still eager to serve.

Driver, the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, will leave that job in early July to take over a $73 million agency that blends emphases on education, health and well being, and financial stability.

“In my work, I’m realizing that change can’t happen only in the classroom,” she said. “You really have to consider other factors.”

Driver, 39, will replace interim CEO Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp, United Way’s COO, who in turn replaced physician Herman Gray in December when he left to become the pediatrics chair at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.

She was one of more than 200 candidates, said United Way board Chairman Mark Petroff, eight or 10 of whom were interviewed by a search committee.

“Her long commitment to working with children was the primary driver for us,” he said. “You just look at her background and her resume, and you see her entire life has been directed toward caring for and educating children.”

Driver taught fourth and fifth grade at the since-closed Greenfield Park Elementary from 2001-05 while working part-time at Champps in West Bloomfield.

“I learned a lot about teamwork there,” she said. “About working under pressure, and smiling no matter how people treat you.”

With the sports-themed restaurant packed during the Detroit Pistons’ championship run in 2004, “I saw the energy that can happen when the city is winning. That’s some of the same character I’ve tried to bring into the workplace here.”

Driver grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and earned a degree in child development at Spelman College. She taught in Detroit after earning a master’s in curriculum development from Michigan, then went on to earn a master’s in education and a doctorate in urban superintendency from Harvard.

Before becoming superintendent in Milwaukee in 2014, she was the district’s chief innovation officer. She held previous executive positions at school districts in Philadelphia and in Clayton County, Georgia.

Teaching remains “the most rewarding job I’ve had,” she said. “This is a shift, moving away from education. But it’s not too far.”

In Milwaukee, Driver has been a volunteer board member of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. Petroff would not disclose her salary with the agency in southeast Michigan, but said it aligns with those of leaders of other large nonprofits in the area.

For fiscal 2016, the last year for which United Way has filed public tax forms, Gray and the chief executive he replaced combined to earn $548,000. Driver’s salary in Milwaukee is $255,000.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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