Tulsa native Dr. Deborah Gist will soon wield the Tulsa Public Schools district’s half-a-billion-dollar annual budget and lead more than 7,000 staff members that serve 41,000 students.
Previous to her recent stint as Rhode Island’s education commissioner, Gist’s professional highlights included serving as state education officer for the District of Columbia before becoming D.C.’s first state superintendent. Post-graduate work sent her up and down the east coast; she earned a graduate degree from the University of South Florida, another master’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.
As for her undergraduate work, “I never considered anything other than the University of Oklahoma – it is a family tradition,” says Gist. “I always had my ears perked for news about Tulsa. Unless you’re outside Tulsa, you might not realize, for example, how the high quality of our pre-[kindergarten program] is noted elsewhere. When I attended a recent event at the White House, practically every speaker mentioned Tulsa’s successes in early childhood programs. Educators nationwide point to the TPS’s work on teacher-leader effectiveness and innovative professional development that started in Tulsa and then expanded statewide.”
Gist’s early adulthood as a teacher instilled in her the hard work that is undertaken by the nation’s educators.
“To be truly great at educating, you pour your heart and soul into it, and I will always deeply understand that. Then, as a state superintendent, I’ve seen a variety of leadership styles. All of this shaped my beliefs about managing a district the size of Tulsa Public Schools.”
A good foundation in Tulsa has been laid, and it is time to take it to the next level, she says.
“Our biggest challenge will be to increase the district’s graduation rate,” says Gist. “We also will tackle early literacy by making sure our kids read well by the third grade because we know how important that is for future success. There are ways to do that, and we will work directly with the community on the specifics of exactly how to accomplish these goals because I intend to see TPS become the most desirable, prestigious place to teach anywhere in the region and for families to be thrilled with their TPS experience. This way, we will have future leaders choosing to stay and live in Tulsa because of an amazing public school system.”
The “specifics” Gist referenced include working with the school board on a new, five-year strategic plan as the current plan concludes in 2015.
Growing up, Gist attended TPS elementary schools and graduated from Tulsa Memorial High School. Family traditions include attending Harvard Avenue Christian Church and recreation at Turkey Mountain, LaFortune Park and Riverside Drive.
“I’d come back to visit over the years, and there are some places the family always just has to go eat,” she says. “There is the tried-and-true like Coney Islander, Goldie’s and Brownie’s. Since I’ve moved back, we’ve discovered El Guapo’s Cantina, In The Raw, Tall Grass Prairie and Sweet Lisa’s.”
Gist hopes her move back to Tulsa will be permanent.
“I hope to stay here for good – this is my dream job, and Tulsa is my home,” she says.