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On May 12, Deborah A. Gist, the Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, added a new title to her name: doctor in educational leadership, from the University of Pennsylvania.
In additional to all her responsibilities overseeing the education of 150,000 students at almost 400 schools in more than 36 school districts, and championing education reform in the state of Rhode Island, Gist has been busy working at bettering her own educational attainment. It’s a reflection of her passion for educational achievement and leadership.
In addition to a dedication to education, she is also committed to the Ocean State and focused on improving its school systems.
When asked what she would do with her extra time after having earned her doctorate, Gist responded, with a laugh: “Spend more time at work. I want to stay in Rhode Island; I’m very committed to the work that we’ve begun,” she said. “I love Rhode Island; I love my team. I believe in what’s possible for our state to achieve.”
In her three years as commissioner, Gist has been an overachiever. She led the efforts to win $75 million in competitive federal grants for Rhode Island in Race to the Top, a grant made possible by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grant is a four-year award, spanning 2010-2014, and is based on states’ education-reform goals. An additional $50 million was awarded in the Early Learning Challenge as part of Race to the Top.
Gist also championed educator excellence, developing the new RI Model for Educator Evaluation, implementing statewide evaluations. In addition, she opened alternative pathways into the teaching profession in Rhode Island, and development requirements that use teacher qualifications and student need, rather than seniority, for hiring and placement. She also established a mentoring program for all first-year teachers.
When asked if she saw herself as a role model and mentor for other women in leadership roles, Gist demurred a bit in answering. “I don’t know,” she began. “Asking me if I’m a role model ... that would be a question for someone else to answer. I am a big believer in mentoring — and making the time to mentor.”
Gist began her career in education 21 years ago, as a teacher in the Ft. Worth, Texas, elementary schools, where she focused on literacy education and applied learning. She later taught in Tampa, Fla., where she founded and directed a center on environmental education and later conceived, designed, and initiated Hillsborough Reads, which served families in 108 elementary schools in Hillsborough County in the Sunshine State. She won Teacher of the Year honors in both Ft. Worth and Tampa.