Coffee Break: Superintendent Deborah Gist on Moving Home, the Nae Nae and Jumping Out of Planes

Tulsa's new superintendent of schools, Deborah Gist, described the decision to leave the job as Rhode Island's education commissioner as "difficult" but there is no doubt that she is happy to be back home in Oklahoma. She was a bold chief education officer in both Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island, but after that long stretch working on the East Coast, she has settled into her new role at the helm of the Tulsa school system. During Gist's time in Rhode Island, her unwavering mantra was that Rhode Island could become home to the best public schools in the country. She has proven herself to be an agent of change and her commitment to moving the needle for kids is non-negotiable, even when she's jumping out of an airplane to celebrate reading goals reached or leading the Whip Nae Nae dance as a welcome to teachers at the start of the year. There is no doubt that her optimism about what public education can be has followed her to Tulsa and despite enormous budgetary challenges, she remains as positive and committed to students as she was as a first-year teacher 27 years ago in Fort Worth, Texas. Coffee drinker? Tea? How do you take it? Favorite place (anywhere in the world) for a cup of coffee or tea? My caffeinated drink of choice is Diet Coke, but I do like to drink tea. My absolute favorite place for a cup of tea is The Phoenix in Tulsa—the coffee bar is made out of books! Now that it's been almost a year since you left Rhode Island for your home state of Oklahoma, what has been the biggest surprise in your new role? Teamwork is a way of life in Tulsa. Tulsans have an incredible community spirit and a shared goal of doing whatever it takes for all of us to be successful. Oklahoma is one of a few states that did not adopt Common Core. How do Oklahoma's standards compare to Common Core and are you confident that student needs will be met by the standards currently in place? The Oklahoma standards have not yet been approved by the state. We are still reviewing and analyzing them, but I am confident that we’ll have strong standards that foster academic growth. In reading your op-ed in Tulsa World, it's clear that Oklahoma presents education funding challenges far greater than what you've experienced in other places. Is there reason to be hopeful that you will see an increase in funding this year and if so, where would you direct the additional funds? Unfortunately, we do not anticipate increased funding for this year, and we expect a significant decrease for next year. We are facing challenging times, but there are also lots of good things happening in Tulsa! We have an exciting new strategic plan that will make Tulsa Public Schools a destination for excellence in teaching and learning. We have incredible teachers and robust community support. We are also fortunate to have amazing, well-maintained, beautiful learning facilities. Tulsans are incredibly generous and have invested millions of dollars in bond funding to improve our school buildings and provide us with access to technology. Of course, we will still continue to advocate for increased funding for public education in Oklahoma! It's no secret that Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island are very different places than Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now that you're back home, can you say what you missed most about Oklahoma during your time out East? Without a doubt, I missed the people in Oklahoma the most! Most of my family live in Oklahoma, so it’s great to be close to them again. Tulsans are really amazing people, and their kindness and generosity really touches my heart. There is something incredibly special about serving and supporting the people in your hometown—it’s good to be back!
Photo of Deborah Gist jumping out of an airplane celebrating reading goals reached.
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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