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PowerPlayer: Education Commissioner Deborah Gist

Monday, February 20, 2012


This week’s PowerPlayer is Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Commissioner Gist was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv about her first two years in Rhode Island and her vision for the state’s education system.

1) Education appears to be a big winner in the Governor's budget proposal. Tell us about your relationship with the Governor and what it means to have leadership that cares so much about schools.

In order to transform education in our state, every Rhode Islander must truly believe that our students can achieve at high levels, that our teachers and school leaders can be excellent, and that our schools can be America’s best. Establishing this climate of belief requires the commitment and leadership not only of those in the education field but also of our leaders in government. We are fortunate that Governor Chafee has taken on this leadership role and has spoken out in Rhode Island and in national forums in support of our students.

I am very pleased that Governor Chafee’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget increases support for education – even in these difficult fiscal times. The Governor’s budget increases overall education funds by $67 million (to $913 million). Rhode Islanders have made generous investments in support of public education, and we must ensure that we use these investments wisely to improve teaching and learning across our state. In the face of all of fiscal challenges we are facing this year, Governor Chafee’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget provides much-welcome support for public education.

2) What are the three biggest issues facing Rhode Island's schools right now and how do we address them?

First of all, we need to continue to prepare our students for success, which means raising achievement levels statewide, closing achievement gaps that separate some groups of students from others, and improving our graduation rates.

Second, we need to make sure that we have excellent teachers in every classroom and excellent leaders in every school. Doing so involves continuous improvements in recruiting, developing, mentoring, evaluating, retaining, and promoting teachers and school leaders.

Third, we need to be sure that our schools and districts have the resources they need for success and that educators are using these resources well, which entails maintaining adequate funding, ensuring that we distribute this funding equitably, and making sure that districts seek out efficiencies so that we always invest our resources wisely toward improving student achievement.

Our strategic plan, Transforming Education in Rhode Island, goes into detail about our priorities for meeting each of these objectives, including specific strategies, goals, and timelines. We have posted the plan on our website.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

It won’t surprise you to learn that my typical day is completely devoted to education. I often begin the day by meeting with a group of educators or meeting over breakfast or coffee with a community leader or another friend of education. During the work day, I spend a lot of time visiting schools, where I enjoy seeing examples of great teaching and learning. At the office, I work very closely with the R.I.

Department of Education team and with the Board of Regents, and I hold many meetings with educators and others as we develop policies and proposals and as we move forward with our many initiatives and grants, such as Race to the Top. As often as possible, I try to stay in touch during the day with others who are thinking about and working on innovations in education. I also try to reserve some time, including elevators wait-time and walking, to manage my e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. In the evening, I often attend board meetings and other public gatherings or community forums. As you may know, I am a student as well – so at night I devote most of my waking hours to my class-work, as I pursue a doctoral degree in education.

4) It took a long battle to bring Achievement First to Rhode Island. Do you think other charter organizations may be scared off by the opposition or have we turned the corner to prove we can open more charter schools in the state?

Thanks to our two Race to the Top awards, our excellent results on the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” and in Education Week’s Quality Counts, and our forward-thinking strategic plan, educators around the country know that Rhode Island is committed to innovation that advances student achievement. We welcome applications from other charter-school operators with a track record of success, and we also continue to encourage our school leaders and others in Rhode Island to come forward with innovative proposals for locally managed charter public schools.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I once considered myself an amateur herpetologist.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: My mom, because she has grit and is joyful even in the face of hardship.

Favorite Restaurant: With all the wonderful restaurants in Rhode Island, my favorite tends to be the one I’ve gone to most recently. Flan y Ajo is a new favorite.

Best Beach: I am embarrassed to say that I have not yet been to a beach in Rhode Island. The last two years have been very busy! I will be able to answer this question after next summer.

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: I read voraciously, and it is difficult to choose the best. I really appreciated The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, by Frederick M. Hess.

Advice for the Next Deborah Gist: Have faith, never lose your love of teaching and teachers, and believe in our students.


Photo credit: Frank Curran

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