Dr. Deborah Gist: Creating Radical Collaboration

Named as one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2010 by TIME magazine, Dr. Deborah Gist has been working to create a new way for school leaders to collaborate with their stakeholders.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: April 28, 2023

Named as one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2010 by TIME magazine, Dr. Deborah Gist has been working to create a new way for school leaders to collaborate with their stakeholders: from teachers and staff to parents and the community at Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma. Join this conversation about the power of radical collaboration.

Dr. Deborah Gist’s education career spans from the elementary classroom to being listed in 2010 as one of the 100 Most Influential People. She served as the first State Superintendent of Education for Washington, D.C. and then as Commissioner of Education for the State of Rhode Island.

Read SchoolCEO’s article featuring Dr. Gist in January 2021 here.

Today Dr. Gist leads Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma, which has recently become the largest district in the state.

During Superintendent Gist’s tenure, the district has seen sustained increases in high school graduation rates, novice teacher retention, employee engagement, and the percentage of students meeting projected reading and math growth. Tulsa Public Schools has expanded its dual language programming, opened the only three public Montessori programs in the state, implemented the Seal of Biliteracy for high school students demonstrating proficiency in at least two languages, launched a unified enrollment system, and successfully passed a five-year $415 million bond that will transform teaching and learning experiences across the city.


Intro Quote: Dr. Deborah Gist (Guest): Different circumstances call for different kinds of community engagement. But to the greatest extent possible, we want to ensure that the community engagement that we're doing is real and meaningful, and that what we're hearing and experiencing with our community—that it's evident to them how what we heard was put into action. It’s what we've since kind of coined as radical collaboration.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Dr. Deborah Gist’s education career ranges from teaching in elementary classrooms in 1988 to being listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in 2010. And there's so much more. In 2007, she became the first superintendent for Washington, DC. Schools and then served as the Commissioner of Education for the state of Rhode Island for six years. Today, Dr. Gist leads Tulsa Public Schools, an urban district serving 33,000 students across 78 schools and charter partners. In this episode, we discuss how to rally teachers and staff to represent your district brand, the role your community can play in decision making, and ultimately, how you can create collaboration across your entire school community.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Let's join the conversation. Well, Deborah Gist, I'm so excited to have you with me on SchoolCEO conversations. Welcome.

Dr. Deborah Gist (Guest): Thank you, Tyler. I'm happy to be here.

Tyler Vawser: Well, I want to start with your background. You were Washington, DC's first State Superintendent for education back from 2007 to 2009, and I'd love for you just to start there and talk about that experience.

Dr. Deborah Gist: Oh, my goodness, sure. Well, I first arrived in Washington, DC. to be a part of Secretary Riley's team at the US. Department of Education and got really, you know, in the time that I lived there, I learned more and more about DC. as a local community and something that most people who haven't had that much experience with Washington, DC. don't experience. And so I learned more about that and got more involved locally and then was really thrilled to have the opportunity to be the first State Superintendent for the District of Columbia and after doing that work for a few years, went to Rhode Island to be the Commissioner of Education.

You know, initially, I was really wanting to be a district superintendent, but was being encouraged to consider Rhode Island, and I thought, well, you know, it's a small state, so kind of like D.C. in that even though you're doing the state role, which is mostly policy and education standards and funding and things like that, in a smaller place, you kind of get more of that hands on experience, or so I imagined.

And that came to pass. And so I was able to be in Rhode Island for six years and then finally got the chance to be that school superintendent that I had been striving for for a number of years. And to get to do that in my hometown, the school district where I attended school from kindergarten through high school graduation, and I've been here for almost eight years now.

Tyler Vawser: Fantastic. And Tulsa Public Schools is one of the larger districts in Oklahoma, but I think recently you became the largest district, is that correct?

Dr. Deborah Gist: We're pretty close in size to Oklahoma City, our state's capital, and have a wonderful team here. And it's just really a tremendous gift to me to be able to be a part of this team.

Tyler Vawser: Can you talk a little bit more about what you've done to increase enrollment? It sounds like it's a team effort, but what are the strategies that worked for you? What are you working on going into this next 2023-2024 school year?

Dr. Deborah Gist: Yes well, it's many years of a story, actually. So when I was in Tulsa Public Schools in the early 80s, we were a school district that had about twice the number of students we have now. And like a lot of urban centers, the suburbs were growing and charter schools and private schools were growing and the enrollment was declining really steadily for decades. And so when I arrived and you're looking at this trend, we were losing for my first few years here, probably a few hundred students, maybe even close to 1,000 students a year. And so we knew that we needed to do something really differently to address that and make sure that we were serving our community in a robust way. And so we took a number of different steps.

One thing that we did, we're really fortunate that Oklahoma has had universal pre-k for a long time. And so we had pre-k available to students, any student in Tulsa, but we didn't have it at every elementary school. And so even though we would tell, you know, school starts at four, it didn't mean that they could start school at four at their neighborhood school. And that just was not a consistent message or one that was supportive to that immediate community in that neighborhood school. And so we made sure that every school had pre-k so that we could truly say that school starts at four. And really our thinking was that, and it came to pass, that our students who start with us in pre-k, they tend to stay with us through those elementary years. And so that made a big difference and we were seeing some improvements there.

We also implemented a new comprehensive enrollment process that brought in the charter schools that we charter—there are six charter schools that our school district authorizes—and gave families the opportunity to have really access to and wide-open enrollment across our school district and across those schools. And that has been very well received by families. We have very high satisfaction rates with the process, how easy it is. You can do it on your phone, you can snap pictures of records if you're enrolling a pre-k student, for example. And you can just take pictures of things and get it all uploaded. So that was just much more user friendly. And then just having fairs and tours and opportunities for, not only do we want to tell our story better, but we also want people to be able to experience our schools firsthand.

And so we were seeing some improvement in those early years, enrollment in those early years. And then unfortunately, the pandemic really made our numbers take a huge tumble. We lost about 3,000 students that year, and so fortunately, we've been recovering from that in the last two years. We've seen consistent growth in enrollment, so we're hoping to keep that up.

Tyler Vawser: Now, can you walk a little bit through the strategies and the tactics you mentioned, getting people to have that firsthand experience? What are some things that Tulsa Public Schools is doing to give that experience, maybe to parents that have just moved into the district or for those that are looking at different schools?

Dr. Deborah Gist: Well, one thing I would say about enrollment is that rather than thinking about it just as enrollment season, we really have to think about enrollment as a year-round experience. And it isn't just about making sure that people who are either new to our community or have a three or four year-old or are moving into a different school phase, like middle school or high school, isn't just about that. It's also about making sure that every single day of the year that families who are interacting with our schools, are having good school experiences and receiving positive support at their school building, and then also have access to ways to get help if they need it, either within their school or outside of their school. So we really have to think about it as this consistent and constant experience for families.

And then in addition to that, we do want to give families the opportunity to experience a broad set of schools as they're thinking about their enrollment, either for those pre-k-ers or for those school transition years. And so one is that we got to tell our story. So we work so hard through earned media experiences in the local media, but also using social media as effectively as we can, and things like What's Up Wednesday And Team Tulsa Tuesday and Social media page takeovers by school principals or teachers and just things like that, just really for us to tell our story, and then also for members of our team to tell our story.

And, speaking of story, really supporting our principals and our teachers in telling the story of their school and their classroom and making that come alive for the community. And when we're telling our story, we oftentimes have to overcome a negative perception. So it isn't just that we're starting at a neutral baseline. We're really overcoming and encountering negative stories and encountering a narrative that's out there that too often is the sense that an urban school district is unsafe or is not effective or things like that. And so once people see inside of a school or they see a program that's underway, it really does help with that, but you have to really work even extra hard to make that happen. And then when they are in the process of looking at their opportunities, we want to make sure they have a chance to do tours and have a day to shadow at the school, to shadow a student. We have enrollment expos where our schools have booths, and it's sort of a one-stop-shop for families. We've done, like, a day of tours where the school buses go around the neighborhoods and people can hop on and they can stay on the bus and kind of go school to school, and they can hop off and go into a school and take a tour. So just really, again, giving them that first hand experience with all that we have to offer.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I love the idea of, like, a bus crawl, and you get to do that. That's really neat.

You said it, that principals and teachers, they are really the ones that are representing the district in a lot of cases. And so I am curious, from the district side, you as the superintendent and your communications team, how are you helping teachers and principals understand the narrative that you're trying to drive throughout the district and maybe not exactly formal training, but training them up in how to talk about Tulsa Public Schools?

Dr. Deborah Gist: I know we have talked about this. There is no question that the very best and most important spokespeople for our district and for our schools are the team members who have the most direct and consistent engagement with families. And those are our teachers and our school leaders and counselors and deans. And these are folks who have relationships. And so we want to support them and elevate their voices. And I mentioned some of the ways that we do that. But yes, in addition, I think that it is making sure that they know that if they are having an event that we will help them to do our best, to help them organize, to help them promote, that we will lift them up if they have an idea about something that they think would be a really great way to bring the community into their school, to try to help them find perhaps a partner or a local business or a church partner and things like that.

And then I also think having as a district a really clear, consistent, and focused set of core values and goals that has been co-created by the community, including the district community, folks in the schools, and also is really clear and well known by everybody, and then getting into this practice of referring back to those. So for us in Tulsa Public Schools, our core values are equity, character, excellence, team, and joy. And those have been our core values for at least seven years now, more than seven years now, and everyone knows them and that we can connect when we're doing a shout-out to someone, we connect it back to our core value. When we're talking to our kids, we can connect it back to a core value. And right now, our district knows that we're focused on literacy for all, and literacy and the broadest definition of the term and how important that is for success across experiences and academics and also college and career readiness. And those are our laser-focused goals for the district. And I feel really confident that they're widely known by everyone.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, you went into a lot of detail there. How much does that show up in your employee onboarding? So getting close to the start of the year, you've got new teachers, new staff members. How much are you talking about those core values and what that looks like if you're a teacher or a staff member?

Dr. Deborah Gist: The way that people form their impressions of your organization happen really within the first couple of days of experiencing you, from the very first time they start with an application, and that goes all the way through to the consistent way in which communication happens with them during the process. And then once they're brought in and placed, and then they're going through onboarding—all of that is setting a tone, and it's creating for them an experience that is both going to affect the way in which they show up every day, but also is going to affect their impressions of what it means to be a part of your team. And so we talked about everything from the way it feels, the tone, the messaging, the way we communicate with them, the way that we listen and bring them in, and just that entire experience needs to be really consistent and strong.

Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. I think there's been such a focus on recruitment that you're sort of so excited to get the person that we forget and then go back to getting new folks. But it's really important as it relates to retention to get that onboarding correct, right, from before you even make an offer to probably the first three to six months of their time within a district. It's really critical to get that right.

Dr. Deborah Gist: Definitely.

Tyler Vawser: What about retention? So a staff member that's been working at the district for a while, how is your team thinking about retaining teachers and staff?

Dr. Deborah Gist: It has never been more difficult. We have such a dedicated team of folks on Team Tulsa, and that includes our teachers and also our amazing support professionals and our principals, our school team. And it's really difficult in our state, in Oklahoma right now, to be an educator for a lot of reasons. But it also means that our team members who are here are here because they have that deep dedication and because their roots are deep and strong in our community. And I think it's everything from leadership and the way we are clear about what we expect for principals and other supervisors of team members, how we expect for that to be done. What we believe about leadership, and again, really, I think is based on those core values, but I really believe that it is about strong leadership. It's about the strongest working conditions we can possibly provide for them, and about building relationships and team.

Tyler Vawser: One thing that really drew me to you, and as we've talked a little bit here, both before and after recording, is how much you've spearheaded this idea of community engagement. And when you first sat down with SchoolCEO, it was for a magazine article that really focused on that topic. And so you've taken a very relational approach to community engagement. And I wondered if you can talk a little bit about what that approach is and how that has changed over time.

Dr. Deborah Gist: I think one thing that I have learned about community engagement is that different circumstances call for different kinds of community engagement. But to the greatest extent possible, we want to ensure that the community engagement that we're doing is real and meaningful. And that what we're hearing and experiencing with our community, that it's evident to them how what we heard was put into action. Because I think too often people think, okay, well, you brought us together, you told us what you were going to do anyway, and then you just left and did it anyway. And it's hard to overcome that unless you're really explicit about what is different or the results of what you heard and then what you did differently or whatnot. And so I think about a couple of examples.

One is that we had a challenging situation in that we had a neighborhood middle school that was called the McLain Seventh Grade Center. And if you're a great big school district—we have suburban districts, for example, that have 7th grade centers because they have lots and lots and lots of 7th graders. But this was a neighborhood school that the 6th graders were still in middle school—I mean, sorry, the 6th graders were still in elementary school, the 8th graders were at the high school.

And so this was this former elementary school building that was called the Seventh Grade Center, but only had about 80 students. And there's value to having a small school in some ways, but it's also really hard to provide a robust middle school experience. And so we were making a proposal to the community about having the 7th graders be at the 8th through 12th-grade high school, because we have other middle school/high school combinations in the district, probably about five of them at that time, and they worked well.

And so we went out into the community and it wasn't a decision, but it was definitely a proposal. And we got really strong pushback. They did not like that idea at all. And so we came back and we regrouped. And really what I heard from the community was that they didn't like that idea. But there was also a lot of concern about every other possible configuration. So it felt unclear about where we were going to go from there.

So basically what ended up happening was we convened a group led by a local pastor. His name is M.C. Potter. So Reverend Potter convened a group. He's a very well respected community member, and he helped to bring this group together, but what we've since kind of coined as radical collaboration. So we said that not only— the commitment I made to them was, not only was I asking them as a task force to dive into this and come up with a solution—and they not only in just a few months, came up with a proposal for what to do. They came up with this entire set of recommendations related to the entire feeder pattern for McLain High School and then what is now the middle school, which is called Monroe Demonstration Academy. And so that was an example of just a time at which it was necessary to really give a community, really give them the reins and say, let's not just figure out what to do together, but I'm going to ask you to take the lead on this.

Tyler Vawser: I'd like to hear more about the after effects of that. So obviously, you have the immediate outcome based on their recommendation. But that was a while ago, I believe. And so what about now? How are those relationships different? Or how does that community engage with you and the district differently today?

Dr. Deborah Gist: Well, their proposal, there were a lot of recommendations that they had, including the creation of a parent resource center, which we now have, and a number of different things. But their specific proposal around the 7th grade center was that we would take an existing magnet school, Monroe Demonstration Academy, which was a magnet middle school—essentially close the magnet school in the sense that it would not be a magnet program anymore. Take the 6th graders from the elementary schools, the 7th graders from the 7th grade centers, and then bring the 8th graders out of McLean High School. And so this was really huge.

And I have to admit that the very first meeting I had where they shared with me what their proposal was, I thought, oh dear, what have I done? And the end result of that is that we have this middle school now that is just really thriving. It is absolutely on fire. They are doing so many exciting things. And because of that, the high school is strengthening, and there's just a lot of really positive momentum. To be clear, we have a long way to go. We really have a long way to go. But there's definitely, as Jim Collins talks about the flywheel, we really have that momentum going. And the task force is still meeting. In fact, just last week, we had a dinner together and talked, and so it continues. And that's been many years now.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's excellent. I think that's a really good model. I can imagine there's a little bit of fear and trepidation when you propose something like that, just like you said. But to be able to honor what you committed to and then also to build those longer term relationships that goes beyond just a few moments and a few decisions.

Dr. Deborah Gist: Yes, we did the same thing. And as I said, I think that you have to be discerning in terms of what engagement looks like for different bodies of work. And I think also being really clear with the public. At what point are you asking for feedback? At what point are you there for just a broad, kind of blue sky listening session, and just being really clear about the intention and then, as I said earlier, about the way in which you're going to come back and either tell what you've heard or share how things were changed based on what feedback was given for a certain thing. But anytime we can give more than just that kind of listening, I think it's strong.

And that was one example. Another example is when we were creating our current strategic plan, the Board of Education did this massive listening exercise. And then based on that, they came up with the goals that they tasked the district with developing the plan around. And those are those two goals I was describing, the literacy for all and the college and career ready. And so after they handed those goals over to us, we convened a community committee, and that included some members of our team, but included business leaders and parents and students. And they were tasked with coming up with a set of strategies that would be the overall bodies of work that would help us to meet those goals. And that committee developed strategies, signed off on the strategies, and then turned those over to us in the district team. And we filled in all the details about how we were going to implement those strategies and meet those goals. And so ultimately, it really all came from the community.

Tyler Vawser: Wow. Really impressive.

There are obviously many narratives out there about public education. You mentioned some of them as it relates specifically to urban districts like Tulsa. And so I'd be curious to know if you can just go into some of the ways that you're countering those narratives and delivering your own narrative. Like you said, you're not starting at neutral. You're starting at some kind of deficit in most cases, and then how are you moving that into the positive and really getting people to think differently about their assumptions about public schools in general, but specifically your own district?

Dr. Deborah Gist: Well, I think that there has to be a grounding in relationships, so being out in the community consistently. That's a really important role that the Board of Education plays when they're at their best and most effective. They are out in the community telling the story of the district, telling the story of the schools in their area, if that's how they're elected as they are here in Tulsa, and really listening as well to the community and having that relationship. So the community sees and feels that they are represented by their elected officials.

And then as superintendent, I obviously have to do the same thing. And it's both with parents, also business leaders, and our churches and nonprofit organizations and so forth. And then I think with the foundation of those relationships, then there is the opportunity to expose the community to real stories. And so you take the name of a student and you describe that student and what they're experiencing, or the name of a teacher, or you describe a program, and you tell a very specific narrative about what it's like to be a student in that program or to experience that program. And it changes what their preconceived notions are because they're seeing a human being with a story to tell.

Tyler Vawser: You talked about getting into the community and your board members as well. I think that sounds great, but we all get so busy. And so I'm kind of curious, from your side of things, how do you make sure that actually happens? I'm sure you have a stack of papers that you need to get through every day. It's very easy to stay behind your desk and your computer to get those tasks that need to be done. But how do you get yourself out of the office? How do you encourage your board members to do that? I'm curious if you have any tactical steps that can help others in the same role.

Dr. Deborah Gist: Well, I agree. It can be so incredibly difficult, and we have to monitor our work and make sure that those things are moving along and track our progress and understand our data. And then also, it's just the day-to-day operations. I mean, school districts are big entities, and we have vehicles and buildings, and things go wrong. And right now, for schools, the issue of safety is a huge one. And so there are all these things that can definitely consume, and must consume, parts, big huge chunks of our time. So if we let those days lead us instead of managing each hour within them, then we're not going to know for sure and we're not going to be able to carve out that time. So I think what I would encourage everyone to do, and I take stock of this every now and again, is just to really look at the calendar and do the math on how does this week break down in terms of where my time has been invested. And then when planning the next few, making sure that you and your assistant, whoever is helping you plan your weeks.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, absolutely.

Well, as we get closer to the end here, I didn't mention this at the start but back in 2010, after you finished being DC's first state superintendent, you were listed as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People, which is amazing, and congratulations. I had to read that a few times to let that register when I was doing your kind of background, and you're looking through your bio. And so I'm curious from your perspective, obviously we're 13 years past that, but how are you thinking about the future of K-12 education, and what do you want other superintendents around the country to be thinking about?

Dr. Deborah Gist: I started my career 35 years ago, and at that time we were talking about how our school district was not adequately serving all students, and particularly students whose families were struggling economically. And we're still having those conversations as a country today. And so I feel very urgent about the need for us not just to do what we do better or more effectively, but actually to change the way we do what we do. Because as hard as our teachers are working, and as much as we're all trying to do the incremental progress that we see, even when we see schools and classrooms and districts that are making gains, the gains are not as significant as they need to be for us to change the system as a whole.

I really believe that as educators and as communities, that we need to take a look at the way school is structured and the way our students experience it and the way our teachers experience it. I believe that families and students and teachers really want a school experience today that is much more hands-on, much more flexible, much more with exposure to the outdoors and to the world outside of school. And the older they get, more and more sort of into the business community and higher ed and these experiences that are going to give them ideas and exposure and opportunity to think about the ways in which they want to change the world as grown-ups.

And right now, too often, we still have this structure where kids get up, their parents tell them what to do, they come to school. The other grown-ups there, the teachers and otherwise, are all telling them what to do and where to sit and when to stand and when to walk. And then that keeps happening, and then suddenly they're grown-ups, and then they're out in the world and they're overnight making all of their own decisions.

And so I really feel like we have to have this much more gradual set of steps that include learning in this personalized way that allows me to get more time on something if I need it, but allows me to move more quickly and get more higher learning on something that I'm grasping really rapidly and that I'm able to use those skills that I'm learning in meaningful, real world ways. And when we do that, I believe that we're going to not only better prepare our young people for life after their experience in our public school systems, but we're also going to have them as community members who are really, truly active and engaged neighbors and friends and family members.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's perfect. I love that.

We had Julie Lythcott-Haims on the podcast earlier this year and she was the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford for ten years. But she's written two books, How to Raise an Adult and then her most recent one is Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. And it's very similar to what you just said. I had asked her, how do school leaders work better with families around this idea of turning students into thriving adults? And she said almost exactly what you said, which is there needs to be these rites of passages where you're not going to go from zero to 100 just because you've graduated high school. But that as a community really think about, what is it that we wish we knew when we were entering high school and leaving high school and going into college? What are those things that we didn't know or didn't feel prepared for, that the community, not just parents but the larger community, can decide on. So whether that's like walking to school at a certain grade level by yourself, right, the community together says we're going to support that. We're going to keep our eyes open and our ears out to make sure that's a safe experience. But to say you need to be able to have certain skills and abilities at these certain markers and not just wait till you finish K-12 and be expected to know all those things without ever having practiced them.

Dr. Deborah Gist: Oh, my goodness, I am so glad you told me that, Tyler. I have not read those books and I am going to get them as soon as we conclude, I'm going to get my hands on them and I look forward to devouring those. This has been a lot of fun.

Tyler Vawser: Well, thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations. Really appreciate your insight and you sharing your experience.

Dr. Deborah Gist: Thank you. Great to talk to you.

Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research, interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K-12 Leadership, Administration or in Communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. Go to SchoolCEO.com, click subscribe now and check the box to receive the print edition of the magazine.

SchoolCEO Conversations is produced by the SchoolCEO Magazine team and is powered by Apptegy. I'd love to get your advice to make sure this was the most actionable and insightful podcast you listened to. Email me at tyler@SchoolCEO.com with thoughts and advice. And can you do me a small favor? Go online and share this episode with one friend or a colleague that you think would enjoy it. Thanks for joining the conversation and take care until the next one.

Follow Dr. Gist on Twitter at @deborahgist and Tulsa Public Schools at @TulsaSchools.

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