Deborah Gist, Ed.D. '11

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Rhode Island Department of Education

Award Profile

Courageous Thinking and Action
From her first day on the job, Commissioner Gist has been under the spotlight, yet has still exemplified courageous thinking and action.  In her first few months in office she boldly declared that Rhode Island schools would soon be the best in the nation, but has been concerned that many students were not reaching their full potential and that significant achievement gaps have persisted in many Rhode Island schools. In one of her important initiatives to address this, she raised the bar for entry into teacher-preparation programs, ordered that teacher assignments be based on student need, and announced partnerships with Providence and Central Falls to turn around the state’s persistently lowest-achieving schools.

Vision and Innovation
In an amazingly short period of time, Commissioner Gist has been able to mobilize the state’s business and not-for-profit communities, parents, teachers and teacher unions, and principals and superintendents in support of the state’s Race to the Top application and the many significant changes and initiatives outlined in the plan. This is something that many thought could not be done, and without this support, there were limited chances to receive funding through this effort.  However, in August 2010, as a result of this unprecedented collaboration, the U.S. Department of Education selected Rhode Island as one of the Race to the Top winners which will bring $75 million to Rhode Island to improve teaching and learning.

Inspiring Leadership
In April 2010, after less than a year on the job in Rhode Island, Commissioner Gist was named to Time magazine’s top 100 of the world’s most influential people.  The article about her began “When Deborah Gist became commissioner of Rhode Island schools in 2009, she pledged to make every decision in the best interests of children — something we've heard before and rarely seen happen. Then she started doing it.”  During her first few months on the job, she visited every school district in the state, rallying support and getting feedback from teachers, parents and students as she works toward her goal of advancing learning for all students as well as addressing the inequities leading to Rhode Island’s achievement gaps.

Community Mindedness
To achieve her goal of making Rhode Island’s public schools the best in the nation, Commissioner Gist understands that she can’t do it with just educators alone.  She believes that parent and family involvement in a student’s education is critical to the student’s success. To that end, she has collaborated with community organizations from around the state to host engagement forums for parents and families.  These forums not only encourage parents and family members to become engaged in their children’s education, but also keep the community informed about the many changes that have been happening around the state.  This assists in minimizing the spread of misinformation and makes everyone feel invested in these important initiatives.

JA Mission Moment