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Expanding Access to Powerful Learning in Tulsa

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Deborah Gist grew up in Tulsa. She earned a bachelor's degree in early childhood education at the University of Oklahoma. After teaching and a couple of east coast masters degrees she ran Serve DC, an extension of the D.C. mayor's office promoting service as an innovative, sustainable solution to pressing social challenges.

Gist went on to lead the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in DC. Three years later she became chief in Rhode Island where she ran what Tom called the most innovative planning process he's seen from a state or district, particularly in regards to inclusion and iteration.

After six years in Rhode Island, Dr. Gist returned home to Tulsa Public Schools (@TulsaSchools) as school superintendent. Her talented team developed a strategy to:

  • Create powerful learning experiences for all by implementing an aligned pre-k-12 instructional program;
  • Cultivate safe, supportive, and joyful school cultures;
  • Attract, develop, and retain a highly effective and empowered team;
  • Incubate and implement innovative classroom, school, and district designs; and
  • Modernize the district office into a service and strategy partner.


When Dr. Gist started in 2015, the graduation rate was about 63%. She is excited about the progress Tulsa schools are making on helping more students head to graduation.

Tulsa's 86 schools include demonstration sites, magnets for Spanish and French language immersion, science, engineering, and AP and IB programs, schools focused on visual and performing arts, and dual-enrollment opportunities allowing students to graduate high school with college course credits.

In 2015, Tulsa Public Schools responded to the growing need for skilled labor in the aerospace industry by joining with Tulsa Technology Center and the City of Tulsa to launch the Tulsa Tech Aerospace Academy. High school juniors and seniors spend half the day in a traditional classroom setting and half the day in technical classes including course offerings around computer network technology, cyber security, and network systems administration.

This fall, Tulsa will become home to Oklahoma's first public Montessori school where children will engage in hands-on self-guided learning.

Keeping Top Talent in Tulsa

"Tulsa is a well kept secret," said Gist. The metro area has more than a million people and, "people want to be here." Gist has built a talented team of local leaders and national experts.

The low funding level has made it challenging to attract and develop teachers. The turnover is high and there are a large number of emergency certified teachers. All the new and inexperienced teachers impacts conditions for all, explained Gist. Tulsa Teacher Corps and TNTP are partners in supporting new teachers.

District business cards (which double as recruiting tools) announce shared values: equity, character, excellence, team, and joy.

Team Tulsa is thinking about using the city as a classroom, leveraging local assets including beautiful parks and libraries and great community and technical colleges.

Tulsa is one of three districts receiving support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to improve formative assessment. Twenty teachers volunteered to work together and with a coach to improve their practice. "We wanted to create proof points, build know how and skill in the district," said Gist. (Listen to this podcast to learn more.)

Gist has worked in six states and claims she's never seen people rowing in the same direction like they do in Tulsa. She appreciates collaboration from the business community and nonprofit sector. "We're maximizing every dollars we have," added Gist.

Forward Tulsa

"People in Tulsa understand the way we're doing high school is not working even for those successful in the current system," said Gist.

"Students in elementary school may never have a driver's license," said Gist noting the level of change likely from exponential technology.

Inspired by XQ Super School project, Dr. Gist and her team are serious about dramatically improving the secondary school experience, reimaging both schools and the system. A step in that direction is a partnership with Summit Learning, the platform network supported by CZI, in seven schools. Adopting the personalized learning platform was a big change for school teams, but Gist said, "We're very encouraged and excited about change we see."

As Rhode Island commissioner, Gist laid the groundwork for Computer Science for all. That's also a likely direction for Tulsa Public Schools.

Gist launched community conversations about what students should know and be able to do that will result in a new graduate profile later this year.

The plan is to make Tulsa Public Schools a "destination for top educators and a proof point for what is possible in urban education."

Regional Progress

Tulsa Public Schools is one of 15 districts in the county. As a member of the Strive Together network, ImpactTulsa is committed to regional progress for the 170,000 youth in the region by encouraging collective action around common goals. ImpactTulsa and its partners articulated six outcomes along the education pipeline the everyone committed to jointly impact.


ImpactTulsa recently released a Community Action Report outlining progress and the challenges that lie ahead for the region.

Podcast Key Takeaways:

[:14] Some background on Dr. Gist's career and work with Tulsa.
[2:54] Three years in as Tulsa's Superintendent, what does Dr. Gist see headed in the right direction?
[4:33] About Tulsa's efforts to reimagine secondary learning entirely.
[5:55] Overcoming the challenges of being underfunding through incredible resources.
[7:03] About the great team they have in place at Tulsa.
[8:08] One of Tulsa's biggest challenges from being underfunded -- attracting and developing a teaching core.
[10:52] Why schools joined the Summit Learning Network in Tulsa.
[12:00] The other improvement strategies they're using across the city.
[13:07] Why receiving support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation for the formative assessment project is important.
[13:50] Collective impact -- alive and well in Tulsa.
[15:49] Tulsa's work and focus towards high school redesign.

Mentioned in This Episode:

"Inclusive and Iterative Plan Drives Rhode Island Forward," by Tom Vander Ark
Serve DC
Chiefs for Change
Tulsa Public Schools
Impact Tulsa
XQ Super School Project
Summit Learning Network
Tulsa Teacher Corps

For more see:


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