EPISODE 7: Dr. Debra Pace on How to Serve Your Students

September 11, 2017

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Today, on The Education Leader Podcast, I’m talking with Dr. Debra Pace, who has been Osceola School District’s Superintendent since 2016. Osceola School District is the 14th largest district in Florida with 52 schools and over 61,000 students.

Since taking office, Dr. Pace has worked hard to implement a ‘Good to Great’ Campaign and is focusing on sustaining and promoting academic achievement going forward to better serve her students. In this chat, you’ll learn how she did it.

Topics covered:

  • (00:38) – Dr. Debra’s background and path to becoming Superintendent of Osceola School District.
    • (01:01) – The details of her academic career.
    • (01:16) – The details of her educational career.
  • (01:56) – Top accomplishments.
    • (02:07) – What Dr. Pace is most proud of after her first year as Superintendent.
      • (02:51) – Improving their school district grade from a C to a B.
      • (02:51) – Increased in the state accountability system by 43 points.
      • (02:51) – Showed growth in every single tested area.
        • Reading, math, learning gains, social studies.
      • (03:13) – Doubled the number of students who weren’t as advanced.
      • (03:13) – Had students pass over 2,700 advanced placement exams, which has a value of almost 1.8 million dollars in tuition savings for students and their families.
      • (03:33) – 8th grade students are entering high school this year with 1800 credits in algebra, geometry and biology.
      • (03:46) – Opened access for all students, including underrepresented English language foreigners.
      • (3:50) – Expanded opportunities for STEM Study course work.
        • From 3k through to adult ed programs called TECO.
    • (04:13) – How Dr. Pace and her team were able to accomplish these achievements.
      • (04:33) – The importance of building the capacity of their school leaders.
      • (05:02) – Discussing how they prioritized leadership development in the school district.
      • (05:55) – The focus on the professional learning community model.
    • (06:47) – Dr. Pace discusses the biggest challenge they faced in their endeavors.
      • (07:49) – The element of time.
      • (07:54) – Following up and monitoring the results of the professional development.
    • (08:44) – The prioritization of five key goals.
      • (08:58) – Academic success.
  • (10:13) – Priorities going forward.
    • (10:21) – Making an impact all the way to the classroom level.
    • (10:39) – The importance of engaging students and allowing them to be in control of their own learning.
    • (10:56) – Addressing the challenges of teacher recruitment and retention.
    • (12:19) – Why partnerships with stakeholders and other academic institutions is a top priority.
      • (12:41) – To create a continuous academic pathway for students.
      • (13:35) – To build the future local and state economies.
      • (13:59) – To engage students in hands on learning.
        • Internships and apprenticeships.
    • (15:42) – Discussing the topic of universal gifted screenings for second graders.
      • (16:15) – Ensuring that new or foreign students aren’t missed.
      • (16:37) – The 48% increase in students identified as gifted.
  • (18:05) – Parting advice for Superintendents.
    • (18:15) – Advice Dr. Pace would like to have received when she first started as Superintendent.
      • (19:21) – The challenge of juggling the responsibilities of work, life, home and family.
    • (20:12) – The benefits and challenges of working in a school district where she is a lifelong resident.
      • Passionate and blessed to actively contribute to building a better community.
    • (22:34) – Practical advice Dr. Pace would like to pass on for other administrators.
      • (22:57) – Take the time to get to really know your board members and the needs of the community.

Rapid-fire Questions:

  • (25:06) – What do you spend too much time doing?
  • (25:16) – What do you not spend enough time doing?
  • (25:32) – What do you wish more people knew about your job?
  • (25:54) – What are the emerging trends in education that you are keeping an eye on?

Where to learn more:

If you would like to stay in touch with the developments in Osceola County School District, you can do so by visiting their district website.  You can also visit their Facebook page or Twitter and if you would like to connect with Dr. Pace personally, you can do so through her Twitter @PaceDebra.


Pat: 0:00:02.2 Hi everyone, today I’m talking with Dr. Debra Pace, who has been Osceola School District’s Superintendent since 2016. Osceola School District is the 14th largest district in Florida with 52 schools and over 61,000 students.

Since taking office, Dr. Pace has worked hard to implement a ‘Good to Great’ Campaign and is focusing on sustaining and promoting academic achievement going forward. In this chat, you’ll learn how she did it. How they excelled in moving forward.

0:00:30.4 Welcome to the show Dr. Pace.

Dr. Pace: 0:00:35.4 Welcome Pat, glad to be here. Thank you for this opportunity.

Pat: 0:00:38.0 Awesome. So what did the path to becoming Osceola’s Superintendent look like for you?

Dr. Pace: 0:00:48.2 I am actually an Osceola County resident and native. I was born and raised here and worked my own way through the school system. I never intended to be a teacher or a principal or let alone a superintendent when I went away to college.

0:01:01.6 However, found my way into the classroom after graduating from Auburn University with a degree in International Trade, and have never looked back. And through my work with the University of Central Florida, earned a masters and then my doctorate in the Educational Leadership.

0:01:16.6 And I truly love the work that I do and impacting students, especially here in my own home community. I was a high school teacher, high school principal, district cheerleader in Osceola County. I also spent five years on the east coast of Florida in Brevard Country as a district level administrator.

0:01:35.0 Had a wonderful experience there and learning in a larger district and a new environment. But then was able to find my way back home and very excited to lead this school district as the Superintendent.

0:01:45.6 I work with an excellent Board, and we are all very committed to ensuring that our students have every opportunity to be successful.

Pat: 0:01:56.3 Awesome, awesome. So you’ve been Osceola’s Superintendent for just over a year now. What 0:02:03.6 [Inaudible – glitch] most proud of during this year?

Dr. Pace: 0:02:07.7 It’s sometimes hard to tell, but as I said in my letter – my back to school letter to our community, that you can find on our district website, we are better today than we were a year ago. We knew we were a good district. We were achieving some good things, but we knew that we could get better.

And we have to get even better to get to that great, great element that says we are hitting the mark with all students. 0:02:34.3 We talk a lot here about ‘all means all’. We serve a very diverse community, highly mobile, challenged in some respects economically. Many of our families are.

0:02:45.4 And yet we know that we are the keys to those students and their families’ future. Through education.

0:02:51.1 One of the things that I am most proud of this past year is we were able to improve our school district grade from a C to a B. We increased in the state accountability system by 43 points and showed growth in every single tested area. Reading, math, learning gains, social studies and really, really emphasized acceleration opportunities for students.

0:03:13.0 We doubled the number of students who aren’t as advanced – an AA degree from our local community college while also earning their high school diploma. 0:03:21.8 We had students pass over 2,700 advanced placement exams, which has a value of almost 1.8 million dollars in tuition savings for our students and their families.

0:03:33.5 And our 8th grade students are entering high school this year with 1800 credits in algebra, geometry and biology. Well on their way to a rigorous path in high school that will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

0:03:46.1 Most importantly, we really opened access for all students, including some of our under represented English language foreigners. And our gifted population through universal screening at 2nd grade, as well through expanded opportunities for STEM Study course work. All the way from 3k through our adult ed programs, which we call TECO.

Pat: 0:04:13.1 If you can – I know you have this campaign, “Good to Great” and it’s really bearing fruits. You went from C to B and moved up 43 points, but I’m sure a lot of hard work went into it. If you can talk a little bit about, you know, break it down for us. How did you do it?

Dr. Pace: 0:04:33.2 One of the questions that the Board asked when I was interviewing for the Superintendent’s position, was what would be my top priority. And I identified for them building the capacity of our school leaders.

I truly believe that our principals and assistant principals play such an important role in supporting and monitoring and ensuring that we have quality instruction for all students in all of our classrooms.

0:05:02.5 So we really prioritized leadership development through a better understanding of the instructional framework that we use for evaluation and to guide our planning through instructional rounds that were led by district level staff and also outside experts and through specific professional development on how to offer high quality feedback that would help our teachers improve their instruction.

0:05:27.9 We have good teachers. We have good principals. But in order for us to go from good to great, we all need to get better. And that takes a real skill. In both understanding what good instruction looks like across all content areas and grade levels, but more importantly than — being able to talk to teachers about their craft and have teachers talk to other teachers about how they will work together to improve instruction in teaching and learning for all kids.

0:05:55.1 We also have a strong focus on the professional learning community model. We truly believe that we’re better when we work together, and that has been a big point of emphasis for this district. Even before I became the Superintendent. But we’ve worked even harder to make that our way of work.

0:06:12.8 We know that time is precious and we all know that we want to work smarter not harder. So we want our teachers working together to look at the data, study the standards, look at their resource materials, and make sure that we’re having high quality lessons and meeting the needs of kids across the district.

Pat: 0:06:34.6 Great. That’s awesome. And the biggest take away from what I hear is, you prioritize building school leaders and what it means is enabling others to do better.

0:06:47.8 So if you can, you know, what was the biggest challenge in trying to enable others, and empowering others to do better? If you could dig a little into that aspect.

Dr. Pace: 0:06:56.6 One of our most precious commodities, Patrick, in this work is time. You know, I want our principals and assistant principals in their schools, but I also knew that they needed time and quality job embedded professional development with follow up to get from PD to practice to truly implement the new skills.

So, you know, when sometimes they fuss just a little bit about being called out for professional development, or visiting another campus with other school leaders to do the instructional rounds, I was very firm in saying, “I’m not going to apologize for keeping your learning continuing.

We have assistant principals, deans, and that’s their quality to teach your leaders in your schools that can keep that work going while you’re learning how to do your work even better than you’ve been able to do it before.”

0:07:49.8 So I think that is probably the biggest challenge, is that element of time. 0:07:54.5 And then the second piece would be the follow up. The monitoring. The supporting with differentiation.

Because some people get it right away, some people need a little more help and guidance. Whether we’re talking about adults or kids. And so making sure that we continue to follow up so that we do implement the things that we’re learning in the professional development that we’re providing.

Pat: 0:08:17.2 That’s great. That’s great. So what I’m hearing is you know, a continuous learning process. The learning never stops. You may be the principal, you may be a leader in your field, but learning never stops. Continuous personal development. Follow up and hold them accountable. I guess these are the key takeaways for empowering your leaders to do better. Am I right?

Dr. Pace: 0:08:44.8 You know, we started when I first became the Superintendent and gathering some stakeholder feedback and in talking to the Board, to develop a new strategic plan. And we prioritized five clear goals. Obviously, academic success is first.

0:08:58.9 And by keeping our work narrow and focusing on those goals, I think we’re better able to implement with developing the things we set out to do. And I try to illustrate that same work with our principals, with my district leadership team and that we’re going to stay focused on a strategic plan. Those key initiatives. I’m going to be very clear in my expectations and then follow through and hold people accountable for doing the right work.

0:09:28.4 But I have a tremendous team here at the district level and I’m very confident in the skill levels now in our school leaders to keep this moving forward. 0:09:37.3 Our shift this year is now, how do we make sure we’re getting what we want people to do and that focus on continuous improvement all the way to the classroom level.

We’ve built that system at capacity at the district, at the school leadership level, now let’s make sure that we’re actually impacting the teaching and learning in our classrooms in the way that we want to work so that we can continue our growth. 0:10:02.4

Pat: 0:10:04.2 Great, great. So Dr. Pace, it’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished so far in a short span 0:10:13.9 [Inaudible – glitch] Osceola School District. But as we know, work in education is never done. Right? So what are your top priorities going forward for the next year?

Dr. Pace: 0:10:21.2 Well, as I said, it’s really impacting the work all the way to the classroom level. It’s a key piece for us. Some consistency in our classrooms with the curriculum frameworks, with the standards and with the instructional shifts that go along with the new standards.

0:10:39.6 We know that it’s no longer ‘stay on the stage’ in terms of how our teachers help our students learn. Students need to be more engaged, more in control of their own learning and have an opportunity to really struggle and process and analyze new material so that it begins to stick for them.

0:10:56.0 So that’s a key piece. But I have to say, I think our biggest challenge today, so a huge priority for us, is teacher recruitment and retention. We know that in our field, we don’t have enough young people pursuing education. Teaching as a career.

So we’re working to try to grow some of that within some academy programs in our high schools, but also working with industry partners, our college and university partners, and then within our own schools to build that culture that says, teaching is a noble profession and we support it here in the school district of Osceola County. We need you and we want you to work for us and work with us and then stay with us over time.

You know, as educators we invest so much in professional development and if you’re not careful, then that teacher that you spent $5000, $7500, even $10,000 on sophisticated training for specialized curriculum to enhance 0:11:55.8 [inaudible] careers like project, “Lead the Way”. Suddenly has another opportunity or a life changing event and they’re out the door and you’re having to start over.

We want to try to identify early on, what are the key factors that are going to keep people here in our school district, serving our kids, working with their peers to help us accomplish our goals.

Pat: 0:12:19.9 Great, great. Now one thing which really stood out in your – in our conversation is partnerships. Partnerships with stakeholders, partnerships with other academia, with higher institutions. Why is this such a big priority? If you can elaborate on that a little bit more please.

Dr. Pace: 0:12:41.6 As a school district, I know that we can’t do it alone. You know, that’s why I talk about the strength of my leadership team. I couldn’t be an effective leader without great people around me. But as a school district, we don’t operate in isolation in our community.

We have a tremendous partnership with our local community college, our state college Valencia. In that students are earning industry certification in our high school programs to have matriculation credits into Valencia.

That partnership extends further to our local university. The University of Central Florida. 0:13:11.9 In that students can start their work here in our school district, move to Valencia, move to UCF, in a continuous pathway with those on and off ramps, with career opportunities throughout that particular journey.

We also know that local businesses and businesses that we are trying to attract to our area are looking at the labour force. 0:13:35.0 Are they going to have the people in place to fill the jobs that they want to create tomorrow.

So we know that we have to stay engaged with those companies and with the companies that are economic developments – efforts are going after to find out, what are the jobs going to be. So that we can make sure the programs that we are building and offering in our schools will feed in and support those particular career fields.

0:13:59.1 And finally, we know that we want to engage students in that hands on learning, those practical experiences while they’re in our high schools. Even our middle and elementary schools.

So let’s look for opportunities to build internships, apprenticeships, look for those types of job embedded, school embedded opportunities to see the real work and learn from it, so that they’ll stay engaged in what we’re doing in school and see that as their next step in terms of future opportunities.

0:14:29.1 For some time, our community didn’t necessarily have the college going culture that we know is important for the jobs of tomorrow and we’ve done some really extensive work changing that. In fact, here at our school district, this week is what we call, “College Week”.

So every day, we have a new focus on different aspects of what the college experience will be like and how to prepare for it. And again, that’s a pre-k to 12 conversation. Whether on Monday it was wear green and we’re going to give you tips about how to find financial aid to yesterday’s additional tips for what it takes for college applications and then we have themes throughout the week that can be found actively on our social media, our website, to promote that college going culture.

Pat: 0:15:19.5 That is such great connecting the dots all the way to the end. And thank you for sharing that piece.

Now going a little bit, you know, back. I know there’s a new push to identify special needs students by conducting universal gifted screenings for second graders. You have some hands on experience in that and building some programs around that. 0:15:42.8 If you can share a little bit of your thoughts and how you’re kind of having that program run in your system.

Dr. Pace: 0:15:48.0 Traditionally, we have relied on either parents 0:15:54.9 [Inaudible – glitch] or teacher referral to identify potentially gifted and talented students. We know that all of our students are gifted in some way or shape or form, but we know that we have some that are more academically talented than others or have that potential that we need to engage and push early to keep them involved and active in their learning experience.

0:16:15.8 So by introducing the 2nd grade gifted universal training, we were able to make sure that we didn’t miss out on any of our students who may have just come to our community, may have just come to our country, to our culture and that might not be traditionally identified as a gifted and talented young person.

0:16:37.1 We saw a 48% increase in the number of students identified as gifted. And it started with the 2nd grade universal screening that we implemented last year.

We also traditionally – tremendously increased the number of our english language learners who were identified in this particular population. Because so often, the language barrier might get in the way of us recognizing their particular skills and talent. And we don’t want that to occur. While they’re learning the language, we also want to make sure that they’re getting exposed to that rich, rigorous content that will interest them and engage them and inspire them to continue on.

0:17:18.1 And so, we really were able to make some significant increases by that.

Pat: 0:17:25.5 That is good. Thanks for sharing that, because that really hit home close for us, because when we were bringing up our child and you know, in 2nd grade we had a lot of help from our teachers, but there was no system like you said to put them through a gifted screening.

I hope we had had it earlier on in our school district, but I’m sure that would really you know, kind of 0:17:53.4 [Inaudible – glitch] earlier on to get on the accelerated path. Identify these people and actually nurture them all the way through. Thank you for that.

Dr. Pace: 0:18:02.3 Absolutely.

Pat: 0:18:05.4 [Consider editing] So what advice – yup. So what advice to you wish somebody gave you when you first started as a superintendent?

Dr. Pace: 0:18:15.1 Oh that’s a hard one. You know throughout my career I’ve had 0:18:19.7 [Inaudible] and I’ve worked for some wonderful leaders who kind of helped to guide that path. But I think it’s like anything else, you never truly know until you sit in the chair. How different the roles and responsibilities sometimes will be. Even as prepared as you are.

0:18:41.8 While I’m an appointed superintendent not an elected superintendent, there is an element of politics in this environment that you have to learn to navigate. I’m very fortunate in that I work with five elected school board members who while they are different in sometimes their perspectives and have different experiences and skills and priorities to bring to the table, they remain student centred and work together and work with me to stay focused on our priorities and stay set with those priorities are going to be, so I’m very fortunate there.

0:19:21.7 I think probably the biggest challenge as a superintendent is managing time and trying to achieve that balance between work, home, family and life that, you know, we all struggle with. Being a superintendent is certainly a 24/7 responsibility in many ways. In all shapes and forms and so figuring out and learning to delegate and to trust the team that I have to work with and then allow myself some, at least, mental space to think about the other things is a key piece for me.

Pat: 0:20:12.3 Great, great. So let me ask you another little bit of a personal question here. So what are the benefits of working in a district where you’re a life long resident and educator? What are unique challenges, advantages, disadvantages, can you share some of those.

Dr. Pace: 0:20:30.7 I don’t think I can think of a disadvantage at this stage of the game. I do believe that having the experience in another district, another larger district, helped to shape me as a leader and gave me a different perspective that I might not have had had I always worked in the school district of Osceola County.

But the opportunity to come home where I’m serving my neighbours, my relatives, my friends, even though we have a tremendous amount of growth in our county and our school district, there is still a lot of familiar faces and all of them are personal to me.

0:21:09.9 This is, this is personal to me. I want to make a difference for the children here and I want to make a difference for our community. And I truly have always believed that number one, public education is a cornerstone of our democratic government. Of our republic here.

We must have literate, analytical, critical thinkers, and it’s our job in our public school system to prepare all students to be that, because when they are in the voting polls, they’re making informed decisions.

0:21:45.0 But also, we play such an important role in the economic development prosperity of our community. We’re preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. 0:21:55.5 We are an important lynch pin for economic development and growth here. And even in our adult ed program, I know there we are impacting the lives of our children through their parents, through their neighbours, through their grandparents.

We want to help everyone earn a living wage, and also choose Osceola County as a place to make their home, not just as a step in their journey. So I am – I feel very blessed to be fortunate enough to serve here in the district where I came from.

Pat: 0:22:34.1 Thank you so much for that. So to tie it all together, what practical advice do you have for other administrators out there listening to this program and who are starting their career as a superintendent who are facing similar challenges?

If you can, you know, give something they can take away and get going to use it right away, what would that be?

Dr. Pace: 0:22:57.0 My probably biggest takeaway for a new leader is to really take the time – you can’t take too much time, to get to know your board, your board members and the needs of the community.

Get out there, ask people what’s going well? Where do we need to get better? What do you see as the challenges of the future? And let really formulate and drive your action plans. That was a key piece for us.

I started in March, by August, our school board was approving a new strategic plan, a new mission, a new vision. And that has just laid the groundwork for all of our efforts moving forward. And we continue to focus on that.

0:23:58.0 We started with the intent of having a three year plan. The goals this year in year two aren’t changing. We’re tweaking some of our activities in order to address what went well and where we still need to grow, but our focused priorities remain the same that the board established a year ago.

And that helps us to make sure that we’re aligning our resources, our time, our money, our people, with those goals and I think keeps us from chasing the latest gimmick or whim. There is no magic bullet in this work. 0:24:36.3 And I think that clear focus, that action plan that we created within my first few months on the job made a significant difference and the achievements that we were able to accomplish over the course of the first year.

Pat: 0:24:54.1 Very well said. Before we wrap up Dr. Pace, 0:25:02.2 [Inaudible – glitch] rapid fire questions. The questions will be quick, but your responses don’t have to be. 0:25:06.7 The first one is, what do you currently spend too much time doing?

Dr. Pace: 0:25:13.5 Email.

Pat: 0:25:16.1 What do you not spend enough time doing?

Dr. Pace: 0:25:21.0 Talking individually with my leadership team members.

Pat: 0:25:32.0 Ok, ok. How do you – what do you wish more people knew about your job?

Dr. Pace: 0:25:39.0 How fun it is. It’s so rewarding. But it’s fun work. You know you’re making a difference for kids and you can see it in that work. It’s awesome.

Pat: 0:25:54.9 Awesome. What are the emerging trends in the education that you are keeping an eye on?

Dr. Pace: 0:26:03.3 Personalized learning. I think – again, I don’t believe in magic bullets, but I do know that we need to meet kids where they are and help them find their individual interests, but keep the bar high and consistent. So how do you do that and do that well?

That is something I’m very interested in and I know that some folks are having some success with it, but there’s not yet a clear definition of what personalized learning is, and so that’s something I’m really watching.

Pat: 0:26:39.1 That was great Dr. Pace. Thank you for your time. If listeners want to learn more about what you talked about today or want to get in touch with you, what is the best way for them to do that?

Dr. Pace: 0:26:53.3 The best way to get in touch with me is through our district website. My email is there and certainly through our social media pages. On Twitter, I’m @PaceDebra. And you can follow both our district page on Facebook or Twitter and also my own professional page.

And we love to hear from the work in other places. I know that we all can learn from each other and certainly we still have a ways to go in our journey from good to great, but I am confident that we are getting better every day. And that’s our chief priority.

Pat: 0:27:31.8 Dr. Pace, I want say thank you so much for spending this time with us. Taking the time out, allowing us to pick your brain, and understand a little bit more. I wish you all the best.

You’ve done so much in the last one year, I’m sure you’re going to go great things moving forward at Osceola and maybe in another place that you move to. But this was great. I’m sure our listeners will have gotten a lot out of this discussion. Thanks again. I also want to say thank you to our sponsor, PikMyKid who’s made this all happen. Again Dr. Pace, thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Pace: 0:28:06.7 Well thank you so much Pat, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.


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