But as Gist regroups for a second-round application, and pledges to move forward with reform whether the federal dollars materialize or not, a more fundamental critique of her project lingers.
Critics say Gist and like-minded reformers across the country — Joel Klein of New York, Michelle Rhee of Washington DC, and Duncan, among them — are pouring huge sums of money and political capital into a model that is unworthy of investment.
Indeed, more than a decade into our experiment with free-market reform, it is far from clear that the initiatives at the center of that effort are working: charter schools, on average, perform no better than traditional public schools; and turnarounds of the sort contemplated in Central Falls have done little to boost achievement.
But if the overall record is mixed, there are examples of success. Adherents of the free-market school say reform, if properly executed, can have a real impact.
And Gist, her supporters insist, can deliver for the state — by sheer force of will, if necessary.
‘A SENSE OF JUSTICE’
Rhode Island’s education commissioner averages five hours of sleep per night. She runs marathons. She has flown in an F-18 with the Blue Angels. She claimed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, for a couple of years, after collecting 112 kisses on the cheek in a single minute.
And there is more to do, it seems. In her black shoulder bag, Gist carries a spreadsheet laying out her goals in three categories — annual, ongoing, and life. Some she declines to reveal — not very “commissioner-like,” she says.
But the rest speak to a woman of eclectic enthusiasms: flying lessons, a visit to the salt flats in Bolivia, and at least one date per month with her husband Jock Friedly, a former investigative reporter.
Gist, who grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can’t quite pinpoint the origin of her drive. “I don’t know, actually, because I’m very different from my family,” she says. “They thought I was some strange creature that was dropped from the sky.”
But Gist says she knew, early on, that she wanted to work in the classroom. In the seventh grade, she completed a project titled “My Career as a Pre-School Teacher.” And Gist’s ambition was cemented a few years later when her high school class adopted an impoverished family at Christmas.
Bearing food, presents, and a tree, Gist and several classmates set out for the family’s home and encountered a scene of deprivation that remains with her decades later. There were mattresses on the floor, she says. The cabinets were bare. A faulty heating system left a strange smell.
“I was just deeply affected by their circumstances,” Gist says. “And it was at that point that I made the commitment that what I wanted to do was teach — and teach children who most needed a quality education to lift themselves out of those kinds of circumstances. I just felt, from a sense of justice, that people shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Gist went on to work in classrooms in Fort Worth, Texas and Tampa, Florida, picking up school-level “Teacher of the Year” awards in both cities. And she showed early signs of ambition: in Tampa, she founded a center on environmental education and a countywide reading program.