Editor’s note: For our first profile leading up to the Women Today special section publishing March 29, the News-Gazette spoke with Osceola County School District Superintendent Debra Pace to ask her about her experiences as a woman in education administration and what role she believes public schools play in empowering the next generation of young female leaders.
Pace, a St. Cloud native, is celebrating her second year as district superintendent. She earned her doctorate of education from the University of Central Florida, and has been in the educational field since 1986. She formerly served as principal for Poinciana and
Harmony High Schools and as Deputy Superintendent for Secondary Instruction in the Osceola School District, among other roles.
Osceola News-Gazette: How have you seen the role of women in education administration evolve over the years?
Debra Pace: I think a lot of women, including myself, originally went into education because we love kids, but also because it was something that worked for a family lifestyle. My mother was a teacher, my aunt was a teacher – it was one of those careers where you could have some balance between your professional responsibilities and your family responsibilities.
I have seen more women go into leadership as doors have opened. I think that women encouraging other women to step up and try leadership roles is a really critical piece, and there’s more of that now than before. I think that’s really positive.
ONG: What’s your opinion on the “glass ceiling” as it relates to the educational field? Do you think it’s as much of an issue in your field compared to others?
Pace: Not any more. When I first became a high school principal, I was the only high school principal who was female at the time. I wasn’t the first. There had been one before me. But I was the only one.
But I think today, doors are open to women at all levels. Our state education commissioner, Pam Stewart, is female. I think she’s a great role model for others and encourages others to step up. And we try to do the same here in our district.
ONG: What do you think is the biggest challenge young women face today after they exit the public school system and enter the real world?
Pace: There is certainly always the challenge of balance for women — and for males. But I think women may feel it a little bit more intensely, in terms of taking care of your health, taking care of your family, taking care of your friends while meeting the demands of leadership and education. That is probably the biggest challenge I have faced, and I think that’s true for others.
The networks are there, the opportunities are there, to find support from other females, but still it’s hard to find that balance. And once you move into that leadership role, it can be a little lonely. So it’s important to establish relationships with colleagues as well so that you can collaborate, learn and grow from each other.
ONG: What kind of role do you think the public school system should play in empowering young girls?
Pace: I think that public schools play a significant role, and we do that by making sure that we open up opportunities for women in our classrooms, our schools and our district to be leaders so that young women have role models.
I also think that the things we do to encourages kids to be healthy females with good self confidence and strong body images is another important piece. Those things help show that young women can be a part of any field or career path they choose.
We’re opening NeoCity Academy in August, and I’m very excited that of the 119 students who have been accepted so far, almost 40 percent of them are female. They are choosing to go into a focused school based around STEM (science technology, engineering, and math). I think that shows that girls don’t feel that they can’t do math or they can’t do coding. They can and they are. Through our future problem solvers, through odyssey of the mind, through the curriculum and activities we are providing for kids.
STEM is a huge focus throughout the district, and that’s opening eyes and opening doors and creating opportunities for kids. I think public schools have to step up to that challenge.
ONG: What is a challenge you faced during your climb up through education administration that you hope future generations of females don’t have to face?
Pace: I’ve been very fortunate in my career path that I had great mentors who demonstrated great trust and confidence in me, and gave me great opportunities to develop so there weren’t any roadblocks.
But the best advice I ever received was blossom where you’re planted. Take the position you have now and be the best you can be. Bloom in that role, and that’s when the next door, the next opportunity comes your way, then you’ll have the confidence to take chances and risk failure in some respects because you have people around you who encourage and support you.