Former television news anchor Deborah Gianoulis is on a mission to save public education. Don’t think you can stop her
Forty-eight years ago, sixth-grader Deborah Gianoulis walked into a public school classroom in Delaware for the first time. She was immediately struck by Mr. Wilson’s teaching area, by its stark contrast to the structured parochial schoolrooms she’d been in before. It was alive and interesting, “bright with light and color, living plants and music. It never occurred to me [before] school could be fun,” Gianoulis recalls.
At the two private schools she’d attended previously, students rarely left their desks. They ate lunch in silence. They spoke only when spoken to. The instructors crammed 60 or 70 kids into a classroom. But Mr. Wilson’s class was different. It was a revelation.
“We were always moving around and participating. We were so encouraged to be creative, yet disciplined at the same time,” Gianoulis says. “During science, we took care of classroom plants, and we learned geography through listening to the music, eating the foods and wearing costumes of other cultures. I experienced a dedicated teacher’s innovative approach to developing in a child a love of learning.”
Sometimes that love was, if anything, too enthusiastic. Mr. Wilson gave young Deborah her first and only C — in Citizenship, no less — because she wouldn’t shut up about what she was learning. She talked about it all the time, in music class, in art class, in PE. “He told me I had to learn to listen as well,” she says.
The passion that took root that morning nearly five decades ago has anchored Gianoulis throughout the many permutations of her life — from Emmy-winning television news anchor to documentarian, from
would-be politician to activist. She learned to overcome adversity. She learned to adapt to changing times. And through it all, she became, and remains, one of the foremost advocates of public education in Northeast Florida.
Last year, just months after she took over as president and CEO of the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership, which for more than a decade has provided thousands of educators with a wide range of professional development courses, adversity struck her once again. Eighty percent of the center’s funding vanished virtually overnight, as the new Duval County Public Schools superintendent dramatically shifted the district’s priorities. Many people thought that the Schultz Center would go belly-up, but you should never count Deborah Gianoulis out. She’s been knocked down before and each time, she gets back up, more determined to move forward, to make a difference, to change the world, one student at a time.
In college, at the University of Delaware, Gianoulis had trained to be a scriptwriter and reader. And that’s what the 21-year-old expected to do when Channel 12 in Jacksonville hired her, back in 1976, as an education reporter — a fortuitous beat, as it would turn out. The brave new world of television journalism required its journalists to be unscripted, spontaneous observers and reporters of news. These next-generation journalists had to think on their feet. Gianoulis did it with aplomb, and made a name for herself.
Many years later, she did it again, innovating and leading in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
In 1979, Channel 4 recruited Gianoulis to be an anchor, even having executives fly to London, where she and her husband had been living for a year, to secure the coup. Over the ensuing quarter-decade, she had earned a reputation for in-depth television reporting, taking home two Emmys — for military and education reporting, respectively — and a prestigious Peabody Award for a documentary on domestic violence.
Then in 2002, Channel 4 lost its CBS affiliation. Through sheer force of will, she and her fellow staff members rallied to rebrand Channel 4 as a comprehensive source of local news, and retained their No. 1 rating, a feat by any measure.
“The staff learned new ways of doing business and looking out for each other, putting a positive face on for public consumption,” Gianoulis says. “I learned we can and we will get through this.”
Gianoulis stepped away from the anchor desk that year, when the youngest of her two children was a senior in high school. She wanted to be a volunteer, to become an unfettered advocate for public education. “I had anchored and reported the news for more than 25 years,” she says. “I wanted to do longer-form work and get off the daily news cycle.”
She’d been thinking about it for years. Behind the scenes, she’d formed a documentary company that, in the space of the next several years — a “decade of self-exploration,” as she calls it — produced three education-related features, all dealing with the disparity of educational opportunities, starting in pre-K and ending in prison, where too many poor and disadvantaged students wind up.
“As I visited classrooms in poor neighborhoods, I became aware of gross inequities in quality of staff, infrastructure, materials and level of coursework,” she says.
Gianoulis also kept evolving as an activist, acquiring and then exerting more and more influence. She became part of Mayor John Peyton’s early learning initiative. She chaired the Episcopal Children’s Services board. She then created the Episcopal Children’s Services Foundation Board and the Children’s Champion award to draw attention to children’s issues in Northeast Florida.
Her volunteer work put her in touch with other people who felt strongly about the need to adequately fund local public schools, and in 2008 they formed Save Duval Schools, a grassroots group designed to fight public school funding cuts. The group became an outspoken critic of high-stakes testing and legislative moves to privatize public education. Gianoulis, allied with grassroots groups from around the state, helped shut down legislative efforts to pass the “Parent Trigger Bill,” a measure that would have enabled the takeover of struggling public schools by a charter or for-profit private management company.
That wasn’t her only success. A grassroots show of force, including organized marches and visits to elected officials before and during the 2010 legislative session, was enough to inspire Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, to buck the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature by vetoing Senate Bill 6, a measure that would have tied teacher pay to student performance on high-stakes tests.
“Grassroots work is the hardest work there is,” Gianoulis says. “Most of the moms I worked with have kids in school and few resources, yet they care so passionately about the welfare of children besides their own that they are up all hours of the night, building websites, sharing email lists, doing research.”
The knock-down, drag-out fight over SB 6 was a final straw for Gianoulis. She began thinking it might be time to reinvent herself again, this time from activist to politician. “Education advocacy had brought me face to face with our legislature,” she says. “I was appalled at the way parents and educators were ignored by our elected leadership.”
And so, once her children and husband were on board, she took the plunge, challenging Republican state Sen. John Thrasher, a member of the old guard and SB 6 author, in the 2010 election. Thrasher’s district was a conservative stronghold that housed 46,000 more Republicans and Democrats. Thrasher and his allies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative ads and mailers painting Gianoulis as a wide-eyed liberal. She lost, and lost fairly badly, but it wasn’t a terrible showing for a first-timer facing such an uphill battle.
“Losing was hardest on my team and the remarkable citizens who believed we could pull off the David and Goliath story,” Gianoulis says. “I was so proud of our effort and getting GOP and independent crossover votes in the second-most-Republican district in the state. My race has encouraged others to run, so it was clearly worth the effort.”
After that campaign, Gianoulis again began to ponder how she could revamp herself, this time into most effective advocate for public education. Over the years, Gianoulis had observed what she considered a relentless assault on public school teachers and principals in the 1980s and ’90s, and the growing move toward privatization. Schools saw their budgets cut even as they were blamed for the U.S. losing its edge in the global economy.
She had long ago given up the idea of returning to TV news, turned off as she was by the insatiable appetite of the 24-hour news cycle. But she wanted to do, needed to do, something.
“Public education is the backbone of democracy,” she says. “This country created the gold standard and we did not do it on the cheap. In fact, the rest of the world emulated us and is threatening to beat us at our own game. We sent every World War II vet to college who wanted to go at no charge and built the strongest economy on Earth. The key is access for every child, no matter their circumstances of birth, family or income.”
Another run for office was out, at least for the time being. (That said, her vocal support for Crist has some close friends wondering if she might be headed for Tallahassee, should he prevail in November.) Then, in October 2012, the Schultz Center offered her a chance to be a part of something essential to Northeast Florida. She saw it as a calling.
By the time Gianoulis took over as CEO of the Schultz Center, the nonprofit was already facing the brunt of statewide educations cuts. Cash-strapped school districts across Florida were sending fewer and fewer educators for training. And then the new DCPS superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, lowered the boom: He changed the school district’s professional development philosophy, shifting teacher training away from Schultz to on-site programs — a $2.1 million hit to the center’s operating budget. Eighty percent of the center’s budget evaporated. There were layoffs and panic; some 20 Duval County educators were transferred out of the center’s facility and Gianoulis had to cut five jobs.
Had the center’s board not dipped into its reserves while Gianoulis sought to regroup, Vitti’s decision could have been a fatal blow. But it wasn’t — at least not yet. The cuts forced the Schultz Center “to rethink everything,” Gianoulis says, but they also helped expedite a process already underway to expand its reach, a process she had initiated a year earlier as chair of the center’s board of directors.
“Our board had already decided the heavy dependence on a single client [DCPS] was not sustainable,” she says. The center began looking nationally, even internationally, for new partners.
The re-evaluation also opened the door for the Schultz Center’s EdSpark initiative, which it will launch as part of the second annual One Spark festival held Downtown April 9-13. The idea for EdSpark was “literally ignited by One Spark,” Gianoulis says. The first One Spark took place just weeks before Gianoulis learned of the DCPS cuts. Schultz Center staff members had been among the 130,000 visitors checking out the 406 One Spark exhibits; they were particularly impressed by the innovative education ideas scattered over several blocks of the festival.
“We had the idea to pull them all together and call it EdSpark,” Gianoulis says. “We also saw huge potential as One Spark grows to create next-generation work for the Schultz Center by recruiting education innovators and creating an incubator to grow new approaches to teaching and learning.”
The center will curate education-related exhibits during the international event, with the ultimate goal in mind to become a national and global resource for education innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration. Gianoulis anticipates that at least 50 education innovators will show off their ideas at the EdSpark venue, on the second floor of the Wells Fargo Building overlooking the St. Johns River. Interested participants should note that the deadline for submitting entries is Jan. 31; it can be done online at beonespark.com.
EdSpark participants will vie with other One Spark entrants for crowd-funding votes and a portion of cash prizes totalling $310,000. More than that, it’s a huge networking opportunity for creators and innovators, and this is where the Schultz Center sees a world of possibility.
“We do not yet know what [the Schultz Center’s] global reach might look like, but EdSpark may help open that horizon as we work to bring in international creators,” Gianoulis says. “Collaboration is the way Millennials will work. It is the way companies like Google work now. Isolated classrooms, schools and districts cannot meet the challenges of the future alone. We want educators to know we believe they have the answers, the new school designs, the new community partnership ideas, the classroom practices that will engage the next generation of students.”