OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – Dr. Debra Pace’s first career choice was not education.
“I did have an opportunity to study international trade at Auburn University—had a wonderful experience there, got out, did a couple of different things at Walt Disney World, a local bank—but I really found that I missed having an impact on people,” said Pace of the moment she realized she was meant to teach.
A year after earning her degree in international trade, she left the field and at 22 years old went back into the classroom—this time, as an educator.
“(I) immediately connected with the kids even though I can’t say that I knew exactly what I was doing. But I figured it out along with great support, mentors, a strong principal who helped me learn,” she recalled.
The St. Cloud native has been serving Osceola County’s school district for 33 years. She told News 6 it’s been her pride and joy to give back to the community where she was born and raised through education.
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“It has been humbling, but also deeply rewarding, deeply personal to be able to serve as superintendent in the school district where I grew up,” Pace said. “I’m proud to say that of that first group of students that I taught at Osceola High School, three of them are teachers in our district.”
Her love for teaching and for encouraging academic achievement within diverse cultures and developing programs that have impacted student performance has been recognized among her peers.
When Pace was principal at Poinciana High School, she made headlines after the school received a designation as a “Breakthough High School for Student Achievement” by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“I had been a teacher there, a dean and an assistant principal but when I took over the principalship, I knew that I needed to change the community’s perception of the great work that was happening there,” she said. “We really went about establishing a campaign called Poinciana Pride and as a result we saw remarkable improvement in student discipline, we saw great improvement in student achievement and we saw tremendous growth in community pride for what Poinciana High School could represent.”
She said while the teachers make the No. 1 difference in the classroom, a principal influences every classroom in the school for a very long time.
“It’s about culture, it’s about expectations, it’s about achievement, it’s about feedback,” she said.
As superintendent for one of Central Florida’s largest counties, Pace currently oversees 70,000 students and 8,500 employees throughout the Osceola County school district.
But learning to keep up with her professional life as well as prioritizing her family has been a challenge, she said.
“I’m not sure that there is the perfect work-life balance. I think it varies from day to day and moment to moment, but my family always knew in the end they came first. To other women out there, particularly other leaders, I think we have to support one another throughout this work because there’s no perfect balance but we have to do our best to get it right,” the mother of four said.
As for how women’s roles in education have shifted, Pace said it hasn’t been easy for them, especially in leadership roles.
“My first experience as a high school principal, I was the only girl in the group and high school people by nature are very, very competitive,” she said. “I think we’ve come a long way since then because women leaders in education have taken the opportunity to help others along the way to encourage them and support them grow. And as a result, we’ve had an opportunity to really knock at that glass ceiling.”
Pace said she credits her achievements to the women in her family.
“I have had the blessing throughout my life to have been raised by to have been mentored by just an enormous number of very strong women. From my grandparents my grandmothers, to my mom to teachers who impacted my life,” she said.
As for what her future holds, Pace is getting ready for a new chapter in her life—retirement. In December, Pace announced her last day would come in the summer of 2023.
“I will miss students the most. That opportunity to engage with the kids on a first name basis. I’m not a look back type person, I’m not a regretful person and I can honestly say that every day of my career and education I have done what I thought was best for kids that day. And if it didn’t go the way it was planned, we fixed it the next day,” she said. “Probably one of the most difficult days in my career so far was the day I decided to share with our principals that I had decided it was time to retire. So, I’m sure there will be a lot of tears on the last day but also smiles and laughter and there will be memories that I will take with me forever.”
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