Unified School District 475 Director of Student Services Deb Gustafson grew up in the county jail.
This was not because of anything she or her family had done wrong — far from it.
Her father, Jim Gross, was the Geary County Sheriff and back then that meant he and his family made their home in the jail’s living quarters. They were the last family to be required to do so, but she lived there until she was in her teens.
She moved into the jail at Ninth and Franklin Streets with her family when her dad was the undersheriff, when she was around 3 or 4 years old.
It was an interesting experience for a child to grow up in such an environment.
“You don’t really bring your your classmates over to play at the jail — although I did,” Gustafson said. “I was surrounded by prisoners all the time. I was surrounded by trustees all the time. The courthouse was in my yard, you know, so I was always privy to what went on at the courthouse.”
In the sheriff’s quarters, the family didn’t even have their own kitchen. They often cooked for the prisoners and ate what they ate, and on the same schedule.
“Living in the jail really formed my viewpoints on life,” Gustafson said. “My my parents were very hard workers (and) worked long hours.”
In addition to her dad being sheriff, her mother had a career as the assistant manager of Montgomery Wards and so Gustafson learned to value work ethic.
“I just grew up believing that everybody works long hours, and you do whatever you have to do to get the job done,” Gustafson said.
She also learned to value empathy.
In those days, Ninth Street was a rough part of Junction City.
“It was a one block area of gambling and bars and prostitution,” she said.
It sometimes comes, Gustafson said, with being a military town.
In any case, the debauchery was contained to one block with the jail at the end of it, she said, and her as a growing child witnessing all of it.
Gustafson said it taught her love and compassion for people who didn’t have the kind of life — or opportunities — she had.
As an only child of two working parents, her life was better than average.
“But I was surrounded by people that were struggling,” she said. “I was surrounded by a tremendous amount of diversity, I was surrounded with a tremendous amount of poverty. And my mom and dad’s viewpoint on life was — and is — you give, you help, you provide, you mentor, you guide, you teach — you do whatever you can to help people in their circumstances. And so living in the jail, I was surrounded by people who had made bad choices and needed to get their lives turned around.”
During her dad’s time as sheriff, Gustafson saw children visiting their parents in jail and mothers who, in an effort to feed their children, made a choice that landed them in trouble. In her teens, Gustafson saw her classmates being arrested after their own bouts of bad decisions. She remembers raids that would push the jail’s population above its usual 30-40 inmates into the triple digits.
“I just grew up seeing that part of humanity all the time,” she said. “And I think that that pushed me into just wanting to make a difference, wanting to make life better for people.”
Gustafson learned at an early age, she said, that a single bad choice didn’t define a person.
“An unfortunate circumstance doesn’t define who you are,” she said. “You can always grow, you can always get better, you can always improve.”
Before she graduated from Junction City High School, Gustafson and her family were permitted to move out of the sheriff’s quarters, but the lessons she learned in the jail remained.
She has since gone on to great things for USD 475 during her roughly 44 years with the district, but she has never forgotten those formative experiences that shaped who she is today.
Gustafson started working for USD 475 at age 17, as a secretary, after her high school graduation. For about 10 years she served in that capacity, working the front desk at Franklin Elementary School during the school year and doing custodial work during the summers. Gustafson decided she wanted to play a different roll in the district.
“The principal at the time, Mr. Wise, he was wonderful with letting me do a lot of other jobs in the building, also working with kids,” she said. “And so I knew that I that education was kind of where I wanted to land. I was young, starting at 17. Didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. I’d started to college and then I didn’t finish.”
Gustafson returned to college as a wife and mother and became a teacher.
She taught for three years at Sheridan Elementary School until Max Heim, the superintendent of schools at the time, encouraged her to take her education even further and become an administrator.
Shortly after receiving her bachelor’s degree, she returned to school to pursue a master’s degree. Eventually, she would earn her doctorate. Gustafson earned all of her degrees while working full time, she said.
Gustafson started her career as a principal at Lincoln Elementary School, where she would stay for seven years.
Superintendent at the time Mary Devin attempted to have Gustafson transferred to Ware Elementary School. At first, Gustafson said, she didn’t want to go. She had promised Lincoln, after many years of turnover among the school’s principals, to stay there for 10 years.
“Plus, I never had a desire to be on post,” she said. “I am a hometown girl, Junction City’s what I love,” Gustafson said. “I love the challenges of this community, the diversity, the poverty — all the things that make up what Junction City is, is what I — it’s what drives me — it’s what I enjoy. It’s what I like. So I really wanted to stay in town.”
So Gustafson pushed back against the decision and convinced Devin to allow her to take over a recently-vacated principal slot at Grandview Elementary School while still continuing to function as principal at Lincoln as well.
“I knew I would love Grandview, because Grandview is a unique little community,” Gustafson said. “All the things that I like about schools and communities, Grandview was.”
So she traveled between Lincoln and Grandview for three years, during which time she helped raise the test scores at Grandview.
After those three years, Gustafson was reassigned to Ware, which at the time was a “problematic” school.
Gustafson went in and, with her staff, laid out a plan to save the school.
“At the time, there were 850 students,” she said. “There were significant union complaints from the teachers’ union. Discipline was out of control, they had over 280 unduplicated suspensions year before. So a lot of problems, a lot of challenges. And back then, when you were moved to a school, they didn’t let you take staff with you like they do now. Now, you move schools, you get to take some of your staff with you, they didn’t do anything like that. So had to build relationships, create a new team, come up with a plan for turning the school around. And we did.”
It took about two years to turn things around for Ware.
By year three, the school had started to excel.
“By the end of the third year, we were significantly higher than the state and district averages in everything,” Gustafson said. “And we sustained that over an 18-year period.”
This garnered the attention of a variety of foundations throughout the state and the country, groups that researched and collected information about schools.
The story of Ware and its turnaround is chronicled in a book, “How It’s Being Done: Urgent lessons from unexpected schools” by Karin Chenoweth.
From about 2005 to 2010, the school made connections with people across the nation — such as Chenoweth — and raked in awards.
Gustafson maintains many of these connections today.
She departed Ware two years ago, but still sometimes takes part in projects with national reach.
“What’s really been a surprise to me is there are still researchers and authors and the top names in education still noticing that story and still noticing (Ware’s) turnaround,” Gustafson said.
Recently, she was featured in a podcast and an article by Jim Collins, the author of one of the books she used in orchestrating Ware’s turnaround.
The book, called “Good to Great,” touches on the stories of multi-billion dollar ventures such as Amazon and Forbes.
“It’s a it’s a book written for business,” she said. “And it gives different business models in there, of how to take just a regular foundational business product and make it very successful.”
One model, the flywheel concept, Gustafson found particularly useful at Ware.
“You apply energy to certain key points, you get a flywheel to moving, the momentum keeps going, and then you don’t have to deploy as much energy and you can take different gears offline and address them,” she said. “Well, that resonated with me when I read his book back in 2001. Because I’m a rancher’s wife, I get the flywheel concept. That works on a lot of machinery that we have. So it’s simple, and I understand simple. I don’t like to make things real complicated.”
Ware’s story is now printed in Collin’s newest publication, “Turning the Flywheel.”
Gustafson has served as a speaker on the national circuit and been featured in Newsweek.
The story continues to be told, she said, “because we still don’t have enough of these examples. There still aren’t enough of these explicit school success stories out there that sustain over time.There’s short gains and sensational gains. But then as soon as the staff turns over or whatever, they tend to die out. There haven’t been these sustained gains.”
Today, she continues to mentor and teach other up-and-coming district leaders through a program she teaches alongside Mary Devin at Gustafson’s alma mater, Kansas State University.
Gustafson stresses that she is not owed sole credit for everything she has accomplished over the years. She has had support.
“This is all about the people I’ve surrounded myself with and the directions that we have chosen to go,” Gustafson said.