Retiring DOE chief looks back


Written by
Oyaol Ngirairikl
Pacific Daily News

———-

From bullies to increased graduation rates, the Guam Department of Education has seen highs and lows in the last three years.

Through them all, Superintendent Nerissa Bretania Underwood was at the helm, and today, she steps down from that position as she prepares for something new.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I think when you’re retiring after years of working, you have the right to say ‘I don’t know’ when people ask you what’s next,” she said with a laugh.

“I think I’ve earned that right — especially after these past three years.”

Underwood joined Guam DOE in 1980 as a special education teacher at Harry S. Truman Elementary School, and eventually was hired as the administrator for Research, Planning and Evaluation, and later as Guam DOE Special Education associate superintendent.

In 2003, she had an eight-month stint as interim superintendent and in 2008 — three superintendents later — Underwood was hired. At the end of today, she will be the first superintendent hired by the education board to complete the job’s three-year contract.
Uncertainties

There was a time, however, when there were some uncertainties about that accomplishment.

In November last year, a legislative oversight hearing opened the door to parents and students who shared horror stories of bullying in Guam public schools. The outcry caused a divide between board members and Underwood along with her management team.

“During the oversight hearing, I saw behaviors of the board members that I had never seen before,” she said. “They were under scrutiny and a lot of criticism from the public, I understand that because we were, too, but they got tough on us without giving us the opportunity to explain what we had done.”

The hearing led to board meetings in November and December where board members focused on school and Guam DOE administrators’ alleged failures to address bullying issues. During the November meeting, one board member told Underwood that she had the “right … to resign.”

“I saw a shift in our relationship — the board and me and my management,” she said. “The reports we provided (to board members) were never good enough. And even when we provided reports ahead of time, … instead of asking us questions prior to a board meeting they saved their criticisms for the board meetings and chastised us in public. And after a while, you really can only take so much criticism.”

She said those meetings and the lack of support did factor into her decision earlier this year not to seek to renew her contract as superintendent.

Underwood added that “in all fairness,” the board had its share of challenges. The board, created about 10 years ago, had consisted of nine elected board members, but its composition has changed several times.

“That was one of the issues the board had to deal with — the constant change in their mission, in their composition,” she said.

Last year, a new law changed the composition of the board to include governor’s appointees.

There’s a shift, however, in the new board that has been “very professional” and supportive, according to Underwood, that could help serve the new superintendent “very well.”

Coupled with the professionalism and experience of the management team she leaves behind, she said she’s “very comfortable” that Guam DOE will move forward positively after she leaves.

She said the new superintendent will need as much support as possible as the department prepares for a new school year fraught with challenges.

The new school year begins in a little more than two weeks — Aug. 9.
Obstacles

Simon Sanchez High School is still closed. Maintenance officials are scrambling to get it open before the start of the school year. And that’s not the only school opening officials are sweating over.

With less than two weeks until students start school, John F. Kennedy High School is not completed and has only gained a conditional occupancy permit.

That means school administrators and staff can move equipment and supplies in but people cannot actually begin using the facilities.

Guam DOE’s finance and procurement teams, as well as federal grants division, are pushing forward with requests for proposals to complete capital improvement projects in the schools that are worth more than $50 million.

Underwood said those and other challenges contrast a layer of successes in the last few years that would help ensure Guam DOE meets its mission to prepare students for life beyond high school.

In the last few years, Guam DOE’s graduation rate has increased to 77 percent. In 2005, that number was as low as 56 percent.

Guam DOE also has been able to decrease the number of students dropping out — going from a rate of 13 percent to 6.5 percent.

Underwood attributed the improved statistics to federal funding that allowed for training for teachers, principals and staff, and programs, such as Eskuelan Puenge, or Night School, which give students a second chance at earning required credits.

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