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Underwood profiles state of Guam education

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by Michele Catahay

Despite challenges at the Department of Education, Superintendent Dr. Nerissa Bretania Underwood remains optimistic that things will only get better. During her annual State of Education Address at Tamuning Elementary School last night, she highlighted the improvements made within the last year.

Within the last year, DOE has dealt with the closure of public schools, procurement challenges, facilities issues and even deficiencies noted by the U.S. Department of Education. While Dr. Underwood admits that such issues have caused concerns, anger and even disappointment in the community, she says there has been some progress in the classrooms.  "We are devoted to student learning and student progress," she said.

"Our success, our progress should be measured primarily what occurs in the classroom and what occurs between student and teacher and the growth experienced by our young people."

DOE continues to suffer from infrastructure issues and fiscal challenges in management and personnel, but the superintendent says she can't make the fixes alone to help with the many issues the department currently faces.  "The GDOE has 41 schools. Almost two-thirds of them were built over 40 years ago. We have 31,000 students, and 3,600 employees - most of whom are assigned to the schools. In fact, we have the lowest proportional employees assigned to central office since the beginning of the large federal programs in the late 1960s," she stated.

The superintendent's speech highlighted at least five goals adopted by the Guam Education Policy Board. One such is ensuring all students graduate from high school and gain employment or continue on to higher learning.  She says students are making great progress in that area.  "In School Year 2002-2003, our graduation rate was as low as 59% with approximately 1,500 students graduating in that year. In contrast for the year 2008–2009, we had 68% and more than 1,600 graduates. That is a difference of 9 percentage points of a period of six years," said Underwood.

As for increasing sat ten scores in the elementary schools, she says several schools have performed equal to or above the national average. One such school, which has shown improvement, is John F. Kennedy High School.  "Despite these conditions, the JFK students were at the top of its class across the content areas as evidence in the SAT-10 results. Specifically, JFK students ranked above the national average for social studies and spelling for 11th and 12th grade and students scored two points shy of reaching the national average in language arts," Underwood continued.

With the U.S. Department of Education withholding millions of dollars until a third-party fiduciary agent is put in place, the superintendent says her big goal is to ensure the department gets off its high-risk grantee status.  "High-risk means high visibility. High-risk means we must achieve higher standards. 'High-risk' means an acknowledgment that we need external assistance," he said.

She has assured the community that federal programs will not be hampered and has made it clear that the central office would be the first to feel the burden. 

In the meantime, says she hopes with the help of government agencies such as the General Services Agency, the Department of Administration, the Bureau of Budget & Management Research, the Governor's Office and Speaker Judi Won Pat, some of these issues will be addressed.

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