You Can't Put A Good Man Down

May 22, 2017 Nestor Licanto

 

Words by Nestor Licanto 

Photos by Victor Consaga

"The question I had mostly was, ‘Can I come back and be an effective leader after all that has happened?’ and I had an opportunity to talk to my wife and my family about those issues and the options to come back or not."

Four years into his term as the head of Guam’s largest and most expensive agency,

Jon Fernandez had established himself as arguably one of the most popular

superintendents in the history of the Guam Department of Education, especially

among his most important constituents. He was savvy enough at the use of social

media to regularly connect to a student population that grew up with it as their

primary form of communication, and seemed to relish the idea of direct access to

the man at the top.

Fernandez was hired in July of 2012 with an impressive résumé that includes a

Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Arkansas, where he graduated

magna cum laude. He also spent a year studying abroad at London’s prestigious

University of Cambridge. Fernandez followed that with a master’s degree in Public

Policy from Harvard University, and a Law degree from Georgetown University.

The new superintendent was a local boy with impeccable credentials. That’s why

when allegations surfaced during an education board meeting in May of 2016 that

Fernandez may have gotten too close to a student, the community was shocked.

Fernandez categorically denied any misconduct, and because of pending legal issues

with the previous GDOE board, he declined to discuss any of the specific allegations

against him.

“I hope whenever I’m done that they will remember me as someone who really focused on students first…"

However, the accusations by a then-18- year-old female student at J.P. Torres

Alternative School dominated local newscasts and headlines. The girl claimed that

Fernandez had sent her a suggestive text message that made her feel uncomfortable.

She and a substitute teacher at the school, who was an alleged witness, filed police

complaints claiming Fernandez had also messaged the student that he would get her

a new cell phone if she “were a good girl.”

The public allegations set off a series of denials and counter-charges, including that

the girl had been seeking as much as $10 thousand “to pay for a private school,” in

which case she would reportedly drop her allegations. The education board also at

one point voted to fire Fernandez. But with the support of the governor and a

reconstituted Board of Education, previous board actions were rescinded, and

Fernandez was reinstated in March of 2017. He had spent eight months on paid

leave while the issue of his alleged misconduct was being litigated before the board,

the courts, and the public.

Since his return to the job, Fernandez has been very guarded with his comments

about the alleged incident, and did not address specific questions about how he and

his family may have been personally affected, except to say, “I wouldn’t wish this on

anybody.”

He acknowledged that it has also been a major distraction for the school system,

which was left “in a bit of a limbo” during his absence. “Over the last eight months, of

course it’s been a disturbing situation, not the best situation to be in. I think I’ve

taken the steps to try and resolve it, both with the board and through the processes

that are available to me, which is through the judicial system,” Fernandez said.

While the allegations may have cast him in an unfavorable light, Fernandez said he

is not one to shy away from controversy, “going out in public…I think some people

would prefer to hide away, but I’m not that type of person. I did go out and conduct

my daily business, doing so in a private manner, not trying to attract any attention.

But I was always uplifted by the fact that different people would come up on their

own and kind of wish me the best. They would offer a lot of support, all through that.

[They would tell me], ‘If there is an opportunity I hope you would come back.’”

While the final disposition of his lawsuit against former DOE board members is still

pending as of this writing, Fernandez is back and ready to put the harassment

allegations and his termination behind him.

How ready was he to return? “The question I had mostly was, ‘Can I come back and

be an effective leader after all that has happened?’ and I had an opportunity to talk

to my wife and my family about those issues and the options to come back or not. I

thought a lot about the support that I received from a lot of people across the board,

most especially students who came out on their own to really rally for the

superintendent.”

Fernandez continued, “When it came down to it, it was weighing the question of

whether or not I could continue to have the same passion and the same level of

energy that I was able to dedicate to the work.”

Ultimately, he believes his mission at the department is far from done. “It’s an

important mission; it involves our children, it involves my children who are public

school students. I think I can bring stable leadership, and I believe I can push

forward in a positive way for our school system. I think I’ve done so to this point,

but there’s a lot of work to be done. So I think at the end I could come to work every

day, put my all into it, and still be rewarded by just watching the progress of our

school system and trying to handle the challenges that were ahead,” Fernandez said.

He also described his lengthy absence from the day-to- day decision-making at DOE

as a great challenge that he compared to withdrawal anxiety. “That’s how I would

kind of describe it, as a withdrawal. Every day became a little easier, but it took

several months before I said, ‘Okay, there’s no decision I need to make, it’s in the

hands of other people. What’s good about it, what you learn about it, is that it’s a

department that’s been here for years, decades, and so life will go on whether or not

you’re in a particular position, you recognize the reality of it—the school system will

always be there, so it’s not like it hinges on any one person. I think that’s something

that every leader needs to respect and to appreciate,” Fernandez explained.

Realizing that no one is expendable had perhaps the most important impact on him.

“Everything could disappear in one day,” Fernandez expressed. “You’re here one

day, you may not be here the next. Coming back to the school system, that was

something that really sits with me, something that I reflect on. For sure there is a

long view, and you’ve got to put the pieces in place, but there’s no telling how long

you’ll be in the position to have that kind of impact, so I feel like I’m in a hurry now.”

For Fernandez, “the future’s not guaranteed, so if there are things that really

matter…if there are things you know you can do today, those are the things I want to

grapple with and see if we can raise the level of urgency and try to find solutions

sooner rather than later.”

One of his top priorities is repairing the many aging and deteriorating school

buildings. “We have to make sure that even though our primary mission is to

educate our kids, they’ve got to first come to a safe and secure environment that’s

conducive to learning. And when we know that our facilities are in need of repair,

we have to find a way to deal with that. Because we’ll have a hard time getting to the

instructional priorities, the educational priorities, if we’re always trying to figure

out how to keep facilities from falling apart,” Fernandez explained.

Many of Guam’s schools, particularly the middle schools, are more than 50 years old

and suffer from the typical problems affecting aging facilities. Replacing them has

also been problematic for DOE and GovGuam leaders not only because of a chronic

lack of funding, but because the problem grows larger each year as enrollment

continues to outpace the capacity of new and renovated facilities.

The superintendent’s other top priority is keeping up with the need for teachers.

“That’s probably the biggest worry on my mind. We’re in the same position as many

other districts in the states when we talk about teacher shortages. Which means

we’re not able to fill all our positions with certified teachers in their grade level or

content area.”

Fernandez pointed to retirement and attrition as two of the big reasons behind

DOE’s ongoing challenge to fill its teacher needs. He added that they are also “not

getting enough from the University of Guam, where most of our teachers come

from.” He added that there are changes happening with UOG’s program that might

make the path even more difficult. “They are removing the education degree and

having them focus on a content area before they make the move to become certified

in teaching,” he explained.

But Fernandez said the challenge might be more fundamental. “It’s really about

where we’re going with the teaching profession nationally and locally. What changes

have happened in the teaching profession that may have driven teachers to choose

other professions? What can we do to ensure that teachers as professionals have a

worthwhile opportunity to develop as professionals and be rewarded accordingly?

And third, how do we attract in this new generation of graduates young people who

are interested in becoming teachers?” he said at length.

He believed more can be done to market teaching as a profession, especially to

school kids because they are a natural “captive audience” who are exposed to

teaching for at least 12 years. He pointed to the annual school Career Days as an

example of missed opportunities. “One thing I’ve observed, there are firefighters,

police, doctors, but I ask the students, have you ever heard from a teacher? I ask

teachers, do you ever talk about being a teacher to students?

The answer was a surprising no. “So I end up, as superintendent, talking about how

important it is to be a teacher during my segment because I want them to

appreciate their teacher and I want their teachers to communicate with them that

this is one of the most, if not the most important job on this island. Because we’re

preparing these kids to be citizens, and to be productive members of our society,”

Fernandez said.

“Everything could disappear in one day. You’re here one day, you may not be here the next. Coming back to the school system, that was something that really sits with me, something that I reflect on.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, Fernandez rated the Guam Public School system as a work in

progress. “I’m kind of hard on myself too, so I would say 5 or 6. Only from the

standpoint that we’re building and we continue to build a system that we hope will

produce graduates that are ready for college or career. And that’s a system that

involves setting expectations clearly by choosing and adopting high-quality

standards. By being able to measure student progress along those standards, so

we’re very clear on what kids need to learn. And we have tools ready to measure

their progress towards those goals. We have so much more to do. One of the key

pieces to that infrastructure is really assuring that teachers are prepared and able to

carry out the educational mission of the department,” he explained.

The superintendent’s measurement of public education success is both the quantity

and quality of matriculation. “Increase the number of graduates that come out of our

school system, and increase the number of graduates that are actually college or

career opportunities,” Fernandez said.

Focusing on that end goal is really important to Fernandez. Tracking the results is

tricky, but it is the kind of data they need to “determine if we’re being successful,”

Fernandez said. “It takes a lot of coordination with GCC and UOG.” Within DOE they

have different measures of progress along the way, “but I tell every fourth-grade

teacher that the real goal here is to get these kids out of our school system ready for

work or ready for college.”

When all is said and done, Fernandez hoped he would be remembered for several

things. One is that he was accessible and available as a superintendent. “People may

make a lot about my visibility at the schools. I want to hear the problems, I want to

hear the good things, I want to hear it from the kids.”

He also hoped people will remember him as a champion of the teachers. “I’d love to

be remembered as someone who really focused in on the role that teachers play. If

we can find a way to improve the way we attract, retain, and develop teachers that

would be something that I hope would have a long-lasting effect in the school

system,” Fernandez mused.

Most importantly, he hoped his tenure is marked by his commitment to the ultimate

customer. “I hope whenever I’m done that they will remember me as someone who

really focused on students first…I spend a lot of time in the schools trying to figure

out how our students are doing, and I hope all of our employees value that. You

know when I send our central office out for parent-teacher conferences or any other

activity we want to know how our students are doing because we’re just like any

other business, if our customers are not getting value, then we’re not doing our job,”

Fernandez concluded.

 


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