By Frank Whitman
“My whole purpose is to provide an improved level of educational services for our community,” K. Erik Swanson, superintendent of education at the Guam Department of Education, told Pacific Island Times recently. That purpose, however, has a “lot of moving parts.”
Swanson began his position as superintendent on July 1, 2023.
The task immediately before him is two-pronged. First is to try to rebuild GDOE facilities that have been “neglected over time for a long time, underfunded and not necessarily managed in the best way.” The second prong is to “improve the educational program across the board.”
He stressed that all students are to be included. “We get all the kids,” he said. “And in our case that presents some real specific challenges. We have to tailor what we’re doing to the needs of the kids and their families.”
Problems with facilities have “taken way more of my personal time than it should,” he said. The biggest challenge is a lack of funding. Since facilities upkeep is not appropriated as a separate item under the budget law, it must be funded out of the GDOE appropriation. However, 85 percent of GDOE’s appropriation covers personnel costs – payroll and benefits – which must be paid on time, leaving not enough for other needs.
Last year’s budget projection for the department was $290 million. The legislature appropriated $255 million. “So we have a $30 million shortfall from what we projected to what was appropriated,” he said.
Department officials are working to ensure that funding is being used efficiently. One area under scrutiny is personnel. While the system is staffed to accommodate 30,000 students, as it did before the pandemic, there are now 24,800 students enrolled.
Effective Jan. 16, teachers were to be reassigned as needed to ensure there is a certified teacher in every classroom as required by law, and that there is no more staff on the payroll than is needed.
Similarly, school facilities are being evaluated. “The challenges are getting funding that is adequate to sustain the facilities that we have,” he said. “I see more classroom space across the system that needs maintenance whether we use it or not. If we’re not going to use it and we don’t need it, we need to dispose of it so it’s not a drain on our resources.”
Swanson underscored the sensitive nature of community discussions about closing schools because communities and families have developed ties with the schools over the years. “We have to have those conversations in public so people understand what we’re doing and why,” he said.
In late March or early April, GDOE will administer the Smarter Balanced assessment test, which is used across the U.S. to measure progress on Common Core standards adopted by the department. The test is one of two assessments approved by the USDOE and will provide a comparison of academic progress “using the same yardstick” with students on the U.S. mainland. It will be the first time for the test to be administered in Guam.
GDOE is in the second year of implementing its Five-Year Strategic Plan adopted by the Guam Education Board in April 2022. Swanson considers the 22-page plan the “backbone” of the system.
He plans to provide a report on the progress of the plan to the community in June or July, and to use the plan to determine department priorities. “We’ll be looking at all the stuff (in the plan) we said we were going to implement,” Swanson said. “We’ll determine whether or not it was implemented, whether it worked and if not, why not.”
Swanson said DOE students’ rate of high school graduation is “good.” But he is concerned about the levels of English and math competency as a result of discussions with University of Guam officials and private sector employers.
With two-thirds of the DOE workforce at retirement age, Swanson anticipates having to fill vacant positions throughout the department, which he plans to do “thoughtfully.” His first consideration when hiring will be whether the position is actually needed and funded, and “to find the best talent to bring on board to do the work.”
“One of the positions that has not been filled for a long time is the deputy for assessment and accountability,” he said. Once that position is filled, he can “realign the rest of the structure of the system so Curriculum and Instruction can have more focus on curriculum and instruction and not as much on assessment.”
Strategies for dealing with school violence and other discipline problems are being examined by a select group of principals and central office personnel. They are “taking another look at the strategies that we’re using,” he said.
It is important, he said, to keep perspective. Less than 1 percent of students are engaged in serious misbehavior, which is made to look more widespread than it is, in part due to the widespread use of social media. Social media is often used to show real or staged incidents or to make plans for events.
To head off behavior problems, adults must build relationships with the students and their families. He also wants to ensure that educational programs are relevant. “If a student says ‘There’s nothing here for me; I don’t care what happens,’ he’s going to check out mentally, at least, and could become a behavior problem.”
Other negative outside influences include drugs, poverty, abuse and some gang activity. In addition, the difference in cultural backgrounds may lead to the social exclusion of some students. Mayors, police, Child Protective Services, parents and families may be needed to help resolve problems.
Swanson is a proponent of alternative classrooms, such as vocational training or similar programs, with the flexibility to meet students’ needs. He also noted that bad behavior must have consequences and that criminal behavior including assault and abuse is to be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
Swanson holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Nevada, Reno, a master’s in curriculum and evaluation from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a doctorate in leadership in educational administration from Capella University.
He taught in Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Italy, South Korea, Guam, Japan and Puerto Rico, and served more than 20 years as a K-12 principal.
After retiring from DoDEA, he relocated to the U.S. Pacific Northwest to lead a Title I elementary school in Yakima, Washington, and was hired to be superintendent in Omak, Washington. He also leads accreditation reviews for public and private schools across the southeastern United States.