Recently-appointed Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Lynn Spampinato is ready to tackle the troubled Virgin Islands educational system and has no illusions about the difficult task she faces.
With 31 years of experience in public school systems from Philadelphia to Denver, Spampinato has been instrumental in turning crumbling education systems around.
“I’ve been in battle before,” said Spampinato. “This is not the first time I’m dealing with these kinds of problems. I’m not scared.”
Although many actions must eventually be taken, a thorough analysis of each department is first on her agenda, Spampinato explained.
“I don’t want to put band-aids on the problems,” said Spampinato. “And we can’t get overwhelmed and try to fix everything at once. I need to do a thorough evaluation of where we are, and what has worked in the past and what hasn’t.”
Are Standards High Enough?
While internal audits are part of that analysis, Spampinato will also be looking at curriculum.
“We’re going to do audits and look at where we are in terms of if our standards are high enough,” said the acting commissioner. “We have to look at the curriculum and resources and see if there is enough support for our teachers in the classrooms.”
“We need to look at what we are teaching and how we are teaching it,” Spampinato added.
The territory must also work to create a better relationship with federal education officials, explained Spampinato.
“We must get the education department out of crisis mode,” she said. “The situation with federal funding is in a crisis right now. We have to look at how to build a stronger relationship with the U.S. Department of Education.”
As a first step toward warming relations with federal education personnel, Spampinato is sending a team of V.I. officials to Washington, D.C.
“We’re going to be meeting with U.S. Department of Education officials to talk about future planning and funding,” said Spampinato. “We need to spend money on big ticket items and get the money to the schools so principals can start spending it. We’ll also be doing budget comparisons to determine where and how we spend our federal funds.”
Territorial education officials will also be travelling to model public school systems, Spampinato added.
“If this were easy every school system in the U.S. would be great, but they aren’t,” she said. “We’re going to send personnel to look at successful school districts in the U.S. We’ll also look at the top five career and technical schools in the U.S.”
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel and we must do our homework,” Spampinato continued. “There could be a lot of interconnection and we can learn from each other. It’s difficult to imagine how things work without seeing them.”
Long Range Plans Needed
Spampinato, who was on Love City last week to attend the final session of the State Office of Special Education’s Summer Institute at the Westin Resort and Villas, has already convened with St. John public school principals in the first of many planned meetings, both with school officials and the public.
“We must look at the long range plans,” said Spampinato. “I know on St. John a new school is a priority. I will be setting up meetings here to listen to the community and begin the process of building a school on St. John.”
“Change is a process not an event,” she added. “And we can’t change just for change’s sake, but change with a purpose.”
Department of Education officials will also be focusing on parental involvement and dealing with the high drop-out rate in the school district, Spampinato explained.
“I want to have community meetings on St. John to hear about the drop-out problem,” she said. “I know the importance of understanding the past in order to move toward the future. We also need to take a look at non-traditional ways to get parents involved in their children’s educations, which is critical.”
Engaging Parents in Education
Town hall meetings to talk to parents on all three islands are planned, Spampinato added.
“Through our meetings we want to find out how best to engage parents and the community,” said the acting commissioner. “It’s going to take all of us. You have to build trust and that takes time, but there is a lot of excitement about the future right now.”
Spampinato will also be taking a closer look at maintenance, another factor that has plagued St. John public schools.
“When you let maintenance go, it’s really hard to catch up,” said Spampinato. “I’ve met with the principals in each district and we’ll be devising plans for each school. We must ensure equity at all schools.”
Legacy of Improved Education
Governor John deJongh, who contacted Spampinato about heading the V.I. Department of Education, is dedicated to improving academics, explained the acting commissioner.
“The governor wants a major legacy of his to be improving education and this is the type of work that I do,” she said. “If we don’t create a better system for our children we’ll lose another generation. Public schools need to be schools of choice, not a last resort.”
As the world moves toward a global economy, it’s crucial for Virgin Islands students to stay competitive, according to Spampinato, whose last job was as a Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Assessment and Accountability for the Pittsburgh Public School System.
“We need to look at if we have enough advanced placement classes and if our programs are rigorous and relevant,” she said. “Are we challenging our kids? Are we meeting their needs to advance in the global economy?”
“Are we educating our kids to compete in the global world?” the acting commissioner continued.
While Spampinato is aware of the daunting task ahead of her, the acting commissioner is excited to get to work.
“The teachers here have a lot of passion, they just need more support and materials and to be a part of the system — all things we can do,” she said.
Improvement Plan with Benchmarks
Spampinato plans to spend the next 90 days devising a five-year plan with benchmarks to keep education officials abreast of improvements. Completing federal audits and listening to constituents will be part of the 90 day plan as well.
Although some residents have questioned Spampinato’s short stints with a few school districts, she is planning to remain in the Virgin Islands for the long-haul.
“I will be here with this administration for the next three and a half years at least,” said the acting commissioner. “After that we’ll see, but I’ll be here for the remainder of this administration.”
The V.I. Legislature is expected to vote on Spampinato’s appointment in the near future. As of press time, however, a date for the hearing was not scheduled.