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DeJongh Presents His Pick for Education Commissioner

Dec. 20, 2007 — Calling her a "coalition and consensus builder" with nearly three decades of teaching and administration under her belt, Gov. John deJongh Jr. on Thursday announced his nomination of LaVerne Terry to fill the post of education commissioner.
During a press conference at Government House, deJongh kept his remarks brief and to the point, saying that Terry, while working in both Delaware and Connecticut school districts, has faced challenges similar to those that exist in the V.I. public school system and comes here with a "tremendous amount of experience and success in improving public schools at all levels."
"As many of you already know, I believe that education is key to the future success of our territory and its young people," deJongh said. "I have set very high standards as our target and goal. And I am enthusiastic and confident that with Dr. Terry at the helm, our Department of Education will be professionally and skillfully guided toward our shared goals."
Terry's nomination, deJongh said, would be effective Jan. 14. In order for her to be confirmed, however, Terry's nomination still has to be approved by the full Senate body. In October, a majority of senators voted to axe the nomination of Lynn Spampinato, who was brought on by deJongh in August.
Terry said Thursday she looks forward to going through the legislative process. Once on board, she said, a "significant" amount of time will be spent within the territory's schools and working with members of the Education Department to assess the system's strengths and weaknesses. Though her time on island has so far been limited, Terry said that current indicators pinpoint at least three chronic problems: special education, student dropout rates and early literacy.
"From kindergarten to third grade, students are learning how to read," she said after the press conference. "After that, they have to read to learn, so it's very important that we get these students reading at their grade levels."
In terms of reducing student dropout rates, Terry said during the press conference that the key to keeping students in school is "finding out what their interests are" and giving them the support needed to pursue those interests, while addressing achievement and skill gaps. Addressing gaps in special education is also a top priority, Terry said, explaining that students with special needs should still have access to the same curriculum as their peers, while receiving additional attention and care from teachers.
"In my view, education is the 'great equalizer,' allowing for new opportunities to unfold and providing the ability to continually build, grow and advance," she said. "It unleashes dreams, nurtures passions, and allows lifelong goals to fall within reach. I can't begin to imagine where I would be, or what my life would be like, without this solid foundation."
Improving curriculum and keeping track of the department's federal funds are also high priorities. When asked whether she comes to the territory with a "magic pill or formula" that could help keep the department's finances in line, Terry said, "It doesn't take magic — it takes making a strong plan with real clear outcomes and attaching finances to those outcomes."
Sending back money to the feds means that there's "something, somewhere, that we're not giving to our students," she added.
Terry said after the news conference that opening up dialogues with parents and students is also important.
"What I've worked with before is something like a student cabinet, where representatives from the middle and high schools would meet with us regularly to discuss their issues," she said. "I hope to do something similar to that here."
Prior to her nomination as the territory's education commissioner, Terry was the deputy superintendent/chief academic officer of the Hartford Public School system in Connecticut — an urban district with more than 24,000 students and 40 schools. According to her resume, while serving as assistant superintendent of the Christina School District in Delaware, Terry tripled enrollment in AP courses, increasing enrollment of minority students by 300 percent, improved test scores in the district's elementary and middle schools by 20 percent and developed several model teaching and development programs.
As Delaware's largest school district, Christina has an enrollment of 20,000 students.
In addition to outlining her career achievements during Thursday's press conference, Terry also spoke about her personal history, growing up in a "very poor part" of rural Georgia. She and her six siblings were taught at an early age about the role a good education can play, she said.
"It was instilled in us, me and my five siblings, that education was the door opener to a future and a range of opportunities that our parents and grandparents did not have access to," she said. "I came to understand that education, in some ways, perhaps even more than having money and other resources, provides a foundation that can never be taken away…
"When I chose to go into education, I knew that I was going to do everything in my power to open as many doors as possible, and that I would seek to provide a path for other children who wanted to invest in themselves."
Terry said she brings that philosophy with her to the territory, and is not afraid of implementing some much-needed change.
"I don't know how to create change without scaring somebody, whether that change is done fast or slow," she said. "But there are some things that need to be changed, and the way to go about doing that is to make sure that everyone is involved, to keep the lines of communication open with parents and teachers about what these changes are and to assure them that everything is being done in the best interest of their children."
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