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Under the administration of Governor-elect Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, overseeing the management and usage of funds in the Department of Education, and using all available information to assess the actual performance of the education system, will be the top priority. The goal is to manage the biggest government agency, whose primary mission—to educate hundreds of thousands of children—is not always successfully accomplished.

At least this is what we can glean from the appointment of Julia Keleher as the next Secretary of the Department of Education, which was announced yesterday, less than a week before the new government takes office.

She immediately assured that her objective in leading the agency would be to improve the academic performance of students. She explained that there are various ways of achieving this, which is why she wants to wait until she arrives at the Department of Education to create specific plans that will allow the agency to focus on making gradual but lasting progress.

“What I want to do with the education in Puerto Rico is to ensure that the education system will provide every child with the same opportunity to pursue their dreams, develop a career, have an impact in the world, and be able to compete.  I know it will be a little difficult, but I have a vision of what we can achieve and we will make gradual changes to the education system, which will bring results the children truly deserve,” the designated official noted.

“I want to establish three goals, three practices that everyone will be able to do outstandingly, which children will understand and parents won’t have any doubts about. Afterwards, we will see how it (the system) improves with those three things, and then we will go on to look for a fourth thing, and a fifth... Instead of wanting to do 100 things, we will focus on a strategic perspective. And we have to measure progress. I don’t want to wait until the end of the year to see how it went, I need to know how we’re doing in three months’ time,” she expressed, stating that she already knows what her three priorities will be as leader of the agency. However, she gave no details, saying she wants to ratify them first.

Over the years, the main problems in the Department of Education have been blamed on administrative problems, in an agency whose million-dollar resources don’t reach the schools, remaining sequestered in an attempt to sustain a tangle of bureaucracy with no educational purposes, or to finance corruption schemes that have been designed from within the agency or by external interests.

Keleher, who comes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has ample experience in educational management, and she has spent a considerable part of her 20-year professional career managing educational projects, overseeing the use of federal funds, and providing technical assistance to school districts and educational agencies, so they could comply with the requirements established by the US Department of Education. She also founded her own educational consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, in 2009.

She has been a teacher, a counselor, a school assistant director, assistant to a school district superintendent, and a college professor. She has also occupied several posts in the US Department of Education, where she first came into contact with the Puerto Rican education system.

“I have seen how education changes lives, and that benefit should be available to everyone,” Keleher stated in an interview with us, hours before her appointment was officially announced. In our interview, she spoke Spanish fluently, although she sometimes inserted phrases in English. During the press conference in the afternoon, she used English more often to express her ideas.

The appointment of a professional who has specialized rather in the administrative aspects of education sets a contrast against prior Education secretaries, who have usually been academic figures or officials who have grown within the Department of Education. 

Aware of the Challenges

Although yesterday was the first time a lot of people heard her name, Keleher is widely known in the Department of Education, since she was part of many federal monitoring teams overseeing the local agency. She also worked as an adviser in the development of the primary plans that have guided the performance of the education system in the last few years. This includes the Flexibility Plan, which was first approved by the federal government in 2013 as the Transformation Plan. This plan was developed under the administration of outgoing Secretary Rafael Román.

She initially arrived in the Island in 2007, as part of the team that would oversee the development of programs and use of Title I funds, one of the largest allocations of federal funds for Puerto Rico. Afterwards, she worked with the Risk Management Service, an entity that closely monitored the use of all federal funds received in the Island. Puerto Rico spent a decade in the list of high-risk jurisdictions due to the misappropriation of funds during the 90s.

This is why she is well aware of the problems facing the Department of Education. The lack of resources in the classrooms, the prevalence of partisan politics within the agency’s ranks, and the government’s economic problems are challenges she knows she will have to tackle as soon as she takes office.

“There are things that not only happen in Puerto Rico. There are problems that happen in other jurisdictions, and we need to see how those states worked them out, and what we can do here,” the 42-year-old consultant said.

She also acknowledged that attention must be paid to the amount of students who are enrolled in Special Education, an amount that is currently over 30% of the total enrollment in the education system—well above the national average.

Nonetheless, Keleher refused to issue any opinions on the controversial measures recently implemented in the education system, such as the shut down of dozens of schools. She also opted not to reveal the details of the changes she would implement in the system, or the plans from past administrations she would preserve.

“I can’t say yet whether something is good or bad. I want to have all the available information before giving my opinion, to be fair,” she remarked.

She is convinced, however, that the local education system should be managed based on empirical data and statistics that show if projects are working or not. The agency constantly collects statistics to refer them to the US Department of Education, which is why this information should be used to guide the internal decision-making process, she argued.

“We have to put everything in order, have a control. We need to know what works and what doesn’t... I’m very interested in the data, and to use it to see the drivers or motives for the success or failure of certain strategies,” said Keleher, who denounced that the data on Puerto Rico is not included in the analyses or reports issued by the federal agency, which is why recommendations are scarcely provided for the Island.

The consultant stated that she will establish a trust to manage her enterprise while she works as Secretary of Education, and that she wouldn’t take on any cases related to Puerto Rico. Yesterday, the Governor-elect said that the contract Keleher & Associates held with the agency would be cancelled as of December 31.

Ready to Work

Keleher decided to go into education after the frustration she experienced in the financial sector, where she got her first job after graduating from college. From there, she went on to work at the educational company Sylvan Learning, and as research assistant at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where due to her Spanish skills—which she learned in college—she was assigned to work with Hispanic communities. Later she moved to Delaware, where she worked with the administration of the Red Clay school district. Then she became a high school assistant director and worked as a vocational teacher, but she experienced frustration again, when she spent part of her workdays signing student suspensions due to misconduct.

“I went into education to help, not to turn students back into the same situation where they started, what caused the problems they have in the classroom,” mentioned Keleher, whose father was a teacher.

She made the decision to study educational leadership when she noticed that educators do not receive any training on how to launch projects or manage budgets. Visionary plans to transform education are not worth the paper they are written on if there are no resources or mechanisms to bring them to fruition, she noted.

Keleher’s appointment as Secretary of the Department of Education was met with skepticism by teacher organizations. They expressed misgivings over the appointment of someone from outside the agency. Nonetheless, the agency’s outgoing secretary congratulated the designated official, and assured that her knowledge on internal processes and her work as an adviser will allow her to carry out the necessary tasks.

In the meantime, before she even gets started, the appointee is already in the process of moving from the federal capital to the Island.

Leysa Caro collaborated in this article.

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