A student’s speech intended to highlight the successes and advantages of the Saipan International School has brewed up a tempest in a teapot, after it raised the hackles of a Public School System official who took exception to part of the speech.
In his remarks at SIS’ 20th anniversary celebration on Sept. 18, 2013, SIS student and Student Council president Michael Johnson said, “At SIS you have an opportunity to walk in the headmaster’s office anytime of the day and just have a casual conversation; you are lucky to get five minutes of the counsellor’s time at MHS,” referring to the largest high school in the CNMI, Marianas High School.
Those few words—in a speech that was mostly laudatory of SIS’ successes—provoked a harsh response from Board of Education chair Herman T. Guerrero, who said he was not pleased with the unfavourable comparison Johnson made between the two schools.
Guerrero told a newspaper (not Saipan Tribune) after the ceremony that he doesn’t like students “bashing” the Public School System. He added that despite PSS’ large student population, the institution is still doing well.
“When you’re bashing the school you’re bashing the board, the students and the teachers,” Guerrero was quoted as saying.
SIS headmaster Dr. Dale Jenkins didn’t think Johnson was “bashing” anyone at all. He thought Johnson’s speech was “one of the best student speeches” he has ever heard.
“I was deeply moved and I think he is certainly a gifted speaker…he certainly gave a great speech,” Jenkins said. “We all have different perspectives and ways of incorporating things.”
Jenkins said he plans to talk to Guerrero directly about the matter.
“We are missing the point of the story. The point of the story really is that Saipan International School is a successful institution. I think what we are trying to point out is that for 20 years we have been through difficult and enormous times on Saipan and we survived and even flourished,” he said.
Guerrero later praised SIS for its successes but said he wants to see the “evidence.”
“What are their accomplishments in terms of competing with other schools in the Commonwealth?” Guerrero asked. He cited Mount Carmel School as an example and how they have topped mock trial competitions and the Attorney General’s Cup in past years.
Jenkins pointed out, though, that schools shouldn’t be compared and people should instead celebrate the accomplishments of all of the CNMI’s children, regardless of the school they attend.
“If a student from SIS does something well, we would like to think that everybody celebrates it because these are children of our island. We must celebrate the success of other schools,” Jenkins said. “I am absolutely proud of the children on this island that are trying to do stuff and succeed. We have our share of successes, but comparing schools by activities like mock trial and the Attorney General’s Cup is something that we don’t do.”
Jenkins shared that the SIS administration supports freedom of expression and does not review the speeches their students write. “We are confident in our students that they will tell the truth and he [Johnson] told the truth,” he explained.
Johnson himself was startled at Guerrero’s comments.
“The main point of my speech was to share my experience and how SIS benefited me personally over previous schools that I have attended,” Johnson told the Saipan Tribune. “I did not intend to bash anyone and I do not feel like I did.”
“I have great respect for the Public School System and it surprised me that he would take it in that manner,” he added.
Johnson’s mother, Melia Johnson, also expressed disappointment with Guererro’s reaction.
“My son wrote and delivered a speech in celebration of the 20th anniversary of SIS. He did not go to the public, he did not go to the press, he has not started a ‘bashing’ campaign against MHS or PSS,” she said in a letter to the editor. “I find it immature and disgraceful for the BOE chairman to criticize a hard-working, intelligent and responsible student and young person of the CNMI. Instead of recognizing Michael as one of our young people who will obviously be able to contribute positively to our CNMI community and embrace him, Herman T Guerrero has shown that as long as we continue to have leaders and members of our community with his short-sightedness and ignorance the CNMI is doomed.”
Education Commissioner Dr. Rita A. Sablan said she has not talked to Guerrero about the matter and declined to respond to the issue.
“I was not even at the event and I do not want to comment on what he expressed,” she said.