DODEA Focuses on Teacher Development for New School Year
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 22, 2012 Students heading back to Defense Department schools over the next few weeks are likely to see many improvements, inlcuding modernized classrooms, the latest technology, new course offerings, healthier school lunches, and even some new academic requirements.
But the area getting the most attention in the name of student achievement will be less obvious, and that is staff development, which for teachers are at the top of the list, DODEA Director Marilee Fitzgerald said in an American Forces Press Service interview.
“Our focus really is very simple: that every student has a great teacher, that every school has a great principal, and that every school is a high-performing school.” Within that focus, she added, “the most dominant factor that influences student achievement is the teacher, so we’re putting our money on the teachers.”
DOD schools struggle with a 35 percent turnover in student body every year, challenging teachers not only to learn new names and faces, but also to assess each child’s abilities and deal with the variance of what they are taught from school to school, Fitzgerald said.
“It’s our biggest challenge,” she acknowledged. “That kind of churn requires very skillful teaching.”
But the ability of DODEA teachers to perform in that highly mobile environment is a hallmark of the DOD school system, Fitzgerald said. “It’s what defines their teaching,” she added. “They’re very adept at customizing learning for our children.”
Part of having great teachers and giving them the support they need to help every student requires having great school principals, Fitzgerald said, noting that DOD schools not only have high student turnover, but the system’s teachers are transient as well.
“It’s important that our principals bring together the leadership team,” she said. “A great leader helps build a great team and gets results that are far different than when people are working independently.”
DODEA will look to its school principals to see that teachers take responsibility for working together, looking at educational data and using technology in the classroom to advance student achievement, Fitzgerald said.
One way DODEA leaders hope to narrow the differences in skills among students is through the Common Core Standards, an Education Department initiative signed by DODEA along with 46 states and two territories to streamline what students are taught in math, language arts and science, and institute common assessments. Beginning this school year, the signers agree that their students will be taught to the same standards, no matter which school district they are in, Fitzgerald said.
“For military children, it offers great promise in mitigating the academic disruption from frequent moves,” she said.
DODEA is using technology in the classrooms to have less variance among its own schools, Fitzgerald said. The system’s 194 schools have 82 video teleconference machines that expand course offerings by allowing students to take classes remotely. For example, she said, Kadena High School in Okinawa, Japan, has 14 students in its advanced music class. Other schools in Guam and Japan had interested students -- but not enough for a class. This year, those students will get to take advanced music remotely by using the new equipment.
In other changes:
-- Eight schools have ongoing construction projects, and another 49 projects are in the design stage as part of DODEA’s effort to renovate or replace 134 – or 70 percent -- of its schools;
-- Nutritionists and others have been hired to ensure that every school offers healthy lunches with more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains;
-- Starting with this year’s freshman class, DODEA graduates must have four units of math, three at the high school level;
-- High schools are offering four new math courses: algebraic modeling, advanced functions, financial literacy, and engineering applications;
-- DODEA is expanding the four career technical education classes it started as pilot programs last year -- biotechnology engineering, gaming technology engineering, green technology engineering and robotics – to nine more high schools;
-- DODEA is expanding a pilot program created at 10 secondary schools last spring that issued laptop computers for students’ take-home use. Four schools in the Pacific region will take part this year;
-- The DODEA Virtual High School, which held its first graduation in June, will offer summer courses starting in 2013;
-- Fourth and eighth-grade students will take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card”;
-- GradeSpeed, a Web-based program, will be available to parents to track their children’s progress; and
-- A new employment reform looks to improve the diagnostic tools and assessments for hiring.
As she looks forward to the new school year, Fitzgerald said, she is counting on all DODEA staff to focus on “being the absolute, very best there is in educating the military-connected child.”
She also offered advice for parents: “Get involved, know your child’s teachers, know your child’s friends, and know their activities. Building that relationship with the teacher is absolutely critical to helping your child.”