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DoDEA Pushing to Keep Schools Moving in Right Direction

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 2, 2004 – As the Department of Defense Education Activity prepares for the coming school year, DoDEA's director said efforts are under way to make DoD's good schools even better for the families of military people.

Joseph Tafoya said a primary focus this school year would be curriculum and staff development.

"We have very high reading scores. We have very good math scores," Tafoya said. "This is the first place I've worked where the math scores are a little lower than the reading scores."

DoDEA's response to this, he said, is to work to reinforce its already excellent literacy program with a much stronger math program. In its second year of a program called "Math Matters" that started in the high schools, DoDEA is looking very carefully at the curriculum and how it is taught.

Other efforts may not be so obvious to parents and students.

Tafoya said some less visible changes would focus on curriculum and how to deliver staff development to employees scattered around the world. He added that it's difficult to ensure that every school is getting the same kind of training. "But we're trying to be very creative in how we help teachers teach better," he added.

"My comment to staff at the beginning of the year," he said, "(is) that we need to continue to analyze how we teach, but more importantly, to continue to analyze how students learn."

The process of analyzing how students learn has paid off for DoDEA schools. DoD students' fourth- and eighth-grade scores are consistently near the top of the National Report Card, an annual ranking of schools nationwide based on several criteria.

Keeping the students at the top of their academic game, however, sometimes requires extra help. In high school, it's very easy to schedule students with academic problems into a support class to bolster their learning in a particular subject. This same assistance is not so easily achieved in elementary school, Tafoya explained, where scheduling a support class may require pulling a student from a lesson in another subject.

"It is much easier to address individual student needs at the high school and middle school level from a scheduling standpoint," he said. "What we've got to do is find a way to do it better at the elementary school, without interrupting the regular program."

Initiatives introduced in DoDEA high schools several years ago will now be broached at the elementary and middle school levels. Committees will address whether staff levels are sufficient to meet objectives and whether the most positive learning environment is being provided.

One committee will examine practices at the elementary level, and another will do the same for the middle school level. The initiative will involve teachers, principals and administrators, parents, and command representatives, Tafoya said.

The year-end goal of the initiative is a K-12 program that spells out what is offered in all of the schools.

Though there is no legal obligation for DoDEA to adhere to the letter of the "No Child Left Behind" law, Tafoya said the agency is following the law's spirit. He feels sure, he added, that DoDEA will be in full compliance with the law by 2007, a full six years ahead of mandatory civilian school compliance. Science standards are the only reason DoDEA hasn't yet attained full compliance, and officials are reworking them, Tafoya said.

"We feel very comfortable about (the level of compliance)," Tafoya said. "The last time we looked at our data, every single ethnic group, boys and girls, whatever category you want to separate, our average test scores are above the 50th percentile for all students."

Such success is not accidental, Tafoya said, noting a combination of factors that contribute, including DoD teachers being "part and parcel" of the missions that affect their bases as well as being open to change and new ideas.

"I think our teachers and administrators are very proud to be a part of this system," he said. "I think our teachers have bought into the mission. I find a lot of satisfaction. People are happy."

On the flip side, he said, the students really have a sense of connection with the teachers. The students tell him hey can relate to their teachers and their teachers care about them, he added.

When he's confronted with the question of what makes DoDEA schools different, his answer is simply "support."

"I am just blown away by the level of support (from the parents and the military)," Tafoya said. "That's our advantage."

DoDEA operates 222 public schools in 15 districts located in 13 foreign countries, seven states, Guam and Puerto Rico. All schools within DoDEA are fully accredited by U.S. accreditation agencies. About 8,785 teachers serve DoDEA's 102,600 students.

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DoDEA Director Joseph Tafoya

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