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Changes, Improvements Greet Students in New School Year

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 1999 – Smaller classes in lower grades and full-day kindergarten overseas are among the changes many schools within the Department of Defense Education Activity saw when students began classes for the 1999-2000 school year.

Other significant changes, or improvements, as DoDEA Interim Director Ray Tolleson sees them, include more parental participation, better cooperation between the schools and the military communities, and more school counselors and psychologists to combat increased stresses caused by the growing number of deployments military families face.

The student-teacher ratio in the first through third grades at 18 DoDEA schools was reduced to 18-1 for the 1999-2000 school year. The previous ratio was 23-1. The reduced class sizes are expected to pay off in several ways, Tolleson said.

"The teacher has a better chance to interact with the kids," he said. "Teachers will be able to identify problems long before they were able to in a larger class, and they're going to be able to provide more one-on-one instruction."

Tolleson, a former public school superintendent in California, said reduced class sizes were adopted in that state with good results. "The net result is that the students are more prepared to handle the rigors of fourth grade," he said.

Military parents who've expressed concern that a couple of hours a day isn't enough to teach kindergartners all they need to know will see full-day kindergarten implemented in 49 overseas schools. Domestic DoD schools have featured all-day kindergarten for some time.

Tolleson said the change responds to parents' concerns and will include many new activities for kindergartners. "You can't just do the same things you did in two and a half hours except now you do them for six," he said. "Parents are going to see a change in delivery, more activities and, quite honestly, a greater readiness for first grade."

These initiatives will reach every DoDEA school by the 2004-2005 school year, according to Tolleson's staff. Some schools are experiencing delays because they require new equipment or construction to accommodate longer kindergarten days and more classes in the primary grades, DoDEA officials said.

Four schools in Europe will test a school breakfast program. "We want to see how that works before we look at spreading it across most of Europe," Tolleson said. Stateside DoD schools already offer school breakfasts.

Also in response to parents' concerns, DoDEA has gotten authorization to hire up to 200 additional school counselors and psychologists. With the new hires, DoDEA schools will achieve the American School Counselor Association's recommended ratio of one counselor for every 300 students. Most public schools never meet that target ratio, Tolleson said.

Tolleson said the push for more counselors began with the increased tempo of military life. Parents said they wanted and needed more counselors to help deal with the stress their families have been facing, particularly in Europe, where disruptions due to deployments are common, he said.

"We agreed and saw the merits of increasing the number of counselors," Tolleson said. "Coming from a public school background, I can tell you that public school administrators would die for this type of situation. The mere fact DoDEA has set that goal for itself is a pretty major move."

Getting parents and the military more involved in education is another way to help ensure students succeed in school, he continued. To that end, DoDEA is doing several other things differently this year.

Tolleson said he hopes to expand on the School Advisory Committee notion to get parents more involved in making recommendations rather than the educational institutions dictating policy.

"Sometimes parents don't realize that they have a great deal to offer us," he said. "We're reaching out to them and saying, 'We need your assistance. We need your advice if we're going to offer a better program.' And we can give them some (advice) on how to better help their kids."

The goal is more of a partnership. "I think we'll have a better program because of it," Tolleson said.

He said he's also hoping to change the "zero-sum" thinking he encounters that results from the way DoD allocates resources. Competition for resources, he said, puts the schools naturally at odds with some of the military communities they support.

"If we're seeking additional resources and ways of improving the system, we compete with other people who serve the same clients, the military. If schools get anything from the Department of Defense, it's at the expense of someone else," he said.

Tolleson believes the schools and the military have common goals, and both are concerned about the quality of life of military families.

"It seems natural that we should work together toward that goal. I don't think we can do it ourselves, and the military seems very willing to enter in as a partner," he said.

"Without the military's help we would not have full-day kindergarten, we would not have been able to reduce class size, and we probably would not have been able to add extra counselors," said Tolleson. "It's a kind of symbiotic relationship. The services want people to stay in the military, and a large part of their success depends on what kind of education we provide service members' children."

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