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Ensuring Kids get Quality, Consistent Education

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Aug. 20, 2001 – The Department of Defense Education Activity is going beyond its charter in an effort to help military kids.

DoDEA is responsible for 80 schools in the United States and 160 overseas. Children at most stateside bases go to regular public schools not affiliated with the activity. But no more. The activity has picked up on a problem that faces military children, and the activity is perfectly placed to help fix it.

Military families move a lot. This impacts education in many obvious ways, but also in an unexpected one. The push toward testing has put some DoD kids at a disadvantage. For example, some states require that students learn state history before they can graduate from high school. That's not a problem for kids who have been in the school for the full four years. But what if you are a senior transfer from Kaiserslautern, Germany, or Kadena Air Base, Okinawa? Are you going to take New York or Virginia or Kansas state history with a bunch of freshmen?

Recently, nine public school districts serving large Army posts signed a memorandum of understanding with the Army to work out problems like that. DoDEA director Joe Tafoya would like to see this process expand.

"I've met with state school board officials from Washington state, and they are interested," he said. "We'd also like to see this expand to the other services."

What it comes down to is how DoDEA and the states work together to educate military school children. "How do we provide and coordinate services?" Tafoya asked. "We need to know what (local school districts) are doing and they need to know what we're doing. There's no effort here to make everyone have the same curriculum. But if we're going to do a particular program in our schools, those (local) schools out there that will get our kids need to know what we're doing."

For example, many states require students study geometry to get a high school diploma. "We need to ensure we are providing that background in case their parents are based in that state," he said.

Ensuring a course taken at Kadena is accepted by a school in Newport News, Va., is another part of the equation. DoDEA will work with stateside school systems to ensure this happens. But that is not the most important aspect of this.

"A seamless transition between schools is not only transcripts, it's quality of curriculum and it's academic preparation to be successful regardless of where they go to school," Tafoya said.

There is a certain rhythm in moves for military personnel. Often they end up back at the same bases time and again. Tafoya wants DoDEA to take a longer range view of curriculum.

"Military people move so much," he said. "Often we don't look long-range enough. We need to take that long-range view, because we will get those kids back, and we need to ensure we're making the right choices in curriculum."

But there are limits, and most involve money. "We only have a certain size pie," Tafoya said. "It's not going to get bigger, so we need to slice it in a different manner."

DoDEA did some different slicing in Europe. The activity beefed up school staffing there.

"We worked with European-area Parent-Teacher Associations to downsize from eight school districts to six this year, and five next year," he said. "Through this, we've generated 45 positions and we are putting those positions in the schools as middle-grade teachers, nurses in every school, and reading recovery specialists."

The Pacific schools do not have the same flexibility as Europe. There are only three districts in the Pacific. "We want to assist them in getting the same staffing benefit," Tafoya said. "We'll have to take the people out of headquarters allocations."

DoDEA must provide a certain level of quality and services regardless of where children are around the world. The range of schools make this sometimes 'academic.' One-third of the DoD high schools are the traditional grades 9 to 12. One-third are grades 7 to 12 and the final third are grades K to 12.

"In some of our small and remote locations we need to ensure the kids are getting the same kind of qualities and 'the comprehensive high school experience' that they are getting in our larger schools," Tafoya said. "How do you provide that in a place like Izmir, Turkey, with 32 kids in the high school and a graduating class of seven? How do you provide the same quality there as you do in Okinawa with 900 kids in high school?"

These are questions Tafoya plans to address in the next school year. He wants to visit all the schools in the DoDEA system by the end of the year. He wants to meet all the principals, teachers and children he can and pitch DoDEA's theme for the school year: "Making a difference."

He believes everyone involved in military kids' school education can help make a difference. One of his contributions is to reverse a trend. In the past, he said, a tendency to centralize activities meant headquarters was making decisions that should have been left to the areas or schools.

"I really want to put the E back," he said. "We are an educational function.

"'Making a difference' focuses on how we've got a great system, but we need to make it better," he said. "All employees should ask, 'Is what I'm doing making a difference for kids?' If it is, they've got to elevate it. If they ask that question, that will make a difference, and we will put the E back in DoDEA."

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