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New DoD Schools Director: Finding Adventure in Education

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

ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 29, 2000 – Joseph Tafoya had been figuring he'd done just about all he could in civilian schools when he saw "an interesting possibility" in a DoD Education Activity ad in "Education Week" magazine.

"I was at that point looking to do something different, have one last adventure," he said. "My wife and I thought this would be an opportunity to do something different and still contribute to education."

Tafoya had spent 31 years in Southern California as a math teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal in San Diego, and as deputy and assistant superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. He moved here in 1999 to become deputy director in charge of DoDEA schools within the United States. He became director of the entire activity in October.

Tafoya replaced Ray Tolleson, who had been interim director for about a year. Tolleson moved to California and works for DoD under the new Connecting with America on Education Initiative to address issues of military children attending public schools.

The new director, who has a doctorate in educational administration from Northern Arizona University, said he had no preconceived notions about DoD schools when he came to work in the system.

"I've been pleasantly surprised. I think we have an excellent system, but there's always going to be room for improvement," he said. "Can we do things better? Yeah, there's always ways to do things better. Can we be more effective? Absolutely. But I've worked with schools in 26 states as a member and chairman of the National High School Association, and I don't know that I've seen a greater degree of commitment to kids and programs than I've seen in this system."

He said there are three things he hopes to accomplish during his directorship.

"If I can leave here with people throughout the system understanding that our sole reason for being here is to educate students, that will be a big step forward," he said. "Whether you're a professional educator or not, if you work for this agency you're an educator in my view. You have a responsibility to make sure we're doing everything we can to make the educational process as good as we can."

Tafoya also wants to re-evaluate how resources are allocated to small schools. "I think that's one of the inherent weaknesses in our system," he said. "Because we have remote areas, we have some extremely small schools. When you have a small high school, you can't offer kids the variety of courses that you would have in a larger school.

"If you have four kids in a school that want to take an honors English class, how do you staff it so that it doesn't impact everything else?" he asked hypothetically. "Because of that, we've always drawn rigid lines around staffing formulas. But I think we need to examine that."

The new director said it's important to find better ways of making the small schools more effective. "They're doing a heck of a job with what they've got, but we've got to find more ways to give parents and kids better options," Tafoya said.

He takes his third goal from his Native American heritage: He wants to instill in people what "leadership" means.

"There's a saying Navajos have that you cannot understand what it is to be a leader unless you understand what it is to be a follower," he said. "Sometimes administrators get in a position where they feel they have to make all the decisions, but sometimes leadership is letting others take charge."

Tafoya said he wants to imbue the system with his beliefs on the role of the principal and the role of the central office in helping students and parents succeed in their endeavors. He said this line of thinking is right in step with the decentralization plans Tolleson began.

"When you centralize, the focus gets put on the 'A' in our title for 'activity,'" Tafoya said. "When you decentralize the focus moves to the 'E' part of our title for 'education.'"

Tafoya said he's worked in "districts in crisis" that demanded dramatic and rapid improvements, but that won't be the case here.

"This is not a district in crisis. You're not going to see the monumental gains where we can turn some things dramatically around," he said. "These are going to be a little more modest gains, but they're still difficult to do and they're still worth tackling."

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