Students Rate Quality Education, DoDEA Director Says
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 2, 2010 Multiple deployments and frequent school transitions are just a few of the issues on Marilee Fitzgerald’s plate this school year.
As acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, Fitzgerald oversees more than 84,000 students – all who have been impacted by nearly a decade of war - attending nearly 200 Defense Department schools scattered around the globe.
Her job is to focus on the big-picture administrative issues, although she’s determined not to let even one student slip through the cracks.
“As our parents move from place to place and they serve our nation and they make sacrifices, we don’t want them to believe they’re sacrificing the education of their children,” Fitzgerald said. “That is just not one of the sacrifices they’re going to have to make.”
Fitzgerald assumed her leadership role at the activity in June, but already is clear about her goals for the upcoming school year, and the initiatives she believes will help the education activity achieve them.
The activity’s No. 1 priority, she said, is to help students reach their fullest potential through a focus on high student achievement and a rich and varied curriculum.
Initiatives such as the virtual high school and language arts curriculum will make major inroads toward that goal, she predicted.
The activity’s virtual high school, new this school year, is an accredited distance-learning program for military students, whether they’re geographically separated, transitioning between schools or just dealing with a scheduling conflict. The virtual school offers students 48 online courses in a wide range of disciplinary areas, including foreign language, math, science, social studies, language arts and physical education, as well as 15 advanced placement courses.
The activity also has developed new standards of learning for its language arts program, based upon best practices in the United States. This has resulted in new instructional materials for students in all grades.
“This is an important step,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to ensure that what we’re teaching is relevant.”
Fitzgerald also praised the reconstruction and renovation program that kicked off with the school year. The Defense Department has provided the education activity $3.7 billion to address its reconstruction and renovation needs over the next six years, she explained.
Improvements will include new heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing, ventilation, electrical and structural repairs. Some schools will be replaced entirely, with new facilities constructed in their place.
“We opened this school year with a shovel in the ground,” Fitzgerald said, adding that she hopes parents will be patient while construction is under way.
Along with their physical environment, Fitzgerald also noted the importance of meeting military children’s emotional needs. The education activity has an obligation to ease transitions for military families, Fitzgerald said, with schools acting as a place of support for children as they deal with the consequences of frequent moves and deployments.
In Europe alone, nearly 25 percent of military parents are deployed, she said. This impacts the entire family, since the parent who deployed may have been the one who helped out with homework or the one who volunteered in school.
“Parents play a very important role in student achievement,” Fitzgerald said. “Schools can’t do it alone. There has to be a partnership between parents and students.”
To assist, the Defense Department has authorized additional military and family life consultants for its schools. These consultants can assist with detecting student behavioral issues and problems with performance, and work with the parents and school to find the right solutions. Coupled with the school’s counselors, the department’s consultants will offer an added dimension to the partnership between students, parents and school, Fitzgerald said.
They also can help build teachers’ understanding of the unique needs of military children and how stressors can manifest themselves in the learning environment, she added.
This understanding is something she’d like to see extended beyond the education activity’s borders.
Only a small portion of the nearly 1.2 million active-duty school-age military children and youth attend the activity’s schools – more than 90 percent attend non-Defense Department schools - but the issues extend far beyond school borders. All military children experience long separations from a parent who may be in harm’s way, as well as frequent moves and multiple new schools.
“We need to build the capacity to understand our military population,” Fitzgerald said. The director said she’d like to see an increased exchange of information between Defense Department-managed and municipal-run schools. A greater understanding of the challenges confronting military children can only benefit them in the long run, she added.
“It could be something simple, such as teachers giving children some homework in advance so they can spend a dedicated day home with a deployed parent home on leave,” she said. Or, understanding a gaining school’s requirements in advance to ensure children don’t fall behind.
To that end, the education activity serves as an ex officio member of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children Commission. The compact is an agreement between states to ensure the smooth transition of military children between schools. The compact works to ease issues surrounding records transfer, graduation requirements, and course sequencing, among others. So far, 35 states have signed the compact, Fitzgerald noted.
The education activity is doing its part to ease transitions under the compact by instituting a waiver for immunizations. Military families at a new duty station and entering a Defense Department school for the first time will have 30 calendar days to obtain required vaccines. This will give families a chance to enroll in a new health care region and obtain an appointment without the added pressure of a school enrollment delay.
These initiatives all are designed to help students reach their highest potential within Defense Department schools, Fitzgerald said. In turn, the director said she’d like to leverage the experiences of military children, whom she called “global citizens,” for the benefit of education in general.
“They come to us with a variety of experiences, which is a wonderful platform for learning,” she said. “They live in different countries, meet different types of people.”
These experiences instill a “tremendous empathy” and “finely honed communication skills” in military children, Fitzgerald said.
“I’d like to find a way to harness all of those experiences and find some way in our curriculum to leverage that and ensure it gets transported as they go place to place,” she said. “We have such a wonderful population of children who really reflect that global citizenry.”
Above all, Fitzgerald wants to ensure the focus is first and foremost on the students, and that quest is never ending, she said.
“There isn’t an end-state,” she said. “We’re like every great teacher; we only see possibilities.”
While Fitzgerald keeps an eye on the future, she also remains focused on her current commitment to military families, “Our parents, when they enter a Defense Department school, they can feel confident they’re coming to a quality school system.”