WASHINGTON, D.C. – Students heading back to Defense Department schools over the next few weeks are likely to see many improvements, including modernized classrooms, the latest technology, new course offerings, healthier school lunches and even some new academic requirements.
But the area getting the most attention in the name of student achievement will be less obvious, and that is staff development, which for teachers are at the top of the list, DODEA Director Marilee Fitzgerald said in an American Forces Press Service interview.
“Our focus really is very simple: that every student has a great teacher, that every school has a great principal, and that every school is a high-performing school.” Within that focus, she added, “the most dominant factor that influences student achievement is the teacher, so we’re putting our money on the teachers.”
DoD schools struggle with a 35 percent turnover in student body every year, challenging teachers not only to learn new names and faces, but also to assess each child’s abilities and deal with the variance of what they are taught from school to school, Fitzgerald said.
“It’s our biggest challenge,” she acknowledged. “That kind of churn requires very skillful teaching.”
But the ability of DODEA teachers to perform in that highly mobile environment is a hallmark of the DoD school system, Fitzgerald said.
“It’s what defines their teaching,” she added. “They’re very adept at customizing learning for our children.”
Part of having great teachers and giving them the support they need to help every student requires having great school principals, Fitzgerald said, noting that DoD schools not only have high student turnover, but the system’s teachers are transient as well.
“It’s important that our principals bring together the leadership team,” she said. “A great leader helps build a great team and gets results that are far different than when people are working independently.”
DODEA will look to its school principals to see that teachers take responsibility for working together, looking at educational data and using technology in the classroom to advance student achievement, Fitzgerald said.
One way DODEA leaders hope to narrow the differences in skills among students is through the Common Core Standards, an Education Department initiative signed by DODEA along with 46 states and two territories to streamline what students are taught in math, language arts and science, and institute common assessments. Beginning this school year, the signers agree that their students will be taught to the same standards, no matter which school district they are in, Fitzgerald said.
“For military children, it offers great promise in mitigating the academic disruption from frequent moves,” she said.
DODEA is using technology in the classrooms to have less variance among its own schools, Fitzgerald said. The system’s 193 schools have 82 video teleconference machines that expand course offerings by allowing students to take classes remotely.
For example, she said, Kadena High School in Okinawa, Japan, has 14 students in its advanced music class.
Other schools in Guam and Japan had interested students – but not enough for a class. This year, those students will get to take advanced music remotely by using the new equipment.
As she looks forward to the new school year, Fitzgerald said, she is counting on all DODEA staff to focus on “being the absolute, very best there is in educating the military-connected child.”
She also offered advice for parents: “Get involved, know your child’s teachers, know your child’s friends, and know their activities. Building that relationship with the teacher is absolutely critical to helping your child.”