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New Director Aims to Boost Student Achievement

By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29, 2011 – As acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, Marilee Fitzgerald set out on a journey more than a year ago to transport Defense Department schools into the 21st century.

It’s an “ambitious agenda,” she acknowledged, but one she intends to keep now that’s she’s been named the activity’s new director.

Fitzgerald accepted the appointment earlier this month, giving her oversight of all DOD schools, both stateside and overseas. The system includes 194 schools in 14 districts that serve more than 87,000 students.

This is Fitzgerald’s second tour at the education activity. She previously served as associate director of management, chief of staff, chief of executive services and chief of recruitment.

Her experience has helped to shape her future vision, she said.

“I believe in ‘boots on the ground’ leadership,” she said. “The heart and soul of our system is our children, our teachers and our principals.”

Fitzgerald said she intends to keep military children at the forefront of every decision she makes as director. “I have a great, deep and abiding respect for our military and a passion for the education of our children,” she said.

With academic excellence in mind, Fitzgerald said, she’ll continue to pursue the goals she set 17 months ago, which are centered on high student achievement and consistent quality standards for DOD schools and their teaching staff.

Among her top priorities, she said, is adopting a 21-century-style, student-centered approach to teaching, rather than the instruction-focused style of the past. In the 20th century, she explained, students all were in the same place, on the same page at the same time, and “students either got it or didn’t get it.”

But today, teachers are shifting to differentiated instruction, she said, meaning they customize learning to the greatest extent possible to meet individual students’ needs.

The director said she is working to adopt common core standards -- a set of academic standards agreed upon by participating states. Dozens of states already have signed up for these standards, which guide what students should know and by when, as well as a common set of assessments.

“This is especially important for children of military families, and actually any groups of students that are mobile,” Fitzgerald said. As children move to a new state, they may arrive at a new school and a completely different curriculum. Depending on the location, they may be ahead or behind the other students.

“By adopting these common standards, that shouldn’t happen anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “I see that as an important strategy for improving student achievement,” along with rigorous instruction and curriculum.

Equally important, Fitzgerald said, is maintaining a consistent quality of education across the schools. Though she’s impressed with the general level of teaching and leadership in DOD schools, Fitzgerald said, more overall consistency is needed.

“Not every school has the same high quality standard,” she said. “My hope is we can become quite consistent, so no matter where a parent or student goes in any one of our schools, there will be the same level of excellence.”

Ongoing professional development also will help to achieve that goal, Fitzgerald noted. The department needs teachers and leaders who understand the latest approaches and teaching techniques, and how to adjust that instruction to meet students’ needs.

“It’s my hope that when you mention DODEA, that one equates it with one of the best school systems in the world,” she said.

As in all sectors of society, technology will play a key role in the days ahead, Fitzgerald said. In the coming months, she’d like to make better use of data and data systems in decision-making, whether it’s the students’ learning process or management systems. Fitzgerald called a new student information system that captures data such as student attendance “world class.”

Fitzgerald also is hoping to create a shared vision with partners, both within the activity and without, to increase the odds for success. She’s met with a variety of stakeholders, she said, such as staff, leadership, teachers unions, parent-teacher associations, and groups such as the Military Child Education Coalition and the National Military Family Association “to help gain a perspective on what is occurring in DODEA and what we might need to emphasize.”

Outside partners are particularly important, the director noted, since the activity educates only about 10 percent of all school-age children from military families. The remaining 90 percent are in public and private schools and in home-school settings.

“My hope during my leadership time is we’ll build much stronger relationships with these school districts, school entities and communities for the benefit of our military families,” she said.

As she focuses on her goals, Fitzgerald said, she’ll also be tackling some of the activity’s more pressing challenges. For example, she’d like to close performance gaps for students in various subgroups, such as minorities, gender and those participating in free or reduced lunch programs.

In many cases, student achievement has been fairly consistent, and in other areas it’s been “dipping a bit,” she said. To help to narrow the gap, Fitzgerald said, she’d like to increase the emphasis on math programs by installing national common core standards and improving students’ options.

“We’re looking discipline by discipline to see where we need to shore up our program so we can close some of these performance gaps,” she said.

Another challenge is student attendance. Military families understandably want their children at home during certain events, such as a parent’s return from deployment, Fitzgerald said, or upon arrival at a new duty station. But she’d like to temper those absences with the potential impact to a student’s progress.

“We fashioned a policy that respects the military lifestyle, but at the same time ensures our children are in school benefiting from the instruction we have to offer,” she said.

Fitzgerald acknowledged the challenges associated with operating in a fiscally constrained environment while still keeping the focus on improvement. The activity already has taken measures to build what she calls a “culture of savings,” she added, working to streamline above-school-level functions so they’re more effective and efficient. For example, the activity is eliminating redundancies in district and headquarters staff and reducing manual processes by leveraging existing technology.

The director said she doesn’t see financial constraints affecting plans for school improvements. The Defense Department has invested $3.8 billion to help in bringing DOD schools up to a uniform quality standard by 2018. This, she said, will enable the activity to build technology-friendly schools while doing away with outdated schools, some operating with leaky roofs or faulty temperature-control systems.

“I believe the department is still strongly committed to ensuring that children of military families receive excellent education,” she noted, “and surely high quality facilities and instruction are essential to that.”

While the activity must remain fiscally responsible, Fitzgerald said, it won’t ever be at the cost of students’ education. Military children, she noted, are the activity’s greatest assets.

“These children come to us with broadened perspectives and a broad range of experiences,” she said. “They’re the closest to being a global citizen that this world will have. To educate children who can draw upon a variety of experiences is really a joy for both teachers and for those of us who plan educational journey that is both exciting and challenging.”

The activity’s teachers and leaders have a deep understanding of military families’ unique needs and requirements, she noted.

“We understand the transitions,” she said. “We understand how to how to help children adjust. We’re often the facilitators, the linchpins and catalysts for helping children adjust to a school environment.

“That in my view has been DODEA’s strength,” she added. “It’s the backbone of this school system.”

People who work within the education activity have adopted a code of sorts, Fitzgerald said. Military families make many sacrifices, she said, but “education for our children will not be among those sacrifices.”

“And I keep that in mind when I walk through this door, and I will continue to take that with me during my years here at DODEA,” she added.

Marilee Fitzgerald

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