WASHINGTON (AFPS) --
Department of Defense Education Activity students, parents and employees should expect quite a few changes in the upcoming school year, the DODEA director said in an Aug. 23 interview.
Those changes will be both visible and behind the scenes, but they all are geared toward improving the quality of education at DODEA schools, Marilee Fitzgerald told American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel.
This year, every teacher, leader and school support staff member will have a new blueprint -- the Community Strategic Plan -- for advancing students to higher levels of learning, Fitzgerald said.
"It's a five-year journey that reflects our K-12 educational reform efforts," she added.
New digital curricula and updated building designs are a part of the reforms covered by the plan, Fitzgerald said, noting that the Community Strategic Plan "sets some very rigorous targets for learning in our schools."
DODEA's mission statement -- "Educate, Engage and Empower each student to succeed in a dynamic world" -- is simple, Fitzgerald said, but the agency's vision is ambitious. It seeks "to be the best in the business, the best in educating military-connected children," she said.
To accomplish this, DODEA set five rigorous goals, Fitzgerald explained: student excellence, school excellence, talent excellence, organizational excellence and outreach excellence.
"And then we set some benchmarks to gauge our success and our progress, and every year we're going to report our progress," she added.
The progress reports will allow DODEA to celebrate its successes and recalibrate where needed, Fitzgerald said.
More ambition can be found in the goal to have every student reading on grade level by the time they finish third grade, she said.
"While we may measure ourselves always in the aggregate -- 'How well do DODEA schools do generally?' -- that's not our focus in this journey," Fitzgerald said. "The next five years are about every single student and how well each student is doing."
Computer technology course offerings have expanded to more schools this year, she said. Introduced in the last two years at a handful of high schools, courses such as biotechnology engineering, green technology, robotics and gaming technology are now being offered more widely.
"We've also expanded our math courses in about half as many schools as we did last year. Next year we'll finish completely, and in all schools we will have new math courses," Fitzgerald said. Those courses include financial literacy, algebraic modeling and advanced functions, she said, adding that, next year, Algebra II will be added as a requirement for graduation.
This year's incoming high school freshmen will be the first to graduate under updated graduation standards, Fitzgerald said. DODEA now requires four years of mathematics, three of which must come at the high school level.
"You can expect to see more courses in our virtual learning school," she said. In addition to existing courses, in spring 2014 the DODEA Virtual High School will offer supporting coursework for geometry, Algebra I and Algebra II, Fitzgerald said.
"If they need to go back and revisit some of the chapters and some of the areas of study, they can do so in a virtual learning environment at home or anyplace where it's convenient for them to study," she said.
Everyone learns differently, Fitzgerald noted, so "these support courses are going to be quite valuable for our children -- especially our mobile children as they come in and out of our schools."
This summer, trigonometry was offered to advanced placement students via the online school to allow them to prepare for AP Calculus AB. More courses are coming this year, including Japanese III, French IV, AP Biology, AP Microeconomics and AP Psychology.
Foreign language learning has been expanded in all of DODEA's elementary schools, Fitzgerald said, with the goal of every student mastering a second language.
"We've adopted Spanish as the language where we would like all of our children in DODEA to be language proficient," Fitzgerald said. Spanish was chosen because it is the most widely taught foreign language in U.S. schools, she noted, making it easier for students to continue their foreign language instruction as they move in and out of the DODEA school system.
"As we move along and we learn more about how to teach and deliver instruction virtually, we're going to be able to offer many more languages other than Spanish," Fitzgerald said.
Construction of new schools and renovation of existing schools throughout the DODEA system will continue this year, Fitzgerald said.
"We have about 45 new schools in design and 12 schools under construction," she said, "so there will be a lot of hard hats around our schools this year as we build our new 21st century schools."
Teacher professional development will be made easier by the installation of 82 new video "telepresence" panels that will bring experts in the field to teachers stationed around the world, Fitzgerald said.
"The research is very clear," she said. "There are many factors which influence student achievement. The two most dominant, though, are teachers and leaders. ... And so, this professional development program looks at what teachers need -- we give them voice and choice. [There's] no need to learn something you already have learned, but there are a number of competencies that we hope will be relevant for our teachers -- and teachers helped develop this, so I think it's going to be really exciting because it is about what they need."
Sequestration definitely has had an impact on DODEA, Fitzgerald said. The adoption this year of Common Core State Standards was planned to take place last year, she said.
"By our schedule, we would have opened our doors this year and the new standards would have been in place," she said. The standards, used in 46 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, cover mathematics and English instruction and are intended to clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level.
"We've prolonged it for a year," Fitzgerald said. "This year, we're going to do all the work that should have been done last year. We're doing a gap analysis. We're doing a lot of our financial planning and putting together a professional development program."
Several curriculum updates have been postponed, she said, noting that some courses haven't been updated in seven years.
"That's not where we want our children to be," Fitzgerald acknowledged.
DODEA was able to purchase science curriculum updates for high school students to use this year, "but they should have been out there last year," Fitzgerald said. And mathematics courses are scheduled to be updated over the next two years, she said, "as long as we can stay on schedule."
A planned expansion of the digital learning environment program that provided laptops to DODEA students in about 20 schools has been delayed.
"We're hoping that as we move along in [fiscal year 2014, which starts Oct. 1], we're going to be able to dedicate some resources to that important endeavor, but right now that's been stalled for a year," Fitzgerald said. "We have vast needs in our system in terms of technology, generally. This year, we will have some tablets in our schools, but we need more of those in our schools for our children."
DODEA officials have a five-year plan that includes an effort to become leaner and more efficient, Fitzgerald said. For example, she said, the professional development program for educators is being rolled out with an eye on cost reduction. The new telepresence panels will save money by cutting the travel costs associated with teacher education, Fitzgerald said, and also are being used to deliver specialized coursework to students in geographically dispersed areas.
DODEA also is examining ways to realize cost savings through digital textbooks, Fitzgerald said.
"If we were capitalizing on that, we would eliminate a very costly and burdensome supply chain management system ... that orders, delivers [and] distributes textbooks throughout the schools," she explained.
Regardless of budget cuts and the effects of sequestration, DODEA remains focused squarely on students and their success, Fitzgerald said, because education is an investment in the nation's future.
"That's the great thing about the DODEA teachers and leaders and all of those who support our children," she said. "In the storm of these budget uncertainties, one thing you can count on ... is the strength of the talent before our children. And they're going to the right things by our children.
"As we face these challenges," she continued, "our efforts are going to be dedicated toward our children, and everything that we do in DODEA to meet these budget challenges and other challenges that come our way is going to be done with a view towards protecting that very important and critical investment in our children."