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DODEA boss: ‘F’ grade for Zama too harsh; it’s a ‘D-'

CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Zama American High School will remain on academic probation until next year and probably won’t be rated “functional” until 2014, according to the Defense Department school system’s top official.

Department of Defense Education Activity director Marilee Fitzgerald was confronted at a Friday meeting by 60 angry parents, many calling for heads to roll in response to a damning accreditation report that found the high school had failed to meet minimum standards in six of seven broad areas. Those included teaching and learning, leadership and governance and commitment to continuous improvement.

Zama is the first school in DODEA history to have its accreditation placed on probation by independent evaluators from AdvancED, an accreditation agency used by the Defense Department to certify its schools. Students who do not graduate from an accredited school may face more difficulty applying to colleges, gaining scholarships and joining the military.

School officials barred Stars and Stripes reporters from attending the public meeting at the school. But parents who were inside said that Fitzgerald made reference to a front-page headline in Thursday’s Stars and Stripes that read “Zama’s Grade: F.” Fitzgerald said that was unfair.

“The school did not get an F,” she said, according to parents present at the meeting. “What do you think a probationary status rates? A D or a D-.”

Recent efforts to address Zama’s academic and management problems mean accreditation inspectors could upgrade Zama’s rating from “probation” to “warning” when they visit again next February, Fitzgerald said. But it will likely take two years for the school to be rated “functional,” she said in the meeting, according to parents.

That wasn’t enough to mollify many parents, who demanded that the school fire a group of underperforming teachers.

“There is a core group of teachers that, quite frankly, need to be removed,” Master Sgt. Anthony Baldwin said after the two-hour meeting. Baldwin’s daughter, Cierra, 16, has been at the school for 2 1/2 years.

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Anthony Baldwin said DODEA has plenty of evidence that it could use to remove the bad teachers, some of whom have been at the school for decades, but that he doesn’t expect the agency to act.

“I don’t think it will happen,” he said. “Once a teacher has tenure, it takes a very long time to remove them, and apparently 20 years is not enough.”

Some students at the school have complained about reprisals from teachers after they spoke out about problems.

Parents are looking at sending their kids to other schools in Japan next year if they don’t see action taken at Zama, Baldwin said.

Zama junior Elissa Newhart, 16, showed up at the meeting to ask why students weren’t invited.

She told the parents and administrators that she had learned nothing in two of her classes over the past three years, according to those in attendance. She said 30 students -- half of her class -- signed a petition this year complaining that students were being unfairly graded on an after-school activity but saw no action from officials, she said.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Fitzgerald said it was disappointing that some students felt intimidated by their teachers. She added that the behavior described by some students and parents was unacceptable.

“There is a group of teachers at this school who they [parents] feel are not contributing,” she said. But Fitzgerald declined to indicate if any firings are being considered.

After the parent meeting, Zama’s teaching staff was invited to attend a separate meeting with Fitzgerald. Only about half of the educators showed up, according to some who were in attendance.

DODEA spokesman Charles Hoff said all of the school’s staff will likely be ordered to attend a meeting with Fitzgerald next week.

Some parents who spoke with Stars and Stripes were willing to talk only on condition of anonymity, as they feared their children might face retribution from, among others, the “minority, but controlling, group of negative faculty members” cited in the AdvancED accreditation report.

One parent, a mother of four who attended the meeting, said Fitzgerald made earnest attempts to say the right things. But the mother said she wasn’t convinced that the school would turn around quickly.

“The administration says they’ve monitored a lot of grievances, but if they’ve been monitoring them, why did it take the [accreditation report] to draw the red flag?” the mother said. “It doesn’t inspire confidence when the people who didn’t see this coming say, ‘We’re going to fix it now.’ ”

Past administrators and teachers who spoke with Stars and Stripes earlier said that many of the problems afflicting the school go back more than 10 years.

Bruce Derr, the school’s new principal and the former Japan superintendent for much of the last decade, said in May the school had unveiled a plan to regain its good standing and mend what previous investigations described as a toxic learning environment.

One parent said she hoped the spotlight on Zama, even if it is negative, would lead to progress.

“It’s opened up something that needed to be discussed for years,” the parent said. “Crisis is the bottom, and you move up from crisis. Sometimes people work better when they’ve reached that point.”

DODEA officials explained their decision to bar Stars and Stripes from the meeting as necessary to protect parents from media scrutiny.

“We have found that the presence of a reporter inhibits dialogue and that would defeat the purpose of the meeting,” Hoff, the DODEA spokesman, said in an e-mail statement.

robsons@pstripes.osd.mil

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

 

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