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CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Zama American High School officials say they are cautiously optimistic as they prepare for a critical review one year after the agency that accredits Department of Defense Education Activity schools placed Zama on probation — a first for DODEA.

A team from the independent AdvancED accreditation agency will visit the school on May 14 and 15 as part of a required follow-up to last year’s damning review.

The agency in 2012 gave the school failing or near-failing grades in six of seven broad categories, which included classroom learning, leadership and most other measures of school performance.

Zama’s accreditation probation rating is the lowest of four ratings attainable without losing accreditation entirely. Losing accreditation would make it difficult for students to get into college, earn scholarships and even join the military.

When the AdvancED evaluators return, they will find a school that the Department of Defense Education Activity has provided with resources well above what it normally gives a school of its size with 270 students. Teachers receive constant training, the support staff is larger than comparable schools and high-tech upgrades designed to track learning are commonplace.

Simply put, school officials say they know that they have no choice but to improve.

“We all know the concern for Zama is being monitored all the way to [Washington] D.C.,” Assistant Principal Heather Rhine told parents at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening.

School officials put together a 30-minute slideshow for parents that highlighted their outreach efforts and new teaching techniques. They encountered far less vitriol and a much smaller turnout than last June, when parents expressed their frustration upon hearing of the school’s failures.

School officials were scheduled to meet on Thursday evening with parents at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, whose children also attend school at Zama.

Among the 25 parents who attended the Zama presentation Wednesday night were some of the Army’s most senior officers in the Asia-Pacific region. Some said that while the presentation sounded good, they were still reserving judgment. It was too early to tell whether the improvements will be sustained when it is no longer on such scrutiny and resources return to normal levels, they said.

AdvancED is expected to look closely at the sustainability of the changes at the school, Japan Superintendent Lois Rapp said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.

“It’s simply not acceptable to think about returning to those past behaviors,” Rapp said.

Those behaviors included “an obstructive and negative climate perpetuated by an intimidating, manipulative minority of staff members,” according to last year’s AdvancED report. At least two other internal reports found systemic infighting among staff members that ultimately affected classroom behavior.

Past Zama teachers and administrators told Stars and Stripes last year that the infighting went back more than a decade and often prevented even small changes to the learning environment.

Of last year’s 38 Zama staff members, 20 were either transferred or no longer work within DODEA. The school isn’t planning any major staffing changes for next year, Rapp said.

Todd Carver, a teacher and retired Marine officer who has two children attending the school, said the school is a markedly different place without constant arguments between teacher factions, administrators and union representatives battling over contract stipulations and a host of other issues that took the focus away from students.

“We had a lot of difficulty in working together as a faculty,” Carver said. “There were a lot of dividing issues. That’s not the case this year.”

Beyond the personality issues that plagued the school, AdvancED observed that outside of a small, dedicated cadre of teachers, few were doing much to assess whether their instructional methods were working. Evaluators gave Zama a grade of “emerging” – the second lowest grade available -- in the “teaching and learning” category.

Teachers are now concentrating more on what they call “formative assessment,” said Lee Rabine, also a retired military officer and now the school’s technology specialist. Instead of focusing only on late-year tests to gauge what students remember, the assessments whether students understand the material each day — sometimes gathering answers from students anonymously, or in group formats.

Zama American High School has made most of these changes public, on its website or in newsletters to parents. It has even posted a link to the scathing AdvancED accreditation report — a major change from last year, when some parents had complained that they could not find a copy.

While Zama employees clearly do believe the school is a better one now, some are purposely tamping down expectations for the coming accreditation review. Remaining at the probation level likely will be perceived as failure; however, officials say it is likely that Zama will move up to the third-rung “accredited-warned” or next-up “on advisement” level, as opposed to simply being labeled accredited.

It does not appear that Zama’s probationary status has affected student enrollment in college thus far. School officials on Wednesday pointed out a wall with more than 30 college acceptance letters, with letterheads from selective schools like Cornell and the U.S. Military Academy.

Nevertheless, Zama employees acknowledge that the school’s new direction is a work in progress. Parents and students largely agreed in anonymous online surveys administered by the school.

Among parents, 68 percent said they were satisfied overall with the school, and three-quarters of respondents said teachers treated students fairly.

However, only 30 percent of parents agreed that the school was preparing students for “real world problems,” while 45 percent said teachers held high expectations for learning.

A sizable minority of students did not think teachers were providing enough extra help when needed, and didn’t think students were motivated to do their best work.

It’s difficult to gauge whether these numbers are an improvement, since there is no survey data to compare them with in recent years. Teachers who spoke with Stars and Stripes Wednesday said one of the big differences this year is that when a problem arises, the faculty addresses it with parents and students directly.

Carver likened the situation to children at home knowing when their parents have had an argument. To build trust, the adults need to be able to talk about it honestly. At times, he has stopped class to answer student questions about the school’s troubles, and what the adults are doing to fix them.

“Some things are more important than an assignment,” Carver said. “Right now, this is important to the kids, and the community.”

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