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CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Zama American High School will likely regain full accreditation following an independent review this week, a dramatic turnaround for a school that last year became the first Defense Department school ever to be placed on probation.

It is the first time a school has gone from probation — the lowest possible level before a school loses its accreditation altogether — to fully accredited, said Annette Bohling, chief of accreditation for the national agency AdvancED.

“I want to tell you how unusual this is,” Bohling told an audience of about 70 parents, students and school employees following the two-day review. “It’s like a completely different school.”

Loss of accreditation at the school, where students of several top Army and Navy leaders in Japan attend classes, could have meant difficulty for students applying to college, and even the military.

In the preliminary accreditation report, Zama earned an “operational” rating in six of seven broad categories measuring the school’s quality, Bohling said. “Operational” is the second-highest of four ratings and considered to mean that a school is generally doing a good job. The school earned the top grade of “highly functional” for its governance and leadership.

Last year, accreditors gave Zama scores of “not evident” – the worst possible – in two of seven categories: its commitment to continuous improvement, and its ability to document and use student results to improve performance. It earned the second-worst score of “emerging” in four categories: teaching and learning; governance and leadership; communication with parents and the community; and vision and purpose. Only its resources and support systems were deemed operational last year.

Bohling said Zama had successfully remedied the “obstructive and negative climate perpetuated by an intimidating, manipulative minority of staff members” that the 2012 report stated had weighed down school achievement.

The Department of Defense Education Activity did so largely by replacing about half of the school’s 38-person staff. Zama also gained an extra assistant principal, an instructional coach and a host of resources that a school of its size doesn’t normally receive.

Those resources will remain in place next year, said Martha Brown, who oversees all DODEA schools in the region.

“It normally takes three years for change to take root,” said Brown, who added that she was pleased how far the school had come this year.

Bohling noted that it normally takes five years of failure in the United States for a school to reconstitute its staff so thoroughly.

“It was a tremendous difference from what our team saw here before,” Bohling said.

Last year, Zama American High School became the first to be placed on probation since AdvancED’s earlier incarnations began auditing Department of Defense schools in 1945.

Although Zama’s 2012 performance ruling spurred the changes, parents and former school employees said that the problems at Zama endured for several years beforehand.

Teacher factions repeatedly clashed with each other, current teachers told Stars and Stripes and accreditation teams. Past administrators dating back more than a decade said they could not work with the school’s union leadership. DODEA paid out multiple settlements – at least one of which reached six-figures – to settle discrimination charges leveled at administrators.

Bohling and her deputy director, who oversee dozens of accreditation teams in the United States, personally conducted the review this year.

Students who attended the after-school briefing Wednesday agreed that the school’s overall mood had improved over the prior year.

Marie Ricafrente, 18, a senior, and Brooklina McElhinney, 16, a sophomore, each said they were generally happier with the quality of their teachers.

“This year, we’re getting a lot more support,” Brooklina said.

However, there is still room for improvement, school officials and accreditors said Wednesday.

The AdvancED deemed progress on instructional practices that engage students as a work “in progress,” and will require a report from the school on that subject next year.

A student survey administered by the school also found that 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.

Also, while the school’s communication with parents received high marks overall, accreditors said Wednesday that information needed to get to parents more quickly.

“The folks here have to focus on protecting our country, so when they need something, they need it,” Bohling said.

AdvancED’s full report will be posted online in about 20 days, officials said Wednesday. Zama’s finalized accreditation status will be determined by an AdvancED committee on June 22.

slavin.erik@stripes.comTwitter: @eslavin_stripes

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