ALEXANDRIA, Va., May 22, 2013 - Students, teachers and parents of the Defense Department's schools can be confident that despite the department's upcoming civilian furloughs, the school year will start on time, the Department of Defense Education Activity's director said today.
DODEA operates schools overseas and at some U.S. locations for the children of military families.
In an interview at the school system's headquarters at the Mark Center here, Marilee Fitzgerald told the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service that while her workforce will be affected by the coming furloughs, leaders are working together to ensure the least possible impact on students.
"We'll take a five-day instructional loss," Fitzgerald explained. "Fortunately, this is occurring in the DOD schools, where there is probably no group of teachers who are better prepared for this kind of challenge."
Fitzgerald explained that like other DOD employees, 12-month DODEA employees -- including headquarters workers, principals and others -- will be scheduled for up to 11 furlough days to begin no earlier than July 8. Nine-month DODEA employees, including teachers and some staff members, will be scheduled for up to five furlough days beginning in September, she added.
"The goal of all of our teachers -- and everyone, really, in DODEA -- is to try to ensure that there is the least disruption possible to the educational life and experience of our children," she said. "You know, we're in the teaching and learning business. That's what we do. And we're not going to sacrifice one minute that those children are in front of us, to try and help them gain the kind of knowledge that they will need to be successful in the school year."
DODEA schools will be open, but will not conduct regular classes on furlough days, she said. Fitzgerald explained that many school employees, including host-nation employees in overseas schools, are exempt from furlough.
"We can still do extracurricular activities [on furlough days], but those activities must occur after the school day," she said. The director added that furlough days will not be scheduled on standardized testing days, and will most often happen on a Monday or Friday, to regulate students' schedules as much as possible.
Fitzgerald noted that DODEA's teachers are attuned to the needs of their students, who change schools and even countries of residence frequently, often while also dealing with the challenges of having a parent deployed to a war zone.
The teachers will focus on making the best possible use of the classroom time they do have, and will give students extra reading assignments and homework to help them make up the loss of classroom time, she added.
Fitzgerald noted that education research indicates instructional time is crucial, and that from an educator's perspective, five days should be added to the school year, not subtracted from it.
"We're going to be watching that carefully, and our teachers are acutely aware of that research," she said. "They understand the challenge here in trying to help our children make up, if you will, for that instructional loss. ... We're hoping the effect will be minimal."
Fitzgerald said the question of maintaining school accreditation -- which the current plan will maintain -- was important when the issue of furloughs arose. She said she had been troubled a few months ago, when early discussions spoke of possible 22-day furloughs.
"This was a great concern to the department," she said. "There are threshold requirements in our accreditation standards, and we felt that if we went below 175 days of classroom instruction, we were really threatening our accreditation process. Fortunately, the department was able, even in this very severe budget crisis, to ensure that we took a fewer number of days so that we wouldn't in any way compromise our accreditation."
She said DOD places great value on its education activity and its educators and staffs, who run schools around the world and on military installations across the country.
"They've made great investments in the education of our children, and they certainly understand the importance that a quality education has to our nation, [and] to the recruitment and retention of a quality workforce. ... I think they demonstrated that when they reduced the number of furlough days for our employees," she said.
Furloughing school employees demonstrates the depth of crisis facing DOD, Fitzgerald said. "I found every opportunity, every effort being made, to ensure that we would not have to furlough," she added. "[Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel] himself, in his letters, has said he came by this decision with great pain and great regret."
DOD, DODEA, and every other agency devoted to securing the nation's future are struggling under the current budget and deficit conditions, Fitzgerald noted. "I don't think the department would make this decision if it weren't for this financial crisis," she added.
DODEA is not planning to conduct further furloughs beyond the coming school year, she said.
"That can't become a routine," she added. "I believe the department is committed to this investment that it's making in the education of the children, so budget cuts would have to come from other sources, within DODEA and within the department itself, to try and avoid impacting the educational program. We would just have to stop doing certain things."
Fitzgerald said around the world, DODEA's employees will work to keep morale high and their focus on the children, but she acknowledged the furloughs would have an effect.
"This is going to be a very difficult time for our families and our employees," she said.
Still, Fitzgerald said, she's confident her workforce will "push through" the professional and personal difficulties that a loss of classroom time and a loss of pay will bring.
"It's not a heavy lift to keep our teachers motivated," she said. "In fact, during times of great crisis, you will see our teachers ... be the first ones to tell you, 'Let's stay focused on the mission.'"
Educators are people whose career choice is motivated by love of the work, she pointed out. "They believe they can make a difference in the lives of these children," she said. "That characteristic is actually present in all DODEA employees. That's what makes DODEA so special."
From the headquarters to each individual school, she said, "our focus is on the children. It's not about us, it's about them."
Her entire workforce understands the challenges they're facing with a five-day instructional loss this year, Fitzgerald said.
"I would tell you that the prevailing feeling is, while there is great disappointment and concern ... during this whole process, the one thing I think you'll find in DODEA is that they will rally, and they will look back on this -- and they want everyone to do so -- with the sense that, 'Yes, those were tough times, and we performed magnificently,'" she added.
Principals are now working to schedule the precise furlough schedules their schools will observe, Fitzgerald said. She added that parents should contact their local school offices and websites for more information on furlough schedules.
"I can say this to all of our parents: the school calendar shows a report date, an opening of school, and that won't change," she said. "These furlough days ... are not going to be taken, probably, until after the Labor Day holiday. So teachers, parents, children should report to school on time."