TOKYO — Zama American High School, an institution responsible for educating the children of the Army’s top leaders in the Pacific region, is scrambling to maintain its accreditation after a scathing report by an independent agency flunked the school in most educational categories and uncovered a toxic academic environment.
Citing an “obstructive and negative climate perpetuated by an intimidating, manipulative minority of staff members,” the report by the AdvancED accreditation agency placed Zama on accreditation probation and gave the school until next spring to address widespread problems or risk losing its official certification. Such a revocation could affect the ability of Zama students to gain entry into college, apply for scholarships or join the military.
The AdvancED report, obtained by Stars and Stripes, determined that Zama failed to meet standards in six of seven broad categories, ranging from poor test scores to the school’s lack of vision and purpose, its substandard governance and leadership and its troubled relationships with parents.
“What you’re seeing is a systemic issue,” said AdvancED head of accreditation Annette Bohling, who has been involved with accrediting Defense Department schools for 14 years. “That is a concern, because that is more deeply embedded throughout the school than just one or two things the school needs to work on.”
The school’s principal, Candice Wojciechowsky, was removed from her post in January, shortly before the accreditation review and after an internal Department of Defense Education Activity investigation found serious flaws in the school’s ability to function. The dysfunction has been going on since long before Wojciechowsky’s tenure, according to multiple official investigations.
Former administrators going back 10 years told Stars and Stripes that they were stymied by a slew of teacher grievances and discrimination suits that were filed whenever they tried to make improvements. For their part, some teachers cited strikingly negative divisions among the staff, while others blamed administrators for unfair treatment.
Parents told Stars and Stripes and accreditation reviewers that while many Zama teachers displayed dedication and interest, a significant number of others weren’t willing to spend extra time to help struggling students. Among the 280 students who attend the school are children of the Army’s top leaders in the region and the naval aviation wing of the USS George Washington, the military’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier.
“Parents aren’t happy with the attitudes there,” said parent Paul Cote, who has had at least one child in Zama schools since 2005 and was the only parent interviewed who was willing to be identified.
Cote, a civilian who has previously served as a leader of both the Parent Teacher Organization and the School Advisory Committee, added that many discontented military parents are reluctant to lodge official complaints because they are concerned about how they will be perceived in their community. Other parents who spoke with Stars and Stripes cited concern that their careers might be harmed or their children might suffer retaliation.
“If you don’t submit anything official, nothing gets done about it,” Cote said. “It’s like talking to the wind.”
Despite the long-standing issues, Zama American High School had never been placed on accreditation probation — nor had any other DODEA school worldwide — until February.
In order to retain Zama’s accreditation, DODEA must address the problems quickly because the clock is ticking. Another team from AdvancED, the world’s largest independent school reviewing agency, will visit the high school in the fall before re-evaluating Zama’s accreditation status next spring.
Zama’s new principal, Bruce Derr, a formerly retired DODEA Japan superintendent who arrived at Zama on April 30, said the school has a new professional development plan designed to rescue its accreditation.
Derr spent his first day at Zama with the school staff at a workshop run by True Colors, a company that helps employees work on interpersonal relationships. The school is also developing a new communication plan, arranging for focus groups and has issued a standing invitation to parents to participate in faculty meetings. The moves are all designed to improve the school’s educational climate, as required by the accreditation report.
“We’ve had several meetings where people are really working together and working hard, and I’ve been really pleased,” Derr said.
The plan also calls for the school to do a better job of measuring achievement and “focus on learning rather than teaching” in the upcoming school year, though the exact methods haven’t yet been released.
“I think there is a lot of achievement going on,” Derr said. “But like in any school … there’s always something you can work on to improve, and we’re really pretty busy doing that.”
As signs of progress, Derr pointed to Terra Nova standardized achievement test scores in reading, writing and math that averaged between the 70th and 74th percentiles during the 2010-2011 school year. Moreover, Derr said that SAT scores for seniors in 2011 placed them in the 58th percentile nationally.
Other Zama test scores were less positive.
Advanced Placement scores in biology were 20 percent lower than other DODEA schools, and data from other subjects “show a significantly lower score on AP exams when compared to DODEA schools and internationally,” according to the accreditation report.
Wojciechowsky, who was transferred to DODEA’s Pacific headquarters to work on unspecified districtwide projects after less than three years at Zama, declined to comment on the high school’s problems. But two past principals of the school offered some details.
Jerry Ashby, who served as Zama principal from 2005 to 2009, said he largely abandoned a school improvement plan because attempts at reform were being blocked by recalcitrant staff members.
“We had some teachers who just didn’t want to get involved in any improvement, and that group was led by the union, primarily,” Ashby said. “And then we had a group who were quite willing to go above and beyond, and take school improvement seriously, so a lot of my energy was spent trying to reconcile those two orientations.”
Ashby had been principal at two Defense Department schools and vice principal at two others, and said he never had any prior problems with union leadership.
“Many times I was told by [Japan DODEA headquarters] to try to ignore the behavior; that ‘It appears this is your cross to bear,’ and at same time I was told I was doing a very good job,” Ashby said. “I don’t think I could ever convince them of the depth of the poison that was there.”
Ashby’s boss at DODEA headquarters at the time was Derr, who is now Zama’s principal.
Derr denied telling Ashby to give in to anyone’s demands. He said he recalled driving to Zama in order to resolve issues between Ashby and the union leadership.
“I felt that we were being very supportive,” Derr said. “I also don’t think [Ashby] complained that much.”
Erik Swanson, who served as Zama principal from 2002 to 2005, said he was told by the outgoing principal in 2002 that DODEA’s stance was to let the union “call the shots.”
“I’ve been in a lot of different settings, and that was most adversarial time with a union rep I’ve ever seen in my life,” Swanson said. “Virtually everything we tried to do, he objected. Seven times they filed grievances.”
The accreditation report doesn’t mention the union, but instead refers to “a minority, but controlling, group of negative faculty members.”
“Stakeholders frequently shared the following perception with the [accreditation review] team: the priorities and building-level politics of some negative staff members are more focused on the ‘wants of teachers’ rather than on the ‘needs of students,’” the report stated.
The school’s Federal Education Association union representative during each of the three past principals’ tenure has been Brian Chance, who declined to speak with Stars and Stripes.
The FEA is the defense schools division of the National Education Association, the largest professional employee union in the United States.
Former administrators say that fear of lawsuits shepherded by Chance was part of the reason why DODEA was unwilling to back them.
Some past and present teachers at Zama, who asked for anonymity because they feared retribution, said they agreed with the administrators’ assessments.
“You’ll hear the words ‘past practices’ a lot,” said one former teacher. “That can help, or it can be used like a baseball bat to keep the status quo intact. [Union leaders] filed grievances when the principal ignored a past practice, but that can be open to heck of a lot of interpretation.”
However, at least one teacher has been just as keen to criticize the school’s successive administrations for its woes.
Naomi “Bobbie” Donald, who recently retired, sent an email to many school staff members in the Pacific, and most of DODEA’s leadership, blaming the school for “utter disrespect” and a negative working environment that she asserted has been part of the culture at Zama fostered by the administration.
Donald, who is African American, successfully argued in 2009 that she was “excessed” from her job because of her age, race and prior activity in filing lawsuits, according to an equal opportunity investigation report obtained by Stars and Stripes.
The report stated that Ashby discriminated against her by firing her when less qualified teachers were allowed to remain. She was returned to her role at Zama in 2009 after winning a six-figure settlement, according to a copy of the complaint.
Ashby contends that Donald was let go because interest in her cosmetology course was declining and DODEA had mandated he make a faculty cut.
Donald won at least one other discrimination lawsuit at a different DODEA school, according to another complaint, while another discrimination suit that she filed was dismissed, former administrators said.
Donald did not return email and phone messages seeking comment.
Two other Zama staff members made racism complaints last year, but a DODEA investigation determined them to be unsubstantiated, according to official documents.
FEA union president Michael Priser defended the rights of teachers to file discrimination suits during a phone interview.
“I cannot imagine that an administrator, or former administrator, would say that a person who believes they’ve been discriminated against should not use what Congress gave [teachers] to use for addressing that,” Priser said.
Priser also said that he had spoken with DODEA director Marilee Fitzgerald about the Zama situation, and that they agreed that everything possible should be done to improve Zama’s standing within the next year.
“There is absolutely nothing that I would do in any way, shape or form to prevent that from happening,” Priser said.
A Stars and Stripes request to interview Fitzgerald when she spoke with Zama parents earlier this year was denied by local officials. Fitzgerald is scheduled to meet with Zama parents again on Friday.
While some staff members are retiring or transferring, Derr said there aren’t any large-scale plans to fire faculty members.
Once teachers work beyond their two-year probationary period, they receive tenure, which gives teachers a degree of job security. That means that DODEA will have to find other ways to mend some of the divisions outlined by investigators.