Family forum: Helping schools help military kids 

 

  Children in military families are at a distinct disadvantage in the public schools, but something is being done about it, DoD Director of Education Activity (DODEA) Marilee Fitzgerald told the 2012 Annual Meeting and Exposition of the Association of the United States Army Wednesday, Oct. 24.  

   Civilian schools, Fitzgerald said, are largely unaware that military-connected children experience repeated moves and separation from parents due to deployment with all the accompanying anxiety.  Public school teachers and other students don’t understand what children in military families go through.  As a result of their frequent moves, she said, these children are likely to have gaps in attendance and learning, to start school late in the term and miss out on extracurricular activities, and may struggle to make friends and feel part of the school.

    Fitzgerald pointed to a number of changes in recent years that promise to reduce these problems and promote academic success. For one, more than 100 colleges and universities have signed on to “Operation Educate the Educators,” an effort to prepare aspiring teachers to meet the unique needs of military-connected children.  These institutions are committed to following a set of guiding principles to ensure that their schools of education prepare their graduates to meet the social, emotional, and learning needs of these children.

    Another change is the spread of S2S or Student to Student in schools. S2S provides every new student with a sponsor to show him the ropes so that no student feels isolated.

     Fitzgerald said that the academic progress of many military-connected students is disrupted when they move due to different academic requirements and standards in different school districts.  This problem is addressed by the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which deals with the key school transition issues encountered by military families: eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation. The compact aims to replace the widely varying treatment of transitioning military-connected students, establishing a comprehensive approach that provides a uniform policy in every school district in every state that chooses to join.  The compact also allows for flexibility in meeting requirements. In the past five years, 43 states have adopted the compact.

    Another national school initiative—the adoption of common core state standards by 45 states as well as DODEA—also is dealing with varying academic standards from place to place.  “The [core] standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them,” said Fitzgerald.

      Academics are also being improved, she said, through Advanced Placement courses being offered at high schools serving military bases in this country under the National Math and Science Initiative.  The initiative set out to specifically serve military families in the 2010-2011 school year in four public high schools near Fort Hood , Texas and Fort Campbell, Ky.  The program has since expanded to 52 high schools in 15 states. Because the AP courses are standard across the country, Fitzgerald said, this program provides excellence and continuity for students whenever their families are transferred.  She reported that schools offering AP courses under the program had made huge academic gains.

      Finally, Fitzgerald pointed to the 186 grants DODEA itself has made over the past four years to public school districts with a qualifying portion of  military-connected students.  The grants total  $214M with nearly 80 percent of all projects focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. Some grants also have a counseling component that focuses on easing the challenges that military-connected students face due to transitions and deployments. “The grants are reaching over 280,000 children from military families in over 1,000 public schools,” Fitzgerald said.