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Making sure children in military families are not left behind

By Ron Avi Astor


Imagine attending nine schools before graduating from high school. Dealing with the emotional strain of having to end and restart friendships every year. Never establishing a lasting relationship with a favorite teacher. Being barred from participating in a favorite sport because you don’t meet residency requirements.

Further imagine the frustration of falling academically behind because completed courses in one state aren’t credited in another. And all this is happening while mom or dad is on his or her fourth tour of military duty overseas.

For the 1.3 million children of military families currently enrolled in public schools, this world is not imaginary. It’s a cost of national security that doesn’t show up on spreadsheets. Yet many struggle through public schools that are unaware of — and unprepared for — the special challenges of the military lifestyle.

In January, President Obama took an important step in addressing the generations-long neglect of military children by issuing a directive, “Strengthening Our Military Families,” that proposed ways to help these children get the best public education possible. Congress, meanwhile, can make an important difference now as America continues its longest war in Afghanistan and remains engaged in Iraq and Libya.

Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 2 million children in military families have attended public schools. Most of these schools are near military bases. But because both campaigns relied heavily on the Reserves and National Guard, many military students also enroll in schools far from a base.

How are they faring academically? A Rand Corp. study released in April shows how a parent’s deployment can affect their children’s work in school. Researchers looked at the achievement test scores of more than 44,000 Army children in North Carolina and Washington state whose parents were deployed 19 months and longer between 2002 and 2008. They found that the students’ reading and math scores were significantly lower than their civilian peers, and that falling achievement was greater the younger the student.

Problem is that teachers, principals and staff in public schools are ill prepared to provide support for military students with falling grades. Only a handful of university schools of education currently offer any program or course on the special challenges of the military lifestyle — frequent mobility, prolonged deployment and sudden death. In addition, educational research literature doesn’t coherently provide guidance for teachers on how to handle the classroom challenges surrounding this lifestyle.

No wonder a 2010 Blue Star Family survey found that one of the main reasons why military families believe that the general public does not appreciate the sacrifices they make was the absence of support for their children in the public schools.

Not all schools are unwelcoming. With the help of the U.S. Navy, some in San Diego and Hawaii, both hosts of major military bases, offer a one-stop shop on the first day of school where entering military students and their parents can survey potential classes, check out available tutors, learn about extracurricular activities and meet new classmates. Other schools celebrate military culture by setting aside days – the Marines’ birthday, for example — to recognize important events in military history.

The upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act offers several opportunities to help military students.

For starters, Congress should fund an electronic system that would send the academic records of transferring military students to their new schools. This would minimize any delay in delivering tutoring or counseling support to students who need it and help prevent them from falling behind due to a loss of course credits.

As part of reauthorization, Congress should fully fund the Military Impact Aid program, which provides supplemental money to public schools serving military students. This is especially important at a time when states are cutting public school funding to balance their budgets.

And the best teaching practices found at public schools with large numbers of military students — and in Department of Defense Educational Activity schools – should be extended to all military families. For example, some schools in Hawaii have transition centers where volunteers or paid staffers help arriving military students adapt to their new schools and hear out their parents’ concerns. Such centers should be common to all military-connected schools and should be a condition of receiving additional federal money.

Longer term, helping military children get a good public education may require that we view them as members of a distinct American cultural group. Military families readily agree they make up a subculture with its own history, rituals, values, music and experiences. Department of Defense schools on bases accommodate this culture in their curriculum and support networks — and student achievement is comparable to that of their civilian peers.

Public schools serving a high percentage of military students could similarly create a welcoming and supportive environment by adjusting their curriculum and holiday schedules to respect the military culture. The payoff could be better academic performance.

The men and women of our armed services deserve all the support they need to do their jobs. Making it easier for their children to navigate and achieve in public schools should be part of that support.

Ron Avi Astor, a professor in the schools of social work and education at the University of Southern California, is project leader of Building Capacity in Military Connected Schools, a partnership between USC and a consortium of eight public schools districts that aims to improve the educational experiences of military students. He is author with Rami Benbenishty of School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender.

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