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How schools are making room for the military

Students whose parents serve at home and abroad need academic flexibility and help reducing stress
  • STUDENT SUCCESS—Fallbrook Union Elementary School District near San Diego provides a range of services to support its military-connected students—such as these youngsters at San Onofre School, which the district operates on Camp Pendleton Marine base.
  • BUDDY SYSTEM—The Military Child Education Coaltion trains students to serve as mentors for classmates from military families who have moved to a new school. The program is intended to prevent bullying, isolation and other issues students may face when relocating.

The life of a military family comes with a powerful sense of patriotism and pride, but also definite, daily challenges. Personnel are typically transferred every two to three years, which means their children may attend as many as nine schools during their lives.

Add to that the stress these students suffer when parents are deployed overseas, are sent into combat or return home wounded.

Military-connected students—compared to civilian classmates—have moderately elevated rates of just about all risk factors, including suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and bullying, according to a University of Southern California survey of middle and high schools in that state.


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The numbers are even higher for students whose parents have been deployed to a combat zone.

The problem stems from civilian society’s lack of awareness about the experiences of military families, says Ron Avi Astor, a professor of school behavioral health at USC who led the survey.

“It’s not military kids who are the problem,” he says. “The problem is most civilian schools do not have a keen awareness if these children are in their schools or of what their families have endured.”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. military has been involved in ongoing conflicts and has also responded to disasters around the globe, says Astor, who heads a consortium of school districts working to improve services for military-connected students in Southern California.

ESSA now requires schools to identify students whose parents are active members of the military. Meanwhile, school districts that cover military bases have developed supports that include helping students transition to new schools, quick assessment tests, tutoring and school counselors trained in specific types of social-emotional support.

Several organizations offer free or low-cost resources, which may also be of interest to districts with only a few of these children.

“Whether we’re at war or in peace times, school transition issues are not going away,” says Cindy Simerly, vice president of fund development of the Military Child Education Coalition.

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Family life consultants & lunch buddies

Behavioral policies guided by restorative practices can help military children acclimate and avoid at-risk behaviors, says Louis Fletcher, director of culture and services at School District 49 in Colorado Springs, where one-quarter of the students have military connections.

“Students can run into situations where, for example, something’s not a problem in Georgia, but they move to Colorado and they’re getting in trouble for it,” says Fletcher, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who also serves as the district’s military liaison. “We make the rules very transparent.”

The district has for the last three years employed two “military family life consultants”—a pair of social workers who focus on the specific social-emotional needs of military families.

For example, the consultant could refer a student to more comprehensive counseling if they are struggling to cope with a parent’s deployment to a combat zone or serious injuries. The consultants will also make sure families are aware of all the resources the military will provide to students with special needs, Fletcher says.

The district staff also includes military student transition consultants who help children adjust to the district and prepare when they have to relocate.

Other military-focused programs in the district screen students for learning disabilities and introduce them to career options.

“When members of the military have their families with them in other parts of the world and are more isolated, they get a lot of services,” Fletcher says. “The environment we’re shaping here is giving those military kids the support they would get if they were out there on base.”

To ease transitions, other districts have developed buddy programs in which students who have been in the district show their new military-connected classmates around, says Simerly, of the Military Child Education Coalition, an organization that provides social-emotional and academic programs.

Many military-impacted districts also maintain lunch-buddy programs, in which students volunteer to eat with military-connected classmates who are new to the school.

Understanding military culture

In the the Steilacoom Historical School District south of Seattle, about 40 percent of the students have military connections. Through a partnership with Joint Base Lewis-McChord, administrators added new programs—such as preventative mental health care—to keep students on track academically and psychologically.

“We heard loud and clear that families and staff wanted to support the social-emotional needs of our students,” says Superintendent Kathi Weight. “It’s a unique population, so we wanted the experts to help us create programs.”

School-based clinics, staffed by military medical personnel, help students avoid missing school for doctor’s visits. This convenient service is one way the district works to ease the lives of military members, considering the high stress levels they experience on duty, Weight says.

Weight and district counselors also hold weekly “Otter Talks” in which they eat lunch with students who might be having adjustment issues or worrying about a parent.

“We are able to connect students to other students and let kids know that they are not alone in the challenges they face,” Weight says. “Many students make great friends, and families are relieved to know that their kids are being supported.”

Administrators need to understand military culture when trying to spot subtle signs of trouble. Military culture involves a rigid structure and, given the urgency military personnel face in certain situations, their communications can be blunt and abrupt.

Knowing the language can help educators ask the right questions of a student who is in distress, says Kelly Blasko, a psychologist who oversees Military Kids Connect, a online support community operated by the Department of Defense.

“We look at the research about what kind of psychological health issues are emerging as well as what is going on in the world around the military,” Blasko says.

No (military) child left behind

The Military Interstate Children’s Compact —which now comprises all 50 states and the District of Columbia—outlines student-transfer procedures, such as quick transmission of transcripts. It also encourages flexibility around academics.

For example, a school might create an extra spot in an advanced placement class—or on the basketball team—for a new student. A youngster learning a language that’s not offered in their new district could be allowed to study the language online.

And students who have relocated just before completing high school could be held to the graduation requirements of their previous district.

“We try to make sure these kids are not left behind and they’re afforded the same opportunities as their civilian counterparts,” says Cherise Imai, executive director of the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission.

Weight, at Steilacoom, encourages school districts to explore Department of Defense Education Activity grants—one of which funds her district’s tiered system for social-emotional interventions, known as the “Safe and Sound Project.”

Two full-time social workers provide basic counseling to all students and offer more intensive interventions to students who have more severe needs, Weight says.

The Military Child Education Coalition also offers a wide range of programs that address the social-emotional and academic needs of military-connected students, and most are free.

The coalition’s Student 2 Student program offers training for youngsters who are willing to pair up with newcomers. The goal is to prevent social isolation and bullying.

Steilacoom High School’s Student 2 Student program includes one-to-one interactions as well as group activities, such as field trips and pizza socials.

Finally, schools can honor military culture by integrating holidays such as Veterans Day, Flag Day and the Marine Corps Birthday into the curriculum and classroom celebrations, says Astor of USC.

“When civilian schools have business as usual on those days, that’s offensive to military families,” he says. “Recognizing these events makes a lot of these kids feel visible.”


Lois Elfman is a freelance writer whose work often addresses educational issues.