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Leatherneck: Making New Orleans Home
Leatherneck: Making New Orleans Home

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Story and photo by Joseph R. Chenelly

Teacher Kristen Freed worked with kindergartners during a reading lesson. Every class has a teacher and a teaching assistant.

A city that seems to have more festivals than there are days in the year may be thought of as an ideal duty station for leathernecks, especially for those who live by the slogan, "Work hard and play hard."

But the number of Marines who are married and have children has been on the rise the past several years. According to the 2004 Marine Corps Almanac, more than 40 percent of active-duty Marines are married.

New Orleans is as famous for its nightlife as it is infamous for the quality of life it offers families. The city's crime rates are as high as anywhere in the United States, and its public schools have test scores that are well below national averages.

For decades leathernecks with spouses and children have tried to avoid orders to New Orleans. Headquarters for Marine Corps Forces Reserve and 8th Marine Corps (Recruiting) District are downtown.

"It can affect readiness when Marines don't want to move to a specific duty station," retired Marine Colonel Joe Berkis said. "Family Marines may not be able to fully concentrate on their work if their families aren't being taken care of.

"Marines would terminate their careers to keep from having to bring their families to New Orleans," he added. "The Corps was losing quality individuals."

Those who elected to continue on active-duty once they received orders faced some tough choices. Sending their children to private schools was an expensive option many Marines chose, but tuitions often created heavy financial burdens.

But that has all changed, according to Berkis. Just as they've done throughout history, leathernecks stepped up to face these serious problems.

"The Marines took the initiative to keep the military community here in New Orleans," Berkis said. They have seized the lead in improving the situation—not just for fellow leathernecks but also for every New Orleans-based member of the U.S. Armed Forces.

A groundbreaking charter school has been built in combination with new public-private venture housing. Now family life doesn't have to be tough for those stationed in the "Big Easy." Instead of living among the neighborhoods where the murder rate rose 7 percent last year, as reported by the FBI, families can reside in the safety of base housing within the guarded gates of the Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base at Belle Chasse, La.

"I saw in the news that New Orleans was among the highest in murders and other violent crimes. With my wife being pregnant, my first reaction was, 'How can I get out of these orders?' " recalled Sergeant James A. Barboza, an operations chief with Marine Aircraft Group 42. "But I felt much better when I found out I could move right into [base] housing."

With a children-first approach, the military community in New Orleans combined forces to build the first-ever public charter school on a military installation.

"I was contacted by [Major] General [David M.] Mize [formerly the commanding general of MARFORRES] along with area Navy commanders," said Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Jane Fitzgerald. "They wanted me to help develop a school for the military children in New Orleans."

Fitzgerald rejoined the active-duty ranks, left her position as a schoolteacher in North Carolina and headed for Louisiana.

Fitzgerald, along with several other individuals and organizations, set up the Belle Chasse Educational Foundation, a nonprofit corporation. The foundation raised money to lease property from the Navy and build a school on it. The foundation then leased the building to Belle Chasse Academy, Inc. As law dictates, a board of directors was established to govern the nonprofit organization much like a school board does a school district. The 11-member board consists of community leaders, parents and Louisiana-certified teachers.

The academy is officially a Louisiana public charter school. It receives state and federal funding, but it does not affect the Department of Defense's budget.

Its basic curriculum includes language arts, reading, mathematics, science, history, music and art for kindergartners through eighth-graders. That is supplemented with foreign language and physical education. It also offers pre- and after-school programs and a specialized counseling program to deal with the specific needs of the military dependent.

The two-story building has more than 90,000 square feet of space, with classrooms, resource rooms for foreign language, counseling and other special curriculum, a gymnasium, cafeteria, media center, library, office space and a new youth center area. Computers, Internet access and cable TV are available in each classroom. The construction project cost nearly $13 million.

"The military community in New Orleans is unified behind the school," said Fitzgerald, who is the academy's principal. "This is something people have wanted for a long time. Everyone is dedicated to seeing it be a success."

Students come from five different parishes, Louisiana's version of counties. The school is centrally located among the city's military sites. About 300 students are bussed in from New Orleans Naval Support Activity.

When the school first opened in September 2002, some military children at the kindergarten level had to be turned away, according to Fitzgerald. "This year we're able to accommodate every active-duty dependent who applied."

More than 900 students are attending the academy this year, according to Berkis, the academy's business manager. More than 3,000 school-age children of active-duty military personnel live in the greater New Orleans area.

Although much of the school's establishment can be attributed to Marines, and two of the most senior positions in the school administration are held by leathernecks, only 15 percent of the students are Marines' children. The kids of sailors make up about 80 percent of the student body.

"There is a good mix of dependents and veterans working here," Berkis said of the staff and faculty. "They have a common understanding of the challenges" the students face as children of Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers.

Belle Chasse, which is a member of the Military Child Education Association, has what it calls an Admirals Club. About 10 percent of the Belle Chasse students are members of the club, which is made up of children with deployed parents.

Children of military personnel deal with many stressors throughout their lives that other children do not experience, such as relocating every two or three years, having a parent frequently deployed and dealing with the potential loss of a parent who is placed in harm's way.

The Admirals Club children get together regularly to socialize and share their experiences. Meeting activities often include games of chess or basketball, or special lessons on topics such as foreign cultures.

"We work hard to ensure children aren't adversely affected by their parents' choice to serve the nation; that is what this school is all about," Berkis said.

Test results through the first year and a half have been "really super," according to Fitzgerald. "We've given the teachers all the tools they need, and it is paying off."

There is a teacher assistant in every class. No class is allowed to be larger than 25 students.

"Parental involvement is at levels that principals usually can only dream of," Fitzgerald said. "Military families tend to be close-knit, and that really helps make better students."

"The extraordinary across-the-board annual gains made by Belle Chasse Academy students is a clear indication of how effective the curriculum/teacher contribution was relative to the rest of the nation," the Lentz consulting firm wrote in its review of the academy's Iowa Test of Basic Skills, an in-depth program developed by the University of Iowa to evaluate the ability and achievement of elementary students.

"Kindergarten through grade five had remarkable annual gains in nearly all subjects," the firm reported. The gains were well over the national average.

Testing also identified Belle Chasse's success in erasing past education shortcomings. "Similar to language scores, it appeared that these students started school with a below average national background in math. The students responded very well to the curriculum and at the higher grades finished their school year above national averages," according to the report.

The academy's administration is reaching out around the country to garner support for the school. It is just one of 50 institutions that have been selected as a NASA explorer school. As part of the program, five Belle Chasse teachers attended training presented by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Huntsville, Ala. Other support from NASA includes funding to purchase technology tools that support science and mathematics instruction.

Belle Chasse also has formed a partnership with the University of New Orleans to take advantage of the unique opportunities associated with a high-quality urban university, according to Fitzgerald.

Corporal Frank J. Anderson, an operations clerk with MAG-42, has a son who attends the academy.

"He gets a whole lot of homework," Anderson said. "His classes seem very advanced compared to the schools outside the gate. There is a lot of interaction with the teachers."

Charter schools are run with different rules than a typical public school. Charter schools must have a mission. "Ours is to nurture the military child," Fitzgerald said.

While the school must have open enrollment to all, it can prioritize whom it accepts to better serve its mission. Top priority is military children.

The difference in the rules governing the academy is far from being the only difference between it and the schools in town. Belle Chasse's daily schedule is like that of a high school operating on periods with students changing classes on each bell.

"I like the experience they are providing my daughter," said Sgt Angel J. Rodriquez, a fiscal chief with MAG-42. His 7-year-old daughter is in second grade at Belle Chasse. "Having the students, even at such a young age, change classes is great because it allows them to learn how to get along with a lot of other children. That is a skill any Marine's kid needs to know with all the moving around they will do.

"It also exposes the children to several different teachers. Because of that, I get to hear evaluations from several teachers," Rodriquez added.

Of the school's student body, 96 percent, or about 860 children, are military dependents. The others are the children of government civilian employees.

Although Louisiana is not considered a charter school-friendly state, the idea of Belle Chasse Academy enjoys a strong acceptance with the local and state governments, Fitzgerald said.

"We made it clear to the school districts outside the station that we could relieve strain of over-population their schools were facing," she said. "But at the same time we wouldn't take so many children out of their schools that it would severely affect their funding."

About 500 families recently moved into new base housing on the naval air station. The academy minimizes the impact that influx in population would have had on the Plaquemine Parish school system.

The new schoolhouse already needs to grow, Fitzgerald said. The addition of six classrooms and a cafeteria expansion are planned for this summer.

Fitzgerald admits Belle Chasse Academy is an "incomplete solution," as about 200 military dependents are still in the area public high schools, and less than one-third of all school-age children of active-duty military personnel in the greater New Orleans area attend Belle Chasse. She said there are no plans to build a charter high school in the area.

She did say that another elementary school might be built on the naval air station depending on the outcome of an upcoming round of base realignment and closures (BRAC).

"We're hoping, and I think the state is hoping, that the school and new base housing makes Belle Chasse [Naval Air Station] less likely to be a casualty" to BRAC, Fitzgerald said.

Belle Chasse Academy potentially may become the model of what the DOD turns to as it looks for alternatives to operating DOD schools within the continental United States. DOD has already stopped expanding its CONUS schools.

High-level DOD officials have visited the academy. Officials from Great Lakes Naval Station, Ill., and Marine Corps Base, Hawaii also have looked toward Belle Chasse as they try to solve problems similar to those in New Orleans with the educational systems outside their installations. Commanders from Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Polk, La., are looking to build similar academies for the soldiers' families residing off post.

"I have no doubt that this concept can work elsewhere," Berkis said. "Success depends on how well the military can work with the local community. Any sense of competition between the charter school and the local school district must be eliminated first thing. All parties involved must understand the charter school is augmenting, not replacing, the existing school system."

News of the school's success is spreading throughout the Corps' ranks too, according to Berkis. "Marines are calling all the way from Okinawa and just about every other base. They want to make sure they can get their children registered before they [transfer]."

The education situation is just one issue that has been vastly improved recently. The new public-private housing venture aboard Belle Chasse is filling a critical need.

"I feel much better having my family on base," Cpl Anderson said. "You have to lock everything all the time in town. On base, it's a much different feeling. You feel safer, more secure."

The main Marine Corps and Navy presence in New Orleans is called the Naval Complex, New Orleans, which consists of the New Orleans Naval Support Activity and Belle Chase NAS/JRB.

The Naval Complex is home to some 4,000 permanent personnel. The majority of those military families reside in privately owned housing situated throughout the community. Accordingly, those families pay market rents and compete with the civilian population for availability.

There is considerable variation among the several sub-markets comprising the region, but the private rental housing market is generally considered tight. Market rents often exceed military allowances—particularly among the junior-enlisted pay grades, causing many Marines to pay significant amounts out-of-pocket to accommodate their housing needs.

About 525 new units were built, more than 400 existing units were renovated, and another 82 were purchased.

"The Department of the Navy would rather spend more of its available cash to get high-quality new units than spend less and achieve lower quality," Navy officials wrote in a release. "Similarly, the Navy would rather utilize all available assets to realize the maximum number of units."

In a move to save the Navy money and create revenue for the community, a private company has been contracted to manage the base housing.

A new commissary is scheduled to open aboard Belle Chasse in 2005. Marines living aboard the base are still hoping for a few more additions and improvements to the air station. Their wish list includes a larger exchange with longer operating hours and more Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities.

"The PX we have now is very small, and it closes before we even get out of work," Anderson said. "The package will be complete when we don't have to go all the way off base and into town to buy milk or bread after work."

One issue the Marines still face in New Orleans is automobile insurance. The latest figures available from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners show Louisiana ranks in the top 10 among states having the highest auto insurance rates.

"We're still working on this, but we'll eventually solve it too," said Marine veteran Jack M. Sands, the vice chairman of the New Orleans Support Group's executive board. "The quality of life for all servicemen and women, as well as their families, has really improved over the past few years. There are a lot of people working hard to keep that trend going."

© 2004 Leatherneck Magazine. All rights reserved.



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