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Admiral Says Public Schools Nationwide Shortchanging Military Kids

School bus picking up high school students.

The new head of U.S. Pacific Command charged last week that military kids are being shortchanged by the failure nationwide of schools to adapt to their needs.

"Our educational system simply isn't designed, much to its discredit, to support the lifestyle that accompanies a career of service," Adm. Harry Harris, said at a two-day seminar last week sponsored by the non-profit Military Child Education Coalition.

Harris, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and other top leaders all spoke to the stress put on military kids since 9/11 by the frequent deployments of parents and siblings to war zones, and by the duty station moves that force military kids to adapt to different school standards at their new post.

"Children of military parents repeatedly face the challenges of engagement, disengagement, and re-engagement as they move to new schools every two or three years," Harris said.

"It's no surprise that studies have shown that children of military parents are often more vulnerable to fear and anxiety, and that those stressors manifest themselves behaviorally and academically," said Harris, who took over in May at PACOM from the retiring Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III.

There are now more than 1.3 million military-connected children in school districts near bases from kindergarten through grade 12, according to the Coalition. About 75,000 military kids attend the 178 schools worldwide run by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).

Military kids in both the public and DoDEA systems "live with perpetual challenges presented by frequent moves, parental and sibling deployments, and a host of life transitions that include re-integration and dealing with profoundly changed parents," the Coalition said.

"The well-being of these children depends heavily on a network of supportive adults who are trained to identify early signs of emotional or physical challenge," according to the Coalition.

Bad Data

However, the systems lack accurate data on how well military kids are performing, and "without precise data, decisions about children, time, money, and initiatives are at risk of being based on supposition rather than reality," the Coalition said in its background information.

The Coalition cited a 2011 report by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office stating: "There are no data available on these (military family) students that could be used to assess their academic achievement or educational outcomes, or determine where funding needs are the greatest."

To address the problem, Carter said in his remarks at the seminar that the Defense Department was working to create a a military dependent student identifier to allow parents, educators and schools to track performance, funnel resources and make policy decisions for military children during their school years.

"If we know how particular groups of kids are performing, we can better target resources to maximize their success," Carter said.

Carter noted that DoD for the current fiscal year has allocated $52 million to support local schools, including a competitive educational partnership grant program in which funds go to schools with 15 percent or greater military child enrollment.

"Those funds recently paid for a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) partnership that helped more than 10,000 high school students earn AP (Advanced Placement) exam scores that qualified them for college credit. That's an incredible return on investment," Carter said.

Budget Cuts

Other leaders at the seminar spoke to the need to protect DoD funding for family and education programs from future budget cuts, and they also noted their own difficulties in coping with stress of frequent moves and deployments.

"The chief of naval operations has said we're not going to touch the child development centers or our youth programs -- those are fenced" against cuts, said Navy Vice Adm. Dixon R. Smith, commander of Navy Installation Command. "We're protecting those, and they're funded because we understand the importance of taking care of our children and families."

"Family is part of readiness, and we have to have that balance between mission, family and our community," said Army Lt. Gen. David D. Halverson, commander of the Army's Installation Management Command. "Funding is non-negotiable. It's really important that we commit to that family readiness."

In the course of his career, Halverson said his two daughters have attended 12 different schools and in each move "You want to get your kids integrated and back to normal as soon as possible so they feel comfortable and have confidence in themselves."

Lt. Gen. Samuel D. Cox, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services for the Air Force, said his two children attended nine different grade schools and three high schools.

To ease the pressure of constantly making new friends and integrating into a new community, "We had our kids participate in team sports or the band or something that has more than one person so that when they went to a new school and it's time to go to the cafeteria, they had someone they could sit at the table with," Cox said.

Smith praised the Military Child Education Coalition's "Student 2 Student" program led by students at local schools to welcome military kids to their new school and also assist them when they transition to their next school.

"This is a central focus of our efforts," retired Marine Col. Dave Lapan, senior director for the Coalition in the national capital region, said of Student 2 Student. "We want to help level the playing field for our military kids," Lapan said, while adding that Student 2 Student was also available for civilian kids coming to a new school.

"We don't want to give the impression that military kids need special treatment," Lapan said, but it was also important to recognize the challenges they face from frequent moves.

One of those challenges was gaining acceptance for previous course work credit at the new school. Lapan cited the hypothetical example of a military kid who has taken a course in Virginia state history at the previous school. The family has now moved toTennessee. Will that student now have to take a Tennessee state history course?

"We want to have high standards but we want them to be common across the board," Lapan said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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