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March 1, 2016
Vol. 58
No. 3

Military Minded

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Military Family (thumbnail)
The headline in the 1945 yearbook read, "Winning Battles on the Home Front." It was the start of a six-page spread detailing how former graduates of Roger Ludlowe High School in Connecticut (now Fairfield Ludlowe) became involved in World War II. "In Germany, Italy, the Philippines, and on Iwo—in the air and on the seas—maintaining services and communication—the boys from Roger Ludlowe are doing their job." The spread went on to applaud "Fairfield girls" for their roles as wartime nurses and engineers post-graduation. It encouraged students to buy war bonds and to give blood.
Ludlowe High's yearbook is not an anomaly—there are many others just like it on display at a National WWII Museum exhibit in New Orleans. The exhibit gives a sense of just how intimately ingrained WWII was in American civilian life, including in education.
Today, though, the military is largely "out of sight, out of mind" in public schools, says Ron Avi Astor, professor of school behavioral health at the University of Southern California. In the past, supporting students with ties to the military was a priority; today, these students are "kind of invisible" and can feel misunderstood and isolated. Without proper support from schools, Astor explains, these students can suffer academically and socially.

The Scariest Thing

There are currently more than 1.2 million military-connected children attending U.S. public schools, according to the Military Child Education Coalition. The U.S. Department of Defense finds it not uncommon for these students to cycle through as many as nine different schools by the end of their high school careers. The transitions don't always come at convenient times, either.
James Sunday, principal of Admiral Arthur W. Radford High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, says some students have enrolled as late as May of their senior year, just three weeks before graduating. Teachers and administrators at Radford High, which serves a large military-connected student population (almost 67 percent), have become accustomed to seeing students come and go.
Although schools find ways to adapt, frequent transitions take a toll on students. Enrolling in new schools presents a range of challenges, from transferring records on time to joining sports or other extracurricular activities mid-year to qualifying for special needs services. Plus, getting tested again and again following each move can be emotionally exhausting.
As of January 2015, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have joined The Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission (MIC3), which advocates equal treatment of military children transferring between districts and states. The compact seeks to ease school transitions with consistent policies concerning credit transfers, absences related to deployment, immunizations, exit exams, and more.
Beyond the logistics, however, simply dealing with the stress and insecurity of being "the new kid in school" is one of the biggest hurdles. According to Sunday, whose school regularly surveys its military students, "The scariest thing for them is, 'Where do I eat lunch? Who do I eat lunch with?'"

Where to Begin

Knowing that a student comes from a military family is key to offering support. Astor and others formed the Military Child Education Coalition in 1998 and advocated to get a military identifier in demographic surveys of kids. Despite the significant number of military children in public schools, Astor explains, data is limited on their academic health as a demographic group—how they perform in school, whether or not they graduate, and what kinds of jobs or higher education they pursue after high school.
That will soon change: A measure to implement a military student identifier was included in the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act. The data is expected to shed light on how military students are performing so that educators and policymakers can make more informed, strategic decisions about how to support these kids.
Astor advises individual schools to also add a military identifier to surveys that capture students' demographic backgrounds. Then, once there's an awareness among staff, "there has to be some education that military families are a different culture. They're a different diversity group and we don't think about them that way." Astor compares students' military status to their gender or nationality. "It's just as important," he insists.
Educators have to be mindful of a student's background if academic or behavioral issues arise. When it's "out of sight, out of mind, then the problem [could be] treated as a bullying problem or a special ed problem," Astor relates. "However, the approach may be really different just knowing a kid comes from a military family."
For instance, a student may seem withdrawn or reluctant to make friends, especially when new to a school, wrote Astor in The Teacher's Guide for Supporting Students from Military Families (Teachers College Press, 2012). But knowing the child comes from a military family can help the teacher understand that the child may be struggling with the question, "Why bother? I'm just going to move again."
Having a heightened awareness can help schools provide flexibility. Tamsin Keone, an Army school liaison officer in Hawaii, has counseled military families on how to navigate the desire to spend as much time together as possible before a deployment.
"Prior to a deployment, having a child spend time with their parent may be more important [than school]," she says. "They don't know if they are going to see that parent again."
In cases like this, Keone stresses the importance of administrators and teachers coming together to discuss what is in the child's best interest and to outline plans for how the student can make up any missed work or complete an independent study project. The MIC3 encourages districts to make accommodations for deployment-related absences that may occur before a parent or guardian leaves, when they are back on leave, and when they return from deployment.

Inclusion and Integration

One way to ease the transition to a new school is to pair military students with a peer mentor. At Radford High, all new students (military and nonmilitary alike) spend their first day at the Transition Center, which is run by trained student facilitators plus a few school staff members who provide oversight and support. The students are given a tour of the school, shown where their classes are, and assigned a lunch buddy. They are also welcome to eat lunch in the Transition Center for as long as they like.
"Having a dedicated room for the new students is important in helping them assimilate to their new environment. It gives them a safe 'home base' before moving out into the general population," says Sunday. After that, new students return to the Transition Center once a week for four weeks for peer-taught lessons about Radford's rules, campus life, and Hawaiian culture.
For schools whose number of new students or military students doesn't justify an extensive program, "a simple welcoming process" can be enough, says Astor. He suggests schools consider making exceptions for military students to, for example, join sports teams or get into academically enriched classes even if they missed the registration deadline.
The Bonsall Unified School District in California, where 14 percent of students have military connections, has a policy that gives military families priority for interdistrict transfers. Superintendent Justin Cunningham says the district has also worked with students from the University of Southern California to develop the WelConnect mobile app for military families, which provides contacts for local support groups and other resources.
"We push out a lot of information to the new military families that come to the area," says Cunningham. "They can get connected to different support groups or community activities that can help [them] transition to the community. We do a lot of welcoming."

The Extra Mile

Day to day, there are all kinds of ways schools can provide support to military students. In Hawaii, the Department of Education offers the Hawaii Military Culture Course for teachers, counselors, and administrators. The course provides information about military lifestyle and culture; addresses the special issues related to dependent students transitioning into Hawaii public schools, such as academic assessment and registration for clubs and activities; and focuses on aspects of local culture that military families may find challenging (the Pidgin language, informal dress code, salutations, etc.).
In the course, educators are asked to create a project or program to help military students transition in or out of schools. One teacher created a coloring and activity book for young students with maps and information about the school, as well as information about Hawaii—such as the state bird and flag.
Keone, who taught the course last year, says it is important for educators to be aware that deployment cycles are different for each branch of the military. For example, U.S. Navy deployments are usually shorter but more frequent than U.S. Army deployments, during which a soldier may be gone for longer but also home for a longer period between deployments. Kids deal with separation in different ways, and if teachers know a parent's deployment schedule, they may be more sensitive to any behavioral challenges associated with it. Keone encourages teachers to work directly with parents and to involve a school counselor for an added layer of support.
Like any demographic group, military students will respond well if they see themselves represented in the curriculum, notes Astor. Adding a military-themed book to the reading list is an effective way to incorporate the military experience into everyday learning.
Younger kids in particular may struggle if they feel invisible. To help include them, Astor suggests creating a "Pride Board," where students from military families can share photos of their loved ones in uniform or of the places they have lived.
At Bonsall West Elementary School, where one-quarter of the students are from military families, each day begins with students running a few laps around an outdoor field. The school plays patriotic music during the activity to make military kids feel included, says Cunningham. The staff also tries to incorporate a patriotic song or two in the school's musical programs.

Full Picture View

Keeping the full picture in mind is important. Keone explains that transitions away from schools are just as important as transitions to schools. Military students, she notes, often feel fearful that they won't make friends at their new school. In addition to gifting new students a lei to wear on their first day at a new school, the Hawaii Department of Education makes sure departing students get a booklet in which they can collect notes and contact information from their classmates—just like a yearbook.
"If they feel sad at a new school," says Keone, "they can look through the booklet and remember that they made new friends once, and they can do it again."

Classroom Resources

Find best practices, lesson plans, and activities to support the military kids in your classroom.

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Georgia Perry is a freelance writer from Oakland, California.

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