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Addressing the academic needs of military families

Jayne Matthews Hopson | 4/25/2014, 6 a.m.

Each April, the Month of the Military Child, the US Department of Education (ED) brings attention to the academic needs and challenges faced by children of active service members. “The men and women in our Armed Forces make incredible sacrifices in service to our country. And so do their family members,” says Arne Duncan, ED Secretary.

It is not unusual for the children of military personnel to move six to nine times during their K-12 education. Multiple deployments and frequent moves create a unique set of barriers to delivering a coherent education to students whose classroom success depends on their ability to quickly adjust to new and different curriculums.

The Education Department’s concern is supported by recent studies. In the report “Responding to the Needs of Military Students” social scientist Kris Tunac DePedro found “Military children experience a variety of military-specific stressors. Stressors include repeated geographic relocation and parental separation, both of which can negatively affect social, emotional, psychological, and academic outcomes.”

Virtually all school districts educate children whose parent or guardian serve in our Armed Forces, whether stationed here or abroad and whether on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserves. This represents 1.2 million students; more than 80 percent of these children attend public schools.

As part of the ED’s Student Voices Roundtable, 21 children of service members attending high schools in the D.C. area met to discuss to share and discuss their academic challenges. The students spoke candidly. Many talked about the hardships of moving to a new school, in particular their difficulty transferring course credits.

For several students, when their credits did not transfer, they could not progress through high school with their peers, and in several instances, they were not identified as “graduating seniors” at their new schools, despite the fact that they would have been “seniors” at their prior schools.

Some of the issues the students shared were heartbreaking. One child voiced a hindrance to keeping in touch with her mother. Her school has a strictly enforced “no cell phone” policy. This made it impossible to communicate with her deployed mom during school hours, causing her to miss calls from the battlefront. Another student said she was disappointed her high school wouldn’t live stream graduation, which would allow her deployed father to watch the ceremony.

The good news is the student discussions have an impact on policy, and produced almost immediate action. The Student Voices sessions are “designed for the Secretary and his senior staff to listen and learn from young Americans,” says an ED spokesperson.

These sessions also resulted in the creation of “The Interstate Compact on

Educational Opportunity for Military Children.” Last year Secretary Duncan asked school administrators to “review the Compact and consider ways of making [your] policies and procedures consistent with the guidelines and rules set forth under the Compact.”

In addition to being a tool for school leaders, the compact can serve as a guide for military families as they seek to smooth academic transitions and maximize educational opportunities for their children. The recommendations are as follows:

•Involve teachers, counselors, instructors, coaches, school nurses, administrators and students at all levels in your district's efforts to better address the needs of military-connected school children.

•Honor and respect the previous academic standing and accomplishments of military-connected children new to your district.

•Be flexible and open to ways to help students transfer earned courses/credits to their new school.

•Enable implementation of individualized education programs (IEPs) as soon as possible and ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is provided for military-connected children with disabilities.

•Evaluate participation guidelines across your district for extracurricular, after-school, and sports activities to ensure they are welcoming to, and inclusive of, newly arriving students.

•Consider revising other programs or policies that inhibit military-connected children's transition.

•Share your success stories with respect to implementation of the Compact and service member children. This will allow your work to be showcased to other school districts on the Compact's website: www.mic3.net. Please e-mail your stories to Gary Jones at Gary.Jones@ed.gov with a short paragraph describing the impact of the Compact in your community.

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about education matters because “only the educated are free.”