— a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis,
supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Emily Budd is feeding her pet rabbit when her little brother pops his head into the bedroom.
“Ever since I got the rabbit, it’s like my room is free territory for anyone. I’m like, ‘No, that’s not how it is,’” she says.
Emily is a lovely, thoughtful 15-year-old who lives in New Kent, Virginia. Her dad is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and so her large, loving family has spent several years abroad in South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, and, most recently, Armenia.
“It was like a second home for me. I’m sorry if I start crying, because I haven’t talked about it in a really long time,” she says.
Emily says she learned to look beyond the rundown Soviet-style buildings and appreciate the warm and caring people living inside them.
“I learned Armenian, I learned the customs, I learned to love the people, I learned everything about Armenia that there possibly is to know,” she says.
She says moving back to a rural community in the U.S. was not easy.
“People who have lived here their whole lives are very close knit, and when someone like me comes in who’s been to 23 countries and speaks three other languages, I’m the odd ball out,” Emily explains.
Emily is learning not to say a lot about her travels, but she’s confused by the idea that not everyone would like the experience of living abroad.
“For example, I’ll tell them in Korea, I tried seaweed, seaweed’s one of my favorite foods,” she says. “And they’re like, ‘Eww, people eat seaweed? That’s so weird.’”
When she returned to the U.S., her grades slipped. Having to explain herself constantly wore her down.
“It smacked me like, ‘I’m back in America. I have no clue what I’m doing with myself now,’ and it came on as this wave of emotions, like resentment, and so I started to cut,” she says.
Starting at age 13, Emily would “cut” or injure herself.
“I got very, depressed,” she says. “It’s still going on, actually. I ended up in the hospital Jan. 21, because I was going to try to kill myself.”
Emily texted three of her friends and told them she was going to overdose on sleeping pills. A long, traumatic story short, she was hospitalized for a week. Now she’s on the road to recovery.
Emily says she is doing better. She’s in counseling, has made a few friends and pours her heart into writing poetry: 200 poems the last time she counted. She’s trying to figure out who she is.
“I mean, honestly, back in Europe and in Armenia, I had a distinct place. I would travel places and I would meet people, and I had this place, does that make sense? And then I got to the U.S., and I didn’t travel anymore, none of these people cared about where I’d been, and I was like, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t know how to react. So I think that was the biggest part of it, that nobody understood me,” she says.
Many military children are resilient, but there are also a lot like Emily in public schools across the U.S. who experience difficulties. Research suggests just having a parent deployed could increase a child’s chance of depression, bullying and suicidal thoughts by between 27 and 50 percent over a non-military child.
And that’s where people like Daniel Dunham come in.
Dunham is handing out backpacks to military families at an information booth he’s set up at Leckie Elementary, a public school in Washington D.C. A third of the students – more than 150 children – come from Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, less than two miles away.
Daniel Dunham is the School Liaison Officer or SLO for the Washington region, meaning he helps military families navigate the public education system. The backpacks he hands out are filled with information on local schools, free tutoring and a new law.
“Do you know about the Interstate Compact? It’s a law that supports military kids as they transition from one location to the next,” Dunham asks one mother.
Because military families move so much, most states have signed on to a voluntary compact, which makes certain educational allowances for active duty families as they transition from one place to another.
For example, school districts can waive course requirements for graduation if a student has already taken a similar course in a different state. The compact also promises more flexibility in the enrollment age and continued special educational services when students change schools.
But often these rules haven’t filtered down to the local level, so Dunham is helping to get the word out.
Camille Hale, whose husband is in the Marine Corps, says she wishes she had known about the law before she moved so her 4-year-old son could attend classes.
“The cut-off was different. We were in South Carolina; if he was registered there, he would have been able to go to preschool in D.C,” Hale says.
Dunham is the perfect person to be a “cultural translator” for these military families, because like many SLOs, he’s a former teacher and military child himself.
“When I grew up, we didn’t have School Liaison Officers. I can recall having nightmares even after I started teaching high school about not graduating! Because you know I moved from place to place, so I always had this fear that I wouldn’t have enough credits and I would have to repeat a year,” he says.
SLOs can answer questions about everything from school uniforms to scholarships to special education resources.
“I get tons of calls, literally tons of calls,” says Barbara Williams, an SLO at the Army base Red Stone Arsenal in Alabama. She works in an area where there are approximately 60,000 military students.
Williams says in one case, a student who loved his small rural school transferred to a new school with nearly 600 students in each grade.
“He felt no one knew him and he was really lost. He wasn’t talking to other kids; he didn’t want to go to school. His grades dropped tremendously. He was making A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s,” Williams says.
Williams talked to teachers and they paired him with a mentor and after-school tutoring and things got better.
“I’ve known high school students to eat in the bathroom for the first three days because they don’t know anybody and they’re scared they’ll sit at the wrong table or they won’t eat,” she says.
Judy Cromartie is an SLO who helps children transitioning to public schools around Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida. She says students often transfer in the middle of the year and miss deadlines to participate in extracurricular activities.
“Football season had begun and the family was upset the school would not let him on the football team,” she says. “Another was part of National Honors Society, she missed the induction and she was going to apply in fall for college and wanted to put it on her application.”
In both cases the Interstate Compact rules kicked in and school officials allowed the students to be included.
Military life is hard for students and families but it’s also challenging for teachers.
Back at Leckie Elementary in D.C., School Liaison Officer Daniel Dunham is talking with Principal Atasha James about hosting a workshop for military parents.
Principal James says that for her, it’s not just getting used to being called “ma’am” that makes working with military families different. This year nearly 20 first graders enrolled late because their parents got orders to move halfway through the academic year. That had practical implications.
“We run out of seats. Seriously. In first grade we ran out of chairs,” James says.
There were also more substantive problems. If students enroll after October, schools don’t receive government funding for them. And James says test scores can also be affected, which in turn has consequences for teachers. Because in D.C., student grades are a factor in whether teachers get to keep their jobs.
“When a child enters mid-year it skews our data,” she says, and that data is used to evaluate teachers.
James says teachers also need to be sensitive to family members who are far away.
“We have one mom in Afghanistan. She feels very guilty, it’s super important for our teachers to use Facebook and Twitter so parents still feel very connected. Being very empathetic and loving them through a transition,” James says.
Figuring out how to engage military children and their families in a single school is one thing, but what about when we’re talking about an entire school district? In the Virginia Beach City public school system, they educate more than 20,000 military children.
Jill Gaitens, the Director of Grants, Development and Military Support Services for Virginia Beach Public Schools, points to an online map of the area.
“Virginia Beach City Public Schools is literally surrounded by the military community. We’ve got Oceana Naval air base, we’re also very close to Portsmouth naval center, Norfolk Navy shipyard, Fort Story/Little Creek,” Gaitens says.
Every branch of the military has a presence in the school system.
“Probably every third or fourth child is going to be the child of an active duty service member and probably every second child is going to be the child of someone who has prior service in the military,” Gaitens says.
Gaitens says these children are always aware of the danger their parents are in. In January of 2014, there was a helicopter crash into the water just off Virginia Beach.
“There were four service members who passed away. For a while, we didn’t know the names of the service members, but students knew the helicopter had crashed. Many of our students have fathers who fly in those helicopters and fly in those jets,” she says.
For children, not knowing whether their parents were affected meant a lot of stress and not much learning that day. It’s not uncommon for principals to attend military funerals here.
Gaitens is also sensitive to the stress of repeated deployments. She has moved 10 times in 20 years with her military husband and children. She says many teachers have lived here for generations and don’t realize asking even a simple question like “where are you from?” can be confusing.
“The military student may not feel like they’re from anywhere. They live in Virginia Beach for now, but for example, I’m from Michigan, my husband’s from Wisconsin, I have one son from California, one son from Arizona, one son from Okinawa,” she says.
Public schools with a certain number of military students get a small amount of additional money, called Federal Impact Aid, to help serve them. Virginia Beach has hired additional counselors, created military mentor programs, and provided more teacher training through a partnership with Old Dominion University. In addition, Gaitens has received $13 million in grants from the military. Much of this money has been used to improve education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as STEM subjects.
“The military specifically looks at STEM because they consider it a national security issue that they have to import workers to work in the military, so what they’d like to do is train military students to be able to take this higher level science, math, technology, engineering positions,” she says.
That’s exactly why 17-year-old Christopher Penn at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach took this electronics class. He’s making a mousetrap car and there’s a lot of sawing and nails and talk of “wheel alignment” involved. Christopher wants to do well in the military aptitude test. He wants to specialize in artillery, so his math skills have to be good.
“I’ve had this idea since the seventh grade,” Penn says. “I want to serve my country.”
His dad served in the Army, and Christopher says he can’t wait to wear the Marine Corps uniform.
“I’ll feel proud, you know? That uniform looks great. I’ll love it; my girlfriend will love it!” he says.
Ocean Lakes offers advanced STEM classes and has invested heavily in technology, including 3D printers and iPads. Gaitens says one of the school’s goals was to increase math scores for military children.
“We needed to have a way to compare our military students and non-military students in math. That gave me a reason to talk to our data people about how are we going track our military students and can we? To be honest, people were shocked that we weren’t,” she says.
Students often don’t volunteer that information, either because they want to fit in or because they’re told not to.
“We have a lot of special forces in our community. Those parents don’t talk about what they do, the children would know not to discuss it,” Gaitens says. “And there’s situations where you don’t want to tell your child what you do.”
Gaitens says the school system added a simple box on registration forms that now allows them to track military children in school databases. She says being able to run reports on this population has already done away with the perception that military students do worse academically because they move so often.
“Actually, we were really surprised to see that many of them were performing at higher rate in math. So now we’re looking at science and language arts and literacy across the school division,” she says.
Mary Keller is president of the Military Child Education Coalition, which was instrumental in creating the Interstate Compact. It also developed the Student 2 Student program, which pairs new students with a classmate on the first day they arrive, even if it’s mid-year, so they can more easily make friends. She is pushing for a system to help schools identify military children nationwide.
“Everybody can say, ‘Well, we’re military friendly.’ Well great, what does that mean” Keller says. “We are just in this black hole of data of understanding about the children whose parents are serving. Without quality data you can’t make good decisions.”
So far just seven states have a military identifier on enrollment forms. Keller says having families check an extra box when they’re enrolling doesn’t cost money and it helps schools understand where to direct resources.
Ron Avi Astor of the University of Southern California says the vast majority of public schools in the U.S. don’t know whether kids they’re educating are from military families.
“That becomes super problematic when you go to very large districts like Los Angeles or Chicago or New York,” he says. “You can’t really address any emotions or feelings if you don’t know it.”
He was giving a lecture abroad about the second Lebanese War of 2006 and how all the rocket fire affected children in Jewish and Arab areas. Astor says in some schools, children seemed to be doing well both academically and socially, while others had lots of problems. He found that schools offering more supports and what he calls a “warm and understanding environment” made the difference.
“And one of the professors who was listening said, ‘That’s really interesting, you’re kind of saying the school could serve almost like a vaccine, but it also has healing properties to it, so people who are exposed and go through a lot of risks, if there are the right communities and the right peer groups and the right teachers, the right supports, they never develop these problems.’ And I said, “Exactly,’” Astor says. “And the follow-up question was, ‘So how does that compare with the children of parents who served in Iraq and Afghanistan?’ And I have to say, I was ashamed. I kind of… I had never thought of that ever before.”
Astor says the “chasm between the civilian population and the military” doesn’t exist in some countries where a large percentage of the population serves.
“In Israel, it’s not uncommon for a teacher, who might have been an officer, or a bus driver may have served in the combat unit. So, the number of adults that are working in schools and in the community who understand what war means or what kids may go through when there’s a period of terrorism or war going on, is huge,” he says. “I think here these families and kids were just far more invisible.”
He says it can be as simple as putting up a “Hero” bulletin board in the hallway with photos of parents who are serving, or inviting service members in to talk about their experiences and honor them.
And such efforts are happening across the country. In Virginia, a school mails dozens of care packages to soldiers overseas, in a Washington state school a school pairs students with military mentors for the year, and in California there are almost 100 school gardens where civilian and military families work together and get to know each other.
But experts say these efforts need to be more intentional and coordinated and scaled up if we want to reach the hundreds of thousands of military children across the U.S. With less than 1 percent of the population serving in the military, there’s a cultural divide that needs to be bridged and that isn’t just the responsibility of schools.
“Everybody can say, ‘we’re military friendly.’ Well great, but what does that mean?”
Mary Keller, president and CEO of Military Child Education coalition
For example, Astor says, the Fourth of July or Veterans Day or Memorial Day, is just a day off for most people in the U.S. Not so in Israel.
“A huge horn goes off and everybody stops for two minutes and everybody talks about what happened and what they went through, how personal that means to them and we find that it has a very healing effect,” he says. “You’re acknowledging as a community the sacrifice and the understanding of what that means.”
In Virginia Beach, with its large military population, that’s already happening. Jill Gaitens says Virginia Beach will celebrate a “Purple Up” campaign this year to build awareness of military children and their unique needs.
“We’re going to ask board members, all staff members, students, parents, cabinet members, school leadership to wear purple in support of joint services,” Gaitens says. “We’re going to put ribbons on doors, we’re going to recognize who our military kids in our classroom are. In the classroom raise your hand if your mom or dad is in the military and just applauding.”
Gaitens says the more we know about military children, the more sensitive everyone can be to their needs. With military cuts expected, Virginia Beach is already monitoring school boundaries and enrollment. And she says students are already anxious about the future.
“Is their dad going to be in the military until he retires? Are we going to be staying in this community? And in the military if you don’t serve 20 years, you don’t get your retirement, you don’t get your medical benefits,” Gaitens says. “So when you’re forcibly cutting services that means military service members are losing their jobs. The Navy did that last year and a lot of people in the 10 to 15 year range were cut from service. It was devastating for those families because to be cut loose from your culture and your community is devastating.”