“We are here to listen to you and learn from you”
Dr. Jill Biden
June 22, 2010
Earlier this week, Secretary Arne Duncan joined Dr. Jill Biden, Congressman Jim Moran, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Casey, Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale and other school and military officials for a classroom visit and roundtable discussion with military parents of children enrolled at Fort Belvoir Elementary School.
Duncan and Biden traveled to Fort Belvoir Elementary, a public school located on the Fort Belvoir Army Installation in Northern Virginia, to learn more about the education challenges affecting military children and their families. Issues shared by the active duty service members and spouses in attendance were similar to those often voiced by civilian community members: the need for better teacher training, more afterschool programs, funds for construction and renovation, and higher standards for students. Unique to military families are the challenges faced by serial mobility—most families change duty stations every two to three years—and the more current issue of repeated parental deployments. Of the 1.2 million military-connected children in this country, 120,000 have parents deployed in overseas combat zones and over 70,000 have parents deployed for a second, third, or fourth time.
Renae Robinson, a Navy spouse, discussed the need for service members to notify schools when facing deployments. When alerted, school personnel can be on the lookout for behavior changes, withdrawal, discipline problems and other inhibitors to academic or emotional growth among affected children. Many parents joined with Robinson in voicing their concern that deployment classes, counseling and other resources supporting the specific needs of military-connected children be provided as a regular part of the curriculum in schools enrolling a high proportion children from military families. “If you’re sitting next to Sally, who’s crying all the time, or is being a bully, maybe you’ll understand her if you know her daddy’s deployed,” Robinson added.
Madeline Lanza, wife of Army Major General Stephen Lanza, commented that many teachers lack the experience to recognize military-related issues affecting students. When her husband deployed last year, her 2nd grader experienced a rough transition. While the teacher was very kind and empathetic, she lacked the tools and training to adequately help her son work though his problems. She encouraged teachers to equip themselves with the tools necessary to help military-connected children cope and adjust.
Duncan and Dr. Biden voiced support for peer mentoring and teacher training to help students with these life-altering changes. “I talked to one little girl in the classroom whose father deployed last August. She’s the middle of three children, and to think of what she and her brothers are going through every day is mind-boggling,” Duncan said.
Many of the service members discussed the difficulty of transferring between schools in different states or from DOD operated schools on bases across the world. The patchwork of state developed standards and assessments currently in place under No Child Left Behind only exacerbates these difficulties and has made proper grade and subject-level “group” placement as well as timely matriculation a challenge for many families. The Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children—a state-led initiative to develop common rules and procedures to ease transitions—has alleviated some challenges but the consensus was that most military families are unaware of their rights under the agreement. Duncan added that the 48 states engaged in the common core standards initiative would greatly help the next generation of military-connected children and ensure their access to a world class education irrespective to duty station or base location.
Fort Belvoir Elementary School is one of the largest elementary schools in Fairfax County and the Washington metropolitan area, serving 1,211 students in kindergarten through sixth-grade. Over 97% of enrolled students are children of military families quartering on Fort Belvoir. Belvoir Elementary has a very high transient rate with some classrooms experiencing turnover of up to 50% of enrolled students throughout the school year. While coping with a highly transient student body and a diverse socioeconomic population, 90% of Belvoir students scored proficient or above on the latest Virginia State reading assessment and 86% scored proficient or above on the math assessment. Duncan added, “We have to support children and their families, make sure they’re able to be comfortable and confident, that they’re getting that emotional help so they can be successes academically. If we don’t pay attention to what they’re doing emotionally, it’s hard to concentrate in class. Fort Belvoir Elementary does an exemplary job but around the country we can do much better.”
Office of Communications and Outreach