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As Military Bases Close, Some Eye Educational Uses

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When Pentagon officials announced the planned closing of Fort Devens near Boston, many people saw an aging military facility that was no longer needed with the winding down of the Cold War.

But Norman Johnson, the dean of students at Boston University, looked at the base and saw a possible home for 100 homeless and at-risk students.

Mr. Johnson's call for transforming Fort Devens into an education center staffed by retired military personnel has yet to become a reality. Nevertheless, his proposal has been a touchstone for a number of education and public-policy strategists who are directing increasing attention to the possibility of using military facilities and personnel for educational and youth services.

To be sure, relationships between the military and local schools or social-service agencies have existed for some time. But now, as the military scales back, communities, foundations, and individuals across the country are taking a closer look at how best to use bases and personnel that will be removed from active duty over the next several years.

In 1990, the U.S. Defense Department announced a plan to reduce the size of the military by 20 percent. Since 1988, 124 domestic bases have been pegged for elimination, while more than 100 more are scheduled for partial closure or realignment, and another set of closures is scheduled to be finalized this year.

A New Phenomenon

The easing of superpower tensions, the changing mission of the military, and the presence of domestic needs atop President Clinton's list of priorities are adding impetus to efforts to utilize existing bases and personnel to help children and students.

"This is a new phenomenon, where people are starting to look at using military facilities and personnel that are available that may not have been before,'' said John D. Mayer, the director of the public policy and resources program at the Institute for Public Research.

The institute is a division of the Center for Naval Analyses Corporation, a federally funded think tank on defense located in Alexandria, Va.

"I think we have a great opportunity to use right now things that have already been paid for ... to better the domestic good,'' Mr. Mayer added. "I'm sure this is going to catch on over the next four years.''

Mr. Mayer's organization recently completed a three-month study of the ways in which communities currently are using military resources to serve youths and students, and how others hope to use such resources in the future.

The authors of the report, which is scheduled to be released publicly this month, say it is the first attempt to identify the range of ways to link the military with children, students, and education.

"As we got into it, we realized that this is a deeper effort than anyone has made in the past,'' Mr. Mayer said.

So far, I.P.R. researchers have identified 51 such programs across the country that are in operation or in some form of development. They range from simple mentoring arrangements to programs offering full care for young people.

The 51 programs located so far are "only the tip of the iceberg,'' Mr. Mayer said. The institute plans to continue seeking a clearer picture of the landscape of different programs across the country.

"The more I find out, the more I find out that there is more to find out,'' said Gary E. Horne, who is leading the study.

'Pie in the Sky'

The I.P.R., which was formally established early this year as the C.N.A.'s domestic-issues arm, began studying the feasibility of using military facilities and personnel at the urging of Mr. Johnson, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Mr. Johnson had outlined his vision for the use of Fort Devens in an opinion piece published last August in The Christian Science Monitor.

In his article, Mr. Johnson proposed that 100 homeless and at-risk youths ages 13 to 18 be housed on the base, with retired military officers serving as supervisors. The officers would also transport the students to their regular inner-city schools and serve as volunteers at the schools, the plan suggested.

While it is not clear how much implementing the proposal would cost, Mr. Johnson said it could be funded through foundation and corporate grants and with federal assistance under such programs as the McKinney Homeless Act, the Family Support Act of 1988, and the Foster Care Act.

William McIntosh, the director of program innovation for a group called Business Executives for National Security, was attracted to the proposal after reading the Monitor article. Along with Mr. Johnson, he convened representatives of youth and veterans' groups in Boston last November to discuss ways of fostering connections between the military and youth needs.

"A lot of pie-in-the-sky stuff,'' Mr. McIntosh conceded, "but there's a lot of money in the system that has already been spent, and the question is, how do you get it?''

As the I.P.R. began studying Mr. Johnson's proposal, researchers realized that the scope of their inquiry had to be broadened.

"Our vision quickly widened because, to study any particular idea, you need to look at a range of ideas,'' Mr. Horne said.

A National Model

Mr. Johnson's proposal for Fort Devens is the only one of the 51 programs identified in the study that suggests using both unused bases and retired personnel. Other efforts mentioned include:

  • The Mentoring Partnership Program, a currently operating project in which personnel at the Kelly Air Force Base near San Antonio tutor at-risk students from the Southwest Independent School District. More than 1,000 Kelly mentors are involved with students at all grade levels.
  • The Austin (Tex.) Project, a planned effort under which available buildings on the Bergstrom Air Force Base, which is slated for closure, would be used for educational and health services for children and youth.

The project is headed by Walt W. Rostow, a former special assistant to President Johnson.

Mr. Rostow argued that the base would be a good location for those services, as well as for retraining and apprenticeship programs for older students and workers, because the military has demonstrated its ability to teach all learners and to continue teaching and retraining its recruits as technology and military missions have changed.

"We are intent on bringing the military into this, and we've gotten good cooperation so far,'' he said.

  • A plan to house 18- through 23-year-old dropouts on the grounds of Fort Dix, N.J., which is not scheduled to close. The plan calls for providing study toward a high school-equivalency diploma under the General Educational Development program, training in a marketable skill, community-service opportunities, recreational activities, and follow-up services. Teachers and supervisors would be brought in from outside the military, although qualified retired military personnel would be considered.

The quasi-military Fort Dix Academy could serve as a national model, according to Saul Cooperman, a co-director of the program. Mr. Cooperman, a former state education chief in New Jersey, currently serves as the president of education programs at the Amelior Foundation.

Bridging the Gap

I.P.R. officials have also talked to Head Start providers, the Commission on National and Community Service, the Children's Defense Fund, and the Child Welfare League of America to explore ways the military can serve or link up with those constituencies.

"There's a gap to be bridged between the military and the youth-services community,'' Mr. Horne said.

While discussion about these issues has not been widespread, there appears to be a willingness among educators and lawmakers to explore the idea.

"It's not really on the radar screen of most urban public school systems, but, as far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier,'' said Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "If they've found a way [to help students] that the city likes, more power to them.''

An aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Education and Labor Committee, said the senator has met with Mr. Johnson of Boston University to discuss his proposal for the use of Fort Devens.

"It's an interesting idea,'' the aide said. "He's willing to consider this proposal and others like it.''

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