Military Expanding Its Teacher Projects

By Thomas Toch — October 31, 1984 10 min read

Since graduating from the U.S. Naval Acadamy in 1963, Capt.William L. Coulter has spent a majority of his 21 years in the Navy aboard nuclear-powered submarines, patrolling the world’s oceans. Now living in Pensacola, Fla., he spent two nights a week last year in a classroom at nearby Escambia High School, learning the do’s and don’ts of teaching mathematics and science to 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds.

On each of the past several Fridays, Lieut. Comdr. John E. Israel, who contributes to the Navy’s effort to write and crack codes, has donned his dress whites and driven from his job at the Naval Technical Training Center in Pensacola to Bellview Middle School, where he has helped students in Peggy Kent’s 6th-grade class decipher tough mathematics problems.

The unlikely activities of these two career officers represent a new development in American education--a willingness on the part of military leaders to lend support to the schools’ efforts to cope with the continuing severe shortages of competent6mathematics and science teachers.

Mr. Coulter and Mr. Israel are among the first participants in a year-old project that places senior Pensacola-area Navy personnel with backgrounds in science and mathematics in local schools as volunteers and encourages those with similar backgrounds who are near retirement to take up teaching as a second career.

Vice Adm. James A. Saggerholm, chief of the Naval Education and Training Command in Pensacola, the body that oversees all of the Navy’s land-based training, and his top civilian adviser, William L. Maloy, developed the project, called the “Math/Science Initiative,” after Florida’s Gov. Robert Graham sought the help of military commanders in the state in addressing the mathematics- and science-teacher problem at a meeting last year.

Eighty sailors, including many officers and many with graduate degrees, worked as volunteers in the Escambia County School District last year, organizing and judging science fairs, helping out in science laboratories, and tutoring both talented and struggling mathematics students.

Fifteen other servicemen nearing retirement began work toward a teaching license in a special program at the University of West Florida. Forty-five volunteers have been placed this fall and 30 others have inquired about the certification program.

Gained Quick Approval

The two-part Pensacola project, developed in cooperation with the local school system, the Governor’s office, the University of West Florida, and Admiral Saggerholm’s office, has quickly gained the endorsement of Navy leaders at other bases in Florida and in other states.

According to Mr. Maloy, certification and/or volunteer programs of comparable size have been established at Navy bases this fall in Orlando and Jacksonville as well as in Norfolk, Va. Additional programs are scheduled to begin at the bases near Chicago this fall and in San Diego next spring. And they are under consideration at bases in Charleston, S.C., Corpus Christi, Tex., Memphis, and Newport, R.I.

In January, the 24,000-student Okaloosa County School District, also located in the Florida panhandle, will initiate a similar two-part program in cooperation with Eglin and Hurlburt Air Force Bases, ac-cording to Mabel Jean Morrison, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations, has written to Vice Admiral Saggerholm expressing his approval of the project, according to Mr. Maloy.

D.O.D. Endorsement

Moreover, the Pensacola project has gained the approval of senior officials in the U.S. Department of Defense.

According to George J. Nolfi, a staff member of the Education Directorate of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower, installations, and logistics, has endorsed the concept, and an aide to Mr. Korb has written officials in the Army and the Air Force responsible for manpower affairs, instructing them to designate a person to respond to inquiries about creating such programs in cooperation with bases or installations within their services.

Mr. Korb has also expressed the Defense Department’s interest in the programs to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, Mr. Nolfi said.

“We think it is a good idea. It’s not the solution to the shortage of math and science teachers, but it is a reservoir of talent that may be able to be tapped, " Mr. Nolfi said. “We want to help, and we will actively respond to requests for assistance in setting up such programs.”

“But it is not dod’s official policy to help reform the schools,” said Mr. Nolfi, who has been given the task of coordinating the Defense Department’s involvement in the area. That involvement will focus on developing cooperative arrangements among state leaders, local military bases, school systems, and universities.

“There has been no directive sent out to base commanders saying they must do this kind of thing,” he added, “participation will be strictly voluntary. We are not going to market it. If a directive went out, time and money would be reprogrammed for it, and that could get us in a lot of trouble, with the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example. It is a very sensitive issue.”

Backs Voluntary Approach

Admiral Watkins, the chief of naval operations, in his letter to Vice Admiral Saggerholm expressed his desire to make participation in such programs strictly voluntary for the same reason, Mr. Nolfi said.

“Many school districts do not want sailors or other military people in their schools, and we respect that,” added Mr. Maloy, who is also a member of the Florida Board of Higher Education. “We want to go only where we are invited.”

Mr. Nolfi, who estimated that there are dozens of military bases in the nation that could appropriately support such programs, said the Defense Department decided to support the Pensacola project because Governor Graham had sought the involvement of military leaders in his state.

The Governor explained and endorsed the Pensacola project at a private meeting with aides to other governors at a meeting of the Education Commission of the States in August and has since written letters to each governor promoting the concept, according to Charles B. Reed, Governor Graham’s chief of staff.

Mr. Nolfi said six governors have expressed interest in establishing ties with military installations in their states.

High Marks in Pensacola

Those who have worked with the sailors in Pensacola give them high marks.

“The array of talent is phenomenal,” said Patricia J. Wentz, who is directing the special certification program that has been established for the Pensacola-area sailors at University of West Florida.

“Their teaching techniques are as up-to-date as you will find, they are motivated, and they are bright--I was getting through the material in the sociological foundations of teaching that I was teaching them 50-percent faster than usual,” she added.

Noted Donald T. Konecny, a science teacher at J.M. Tate High School who supervised a lieutenant commander during his student-teaching training: “He adapted to the classroom very quickly and had no problem at all with the subject matter. He majored in physics in college.”

“He also had a lot of discipline and projected it to the students,” Mr. Konecny added. “Students also benefit because these people have used their degrees, they have a practical understanding of the subject they teach.”

Those familiar with the certification program said that military people who make a second career of teaching mathematics or science are also good candidates for other reasons.

Teaching Backgrounds

Many of the candidates in the program have taught during their military careers, they note, often using mathematics and science in their courses. Further, those in the military frequently retire in their early 40’s, leaving them time for a lengthy career in teaching. And others point out that the addition of a military pension would allow them to live comfortably on a teacher’s salary, at a time when many younger mathematicians and scientists are abandoning school teaching for more lucrative jobs in the private sector.

Military personnel are also used to moving from one base to another, and would most likely be willing to relocate to regions experiencing teacher shortages, others note.

“The back woods of Florida don’t look so bad when you’ve spent a couple of years on Diego Garcia [a small island in the Indian Ocean and the site of a U.S. Navy base],” Mr. Maloy suggested.

Strong Volunteers

The Navy volunteers seem to have impressed students and teachers alike.

“John couldn’t make it last week, and the class was really disappointed,” said Peggy Kent, who works with Mr. Israel, the cryptologist, in her mathematics class. “Having him in class can really make a difference for me,” she added. “He can take a block of time and work with small groups, something I can’t do very often when I’m by myself.”

Mr. Israel said he plans to enroll in the certification program this fall.

“I cannot get enough of them to fill the requests,” Margaret Pilcher, coordinator of voluntary programs in the 44,000-student Escambia County School District, said of her military volunteers.

“The Navy volunteers are willing to go into the lower socio-economic schools, where they are good role models and they help build students’ self-image,” she added. “They have also helped bridge the gap between the Navy bases and Pensacola, it’s been good public relations for the school system.”

For its part, the Escambia Education Association, the local teachers’ union, has supported the Pensacola project. “It has worked out real well,” said James M. Petrie, the association’s executive director. “We did not want paraprofessionals replacing potential employees, but3that hasn’t happened. It’s advantageous to teachers in the classroom and it is obviously good for the kids.”

Navy Benefits Seen

The Navy also hopes to benefit from the project, those involved in the program note, by interesting more students in the Navy and mathematics and science, and by improving the instruction in those subjects, subjects that are increasingly in demand in military occupations.

One Defense Department estimate puts at 750,000 out of 2.1 million the number of people on active duty in the military who are in occupations that require some knowledge of mathematics or science. Further, the department estimates that it will need to recruit approximately 350,000 males by 1990, a figure roughly equivalent to one-third of the males expected to graduate from high school that year.

Said one department official: “If we strengthen what we get, we won’t have to do so much training ourselves.” The Defense Department spends $13 billion annually on training, officials say.

Army Training Begun

With similar goals in mind, the Army, though its Army Research Institute in North Carolina, this summer offered 86 mathematics and science teachers an opportunity to work in Army laboratories nationwide.

“We were trying to give the teacher a personal experience in the labs that would encourage them to go home and excite kids about the possibility of getting into math and science before it is too late,” said Robert E. Weigh, director of the U.S. Army Research Office.

Mr. Maloy estimates that up to 100 mathematics and science teachers might be trained each year, once certification programs are in place throughout the Navy. There are no estimates as to how many teachers might be produced from Army or Air Force installations.

But, Mr. Maloy said, “If it catches on, “in three to five years, we might be able to make a difference.”

The National Science Teachers Association estimates that as many as 30 percent of the nation’s 200,000 mathematics and science teachers are unqualified and that recently raised graduation requirements in those subjects are increasing the demand in some states.

“We’ve got pressure on us to offer these kinds of courses,” said Mr. Reed, aide to Governor Graham of Florida, where graduation requirements in the two areas were tripled recently.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Military Expanding Its Teacher Projects