After attending eight different schools over 18 years, Megan Barron, a self-described Army brat, honed a strategy for fitting in at a new school.
First off, she’d join the cross-country team.
“I hate running, but all the other teams were usually already selected,” said Ms. Barron, a junior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “At least then I would have someone to sit with at lunch.”
Ms. Barron shared her experiences during a briefing held on Capitol Hill last week to unveil a new U.S. Department of Defense-financed initiative aimed at easing the difficult adjustments that military children make as they move from school to school.
According to the federal officials and scholars heading up the $1 million-a-year Military Child Initiative, the children of the nation’s 1.5 million military families are American society’s most mobile students. They move, on average, three times more often than do their peers from civilian families.
Although the Pentagon maintains a school system that serves 100,000 of those children on military bases around the world, a larger proportion of military children—about 500,000—wind up in regular public schools, where they are perpetually new kids on the proverbial block. Their stresses can be especially difficult, speakers here said, when Mom or Dad is stationed in a faraway war zone, such as Iraq.
“For all kids, school is critical,” said Dr. Robert W. Blum, the Johns Hopkins University professor of population and family health sciences in charge of the new program, which is housed at his university in Baltimore. “For young people where the rest of their world is in flux and where their parents are in dangerous situations, school is a critical—if not the critical—area of comfort.”
Relevant to Evacuees
Experts said last week that the need to help children feel tied to their schools applies well beyond the military, and is especially timely following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
They sugggested that schools can provide emotional anchors for the thousands of children whose lives have been disrupted by the storms, which have forced many youngsters from coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, especially, to change schools.
Research shows that students who enjoy a sense of “connectedness” with their schools get better grades and are less likely to smoke, use drugs or alcohol, attempt suicide, join gangs, or engage in sex during their teenage years, according to Dr. Blum, who led a national panel that produced a report last year on school engagement. (“Declaration Calls for More Caring Environments in Schools,” Sept. 8, 2004.)
Yet statistics show that, nationwide, 40 percent to 60 percent of secondary school students instead feel disconnected from the schools they attend. Part of the problem, at least for military children, is that schools set up barriers that exacerbate students’ adjustment problems, according to the military families who spoke at the Sept. 26 meeting.
Because of differing requirements, for example, Ms. Barron lost honors credit for courses she had taken at a previous high school when she moved. She was also turned away from the National Honor Society chapter at a new school, despite having held a membership previously.
Other families told of students’ having to retake courses or ending up in schools that did not offer courses in subjects that passionately interested them. Overall, one Pentagon survey found, 91 percent of officers and 90 percent of enlisted personnel with children in school had problems in transferring them to new schools.
To avoid disrupting their children’s education, some families opt to separate, leaving an older son or daughter behind, for instance, while the rest of the family moves with the military parent.
“No family should have to make that kind of sacrifice in order to educate their child,” said Jean L. Silvernail, a Defense Department policy analyst who coordinates programs for military children.
Schools can better foster connectedness for all children, Dr. Blum said, by setting high academic expectations; ensuring that every student has a relationship with at least one caring adult; providing a curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives; and being flexible enough to meet the needs of students who learn in different ways or need extra time. “What’s good for military students is good for all students,” he said.
Dr. Blum’s center has launched a research program aimed at identifying effective programs and practices and compiling them in a database for schools.
The center has also designed a Web course, workshops, and other instructional programs for schools facing influxes of military students, a phenomenon that may become more common in light of the extensive base closings and reshufflings that the Pentagon is planning to undertake over the next few years.
In addition, Ms. Silvernail said, the Defense Department has launched new online databases for military children and their families. She said the sites let parents and students explore schooling options and local regulations in the areas to which they are relocating.
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Schools Told to Help Mobile Military Children Feel at Home