Military Children Need Teachers, Counselors More Than They Know
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
GROTON, Conn., July 24, 2003 In only five years, the Military Child Education Coalition has grown into an organization of international presence, a former Groton schools superintendent told attendees July 22 at the organization's 5th annual conference here.
George M. Reilly praised Mary Keller, MCEC's executive director, for growing "a fledgling group of school districts with shared similar interests into a cohesive and responsive organization in service to the military child."
His remarks came during the Transition Counselors Institute luncheon. TCI runs a set of daylong workshops that are held the day before the kick off of MCEC's three-day conference. With more than 450 teachers, counselors, administrators and other educators from around the world slated to attend, this marks the largest conference ever for the organization.
"In the early 1990s, communications between and among school districts serving military communities was very spotty," Reilly said, providing a historical perspective on MCEC's growth. "These districts were wrestling with the issue of how best to meet the local needs of their military children."
In New England, Reilly said, every town has its own school district, some with fewer than 1,000 children from kindergarten to 12th grade. "It creates a major problem for districts trying to coordinate services to military children," noted Reilly, now a professor in the Department of Education at the University of New Haven. "Issues that should be routine often proved to be very difficult."
For example, Reilly said, it took two years to standardize requirements for school physical exams to meet the intake policies of each school district, the regulations of each town's Department of Health, and Connecticut state laws.
"The medical staff of the naval hospital in Groton was stretched to the limit trying to accommodate each district's specific requirements (for school physicals)," he said, noting that most military students are family members of service members at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London.
The problem was finally solved through the formation of a Superintendents-Navy Liaison Committee, which included the Coast Guard. The group formed a teacher- and counselor-training program similar to TCI. The military put together a mini course called "Navy 101," which was presented throughout the region to sensitize teachers and counselors to the unique challenges of military life. The committee sponsored a regional conference that brought together all of the districts with state and national participation from the military services.
"However, the more we worked regionally on issues affecting military families, the more we realized that we had to reach out to other military communities throughout the United States," Reilly noted. "It quickly became clear to us that the broader issues of differences in curriculum, varying assessment programs and alternative approaches to special education made it imperative to connect with other districts serving military communities.
"What we didn't know then was that many of these districts were also struggling with the same issues," he said. "Each realized that the time for a better coordinated national effort had come."
Reilly said a breakthrough came when Groton educators were invited to attend a conference on military children sponsored by the Killeen School District in Texas. That inspired the Groton schools to plan a national conference of military school districts, which was held in Alexandria, Va., in 1998. The Alexandria meeting included representatives from the Department of Defense Education Activity, in Arlington, Va.
"The outcome of that meeting was the creation of the first board of directors of the new MCEC," Reilly said. "MCEC has grown to become a vibrant and robust organization of well-connected educational agencies in active support of the military child."
Quoting former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill as saying, "All politics is local," Reilly said, "In our country, that's also true in education."
While a federal role is important, especially in funding such critical areas as impact aid and supplementary funding for military schools, he noted, "It's the states that determine curriculum, set assessment standards and issue numerous other regulations affecting education."
The good and bad of that situation is that it can be dangerous for military children unless professionals are connected, Reilly noted. "This is especially true in today's national education climate," he emphasized. "The federal 'No Child Left Behind' law requiring testing of all children in grades three through eight presents a major problem for highly mobile military children.
Many are now subject to testing on topics upon which their previous state's curriculum may not have required instruction. Reilly said sound counseling and quality instruction are important for all children, "but they are critical for the military child."
He gave the TCI participants three suggestions to better meet the needs of military children:
Network with colleagues around the country to become familiar with the needs of each child. "Being able to speak on a first-name basis with other counselors, teachers and family service representatives cuts a lot of red tape and provides for smoother transitions for children," he said. "You should start by taking away with you the names, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of all your fellow TCI participants."
Become advocates for contemporary technology. "Internet connectivity needs to be in every counselor's office and classroom so that children from military families not only can learn about the schools in states to which they're moving, they can stay in touch with past and future friends via e-mail," Reilly said. "Especially so they will enjoy the same ability to use the Internet for research and learning that non-military children enjoy in most effective districts. Technology levels the playing field for all students, especially highly mobile military students."
Stay focused. "Your awareness of the unique pressures on the military child, and especially your sensitivity to the emotional stress that children feel when they're in highly mobile situations, is critical to the success of these children," he noted. "Each day this awareness and sensitivity must be your 'job number one.'"
"The military child needs you more than you sometimes know," Reilly told the educators.