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DoD, Education Coalition Seek Help for Students in Transit

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

PALM HARBOR, Fla., July 12, 2001 – "Welcome. We care about you and your success in this new place." That's the message the Department of Defense and the Military Child Education Coalition want to send transitioning students of military families, according to Charles S. Abell, assistant secretary of defense for force management policy.

"Not only is it the right thing to do, it's also an investment in our future," Abell told more than 300 coalition members, educators, parents, DoD representatives and military personnel here July 11 at the coalition's third annual conference. The nonprofit coalition is an advocate for all military and military-related students who attend public, private, host nation and home schools.

"One of our recruiting studies conducted by the Navy and Air Force determined that 50 percent of today's enlistees were former military family members," said Abell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Senate staffer before moving to the Pentagon. "That tells us that the U.S. military must look to the children of its members today for the force of tomorrow. The more positive the educational experiences in the lives of our young people, the greater our investment in the future."

He emphasized that the coalition's dedication to improving the educational well-being of the students is an immense contribution to the quality of life of military families. Based in Harker Heights, Texas, the coalition establishes partnerships and provides networking of schools and military installations to ensure that mobile military students are treated equally in the educational process.

Making things right for the military child in transition is a tall order, Abell said. Quoting education reform researcher Andy Hargreaves, he cited four necessary pillars of change.

Abell said the first pillar is "hard thinking" built on facts. He noted that demographic data about military children show that more than 1 million military family members are under age 18. Eighty percent of service members are under 35. They become parents when they're under 25 -- younger than civilians -- and tend to have children later than their civilian counterparts as well.

Eleven percent of all married service members are in marriages where both spouses are on active duty. As of September 2000, more than 90,000 service members were single parents. On average, the military family moves nine times over a 20-year career, the assistant secretary said.

He pointed out that 24 percent of military families are overseas; 224 DoD schools support 110,000 students in 14 foreign countries, seven states, Guam and Puerto Rico. Another 600,000 students attend schools in more than 600 civilian school districts near stateside military bases.

These demographics provide a partial picture of the challenge, Abell said. Recent regional roundtables sponsored by DoD and the coalition have deepened officials' understanding, he noted.

By sharing experiences, leaders, students, parents and educators help identify transition issues, such as the social and emotional needs of students, the transfer of records, coursework and grades; incompatible graduation requirements; redundant or missed entrance and exit testing; exclusion from extracurricular activities; and special education needs, Abell said.

The second pillar: "We must reach into our hearts to care more deeply about our students," he said. In one such effort, Abell said, DoD has established the Education Opportunities Directorate, which identifies promising practices for students in transition and encourages school districts to adopt them.

He cited the examples set by the public school district in Groton, Conn. Its Friendship Ambassadors Program for high school Navy students and the buddy system in elementary and middle schools provide essential school links for new students, he said. Student ambassadors orient newcomers, introduce them to their teachers and fellow students, and help them become involved in their new surroundings.

The school district in Killeen, Texas, has transition laboratories at four high schools serving Fort Hood family members, Abell remarked. Incoming students can use the labs to complete subjects or receive tutoring before entering the regular classroom. Students departing during the school year can use the labs to complete credits before they leave.

"The third pillar of change has to do with forging strong emotional bonds with partners," Abell said. "Mutual support, exchanging needed resources to reach the goal, and celebrating joint successes are the things that create great partnerships."

For example, he said the Bellevue School District and Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., broke ground on June 25, 2001, for a four-building welcome center complex billed as "first stop, all-in-one shopping." The center will house the Air Force Heritage Museum and chamber of commerce.

"In comfortable surroundings, the entire family will meet their sponsor for the first time," Abell said. "A glass- enclosed, professionally supervised child care center will allow parents to observe their children while addressing school registration, housing, spouse employment and other important issues."

Among other things, the center will have Internet and phone services to help new families keep in touch with friends and relatives, assist new students with homework and aid spouses preparing job resumes. The center will also house a joint community and military library and community college to help students who wish dual enrollment -- earn high school and college credits simultaneously.

Another landmark partnership is the Missouri Mathematics War College created by the state departments of economic development and of elementary and secondary education and Fort Leonard Wood. The center develops middle school mathematics teachers to counter a national decline of middle school math scores, he said.

His fourth pillar: staying optimistic and hopeful. "None of us has the money, personnel or the resources to do this job the way we might like," Abell said. "The stories I've discussed today illustrate what can be done by perseverance, belief in the cause, dedication and the energy of wonderful people.

"DoD has a great partnership with MCEC and we want to continue that strong bond," he said. "We're going to keep looking at it, evaluating it, talking to each other and figuring out ways to make it stronger."

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Biography: Charles S. Abell

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