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Teacher Praises Education Coalition's Initiatives in Helping Military Children

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2003 – One of the first things former Border Patrol schoolteacher Valerie Thatcher did when she started teaching in a district that serves a large population of military children was to attend a Military Child Education Coalition conference.

This was her first experience teaching military children and she wanted to do a good job. Therefore, she needed to find out as much as she could about the differences and similarities between Border Patrol and military families.

That way, she said, "I'd be more effective in helping them function at a new school district. We're a public school, not a DoD school district. So there'd be some differences they may not be familiar with, and I wanted to help parents feel more comfortable."

Thatcher is director of curriculum and instruction at the Silver Valley Unified School District, which serves children at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in California.

MCEC works closely with the Defense Department in serving more than 800,000 military-connected children through a network of systems and military installations. Children of active military personnel often face frequent moves or separation from their families. This creates such issues as transferability of student records, course grades, credit hours, etc.

The Silver Valley School District is among many school districts striving to better serve military students. Located in the High Desert region of Southern California between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the district's profile includes one K-3 elementary school, one K-5 elementary school, one K-8 elementary school, one 4-8 middle school and one 9-12 comprehensive high school. There's also an alternative education site that houses continuation high school, independent study, adult education, opportunity program and the special education program.

The district is a member of the Military Impacted Schools Association, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools and the Military Child Education Coalition.

Everyone should appreciate what youngsters go through when they're moving from place to place, Thatcher said. "We should do everything we can to make them feel more welcome and to make their parents feel more comfortable," she added. "Usually they're worried when they come to a new place. They want to make sure the services they left will be provided in their new place. We need to show parents we can take care of their youngsters. That gives them one less thing to worry about when they're moving to the training center."

Her primary concerns are to make sure military children are integrated as rapidly as possible within the school system, and that they feel comfortable, she said.

Teachers and counselors need to assess where each youngster is academically, Thatcher noted. "Then we know exactly what the difficulties are so we can help the youngster catch up," she said. "If they're specially talented in an area, we need to ensure that they're not falling behind and they're excelling in areas where they have special talents."

MCEC is extremely effective, she said, in communicating what's happening in schools across the country and DoD schools overseas. "MCEC also helps us from district to district or DoD school to public schools with effective practices," she said. "And it tells us what we can implement right away to help the youngsters and their parents."

Thatcher said, among other things, MCEC's Interactive Counseling Center helps counselors match up high school course to high school course. "The content areas might be the same from one school to the other, but it's described differently," she noted. "So it helps us give credit to youngsters for work they've done across the country or in a different country."

Enhancing communications between transfer systems alleviates common problems experienced by transferring students. MCEC's objective is for the Interactive Counseling Center to be an efficient, effective means of direct visual communication between schools and school counselors located around the world, an MCEC official said.

Silver Valley has implemented the teleconferencing for counselors so there's better communication between sites worldwide.

Thatcher said schools in her district weave transition activities into lesson plans and homework assignments, highlighting the positive aspects of getting to live in many locations throughout the world.

For example, she said students from military families know first-hand about desert and forest environments, because they move around so much with their parents. "Other students read about it, but our kids live it," she emphasized. "Our classroom transition lessons focus on where you've been and where you are. Because we're in the high desert, they have a tremendous amount to compare and contrast.

"By the way, 'compare and contrast' is a California learning standard in both language arts and math," Thatcher noted.

She said the district's Web site is constantly updated so parents can get details about the district before they arrive. "They can contact the specific person responsible for any program their child might be involved in," Thatcher said. "It has become common, for example, for me to conference with a parent of a special education youngster and to inform the new school of the learner's specific needs prior to the youngster's arrival.

"These things were inspired and polished through the MCEC conference," she said.

Thatcher brought a wealth of expertise to Silver Valley from her previous job with the Border Patrol. The district she worked in has its southern attendance line right on the border with Mexico.

The Border Patrol school district is spread out throughout small towns, remnants of when the horse cavalry was stationed there in the days of the old west. When California became a state, some towns were cut in half. The school district's California towns of Jacumba and Tecate used to be part of the Mexican towns of Jacume and Tecate, respectively.

Other towns in the district are Campo (where the last of the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed), Clover Flat (a watering station for easterners coming west in the covered wagon times) Pine Valley and Descanso (stops along the stage coach line that brought travelers and gold from the Julian Gold mines).

"Border Patrol families don't move as much as military families, but some of their issues are the same," Thatcher noted. "The agents must, however, be part of 30-, 60- or 90-day details, which can put them anywhere in the country. The details are extended if the government determines that their presence is crucial to the operations."

She said usually, agents and their families want to stay together if the detail is for 30 days or longer. "That creates a problem for their youngsters in school," Thatcher said. "The kids are attached to their teachers, and want to be assured they'll get to reconnect when they come back to the area."

For that reason, and to help them keep pace with the class of origin, the district created an independent study program, she noted. The teacher packages the same learning materials that are being used in the classroom and makes assignments based on what was happening in class. Teachers and families keep in contact via e-mail or telephone.

That way, when the child comes back to school, the disconnect period was minimal, she said.

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