Educators, Top Brass Discuss Ways to Help Mobile Students, Parents
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2003 Military children experience frequent school transitions punctuated by separations. Therefore, it's important for the Military Child Education Coalition to think globally, understand nationally and act locally "for the sake of the child," said MCEC's executive director, Mary Keller.
Keller asked more than 475 teachers, counselors, administrators, military personnel and parents at MCEC's 5th annual conference in Groton, Conn., in late summer to imagine being at a big dinner party, eavesdropping on a private conversation. She also asked them to imagine that she and four other panelists were the dinner "guests."
The "guests" were Army Gen. James "Tom" Hill, combatant commander for Southern Command; Professor Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh (Pa.); Adm. Walter F. Doran, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet; and Cathryn "Cathy" Franks (wife of retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq) MCEC board member, educator and military spouse. Doran and Hill are national MCEC advisors.
Hill kicked off the conversation with his thoughts and perspectives about military children and military readiness. "The issues of families and children in schools have always been an integral part of real readiness," said the four- star Army general. "I've never viewed military readiness as only that which takes place in a unit."
Real readiness, he noted, also is what takes place in the family. The general emphasized that quality of life and the well-being of a military organization includes families of unit members.
"The two of them (military and family readiness) combined create real readiness," said the hero general, who, as a lieutenant, earned three Silver Star Medals for heroism in about 14 months in Vietnam. He's also a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device for valor. "If you're lacking in one or the other, you'll not be a ready unit."
He said his two philosophies in life are, "You must understand the function of readiness," and "I've always believed in the Air Force point of view that you never apologize for quality of life."
Doran waded in, saying the biggest issues for Navy families are mobility and transition. And he said he wanted to dispel the notion that the Navy has it the easiest. "The amount of moves our families and youngsters do are at least the same as the number other services' families do," the admiral noted.
Using his family's odyssey as an example, Doran said in 1995 they left Washington, D.C., and went to Okinawa, Japan. In 1996, they left Okinawa and went to Panama. In 1997, they left Panama and went to Miami, Fla. In 1998 they left Miami and went to Yokosuka, Japan.
"None of those moves were easy to make," said Doran, who is responsible for the world's largest combined fleet command, encompassing 102 million square miles and more than 190 ships and submarines, 1,400 aircraft, 191,000 sailors and Marines and 30,000 civilian employees.
"And you're crossing a lot of boundaries and lines, and it causes a lot of churn for our people," the admiral said.
Therefore, he said, it's important for the military leadership to work with the school districts concerning military children.
"Local school districts should be aware and understand that when my two boys come in, not only are they mobile children, they may have moved five times in the last five years," Doran noted.
Franks then offered her views with the perspective she has gained from being a teacher, mother, grandmother of a military child, MCEC board member, and Transition Counselors Institute trainer. "It's very important for the schools to be a partner with the military and the families," she said. I see a lot of that going on, and it's growing, which is very encouraging."
Before MCEC was created five years ago, teachers who happened to be military wives often were the liaisons between the military and school districts, the former high school teacher said. She recalled that in the late 1980s, when she was teaching at Killeen (Texas) High School near Fort Hood, the principal and counselor would often ask her for advice in solving problems concerning military children.
"They didn't know who to approach or how they could get help," Franks said. "They were asking simple, basic questions about a child they were trying to help. So I was the unofficial liaison between the military and the school."
That's not the best way to help military schoolchildren, she noted. "We can't rely on some family member just happening to be on the school staff where our children attend," Franks said.
"My husband always talks about readiness," she said. "I haven't seen my husband a lot during the last five or six years. When I did see him, sometimes I'd talk about MCEC. He would listen for a little bit, then he'd just stop it all and say, 'It's all about readiness.'"
The general told his wife that if soldiers on the front line, sailors on an aircraft carrier and pilots in the air over hostile territory are worried about their children and how their children are doing in school, they're not concentrating on their mission.
"So this is real, and important to the child, family and to our nation," she said. "That's why you see senior military leaders here supporting MCEC.
"To each parent, their child is the most important thing. That's how it should be," she emphasized. "Most military families have to move their children one or more times, and it could be detrimental for the child."
Franks said her family's time came when her daughter was in the fourth grade. "She attended three different schools in two different states and overseas," She said. I'm not sure how much she got out of her fourth grade experience. So this is a day-to-day issue for many of our families."
Panelist Hill pointed out that about 13 percent of Army children are special- needs children. "That's a huge number out of a 485,000-person force, not counting all of the family members," the Southern Command general said. If you put that in graphic terms, every squad in the Army has at least two members with special needs children.
"They're being led by a young sergeant or staff sergeant who now has very special leadership problems for dealing with squad members with special needs children," the general added.
Hill said he and his wife have a 24-year-old special-needs child who was born when Hill was a captain who had already been to Vietnam. "We could deal with that, and did," he said. "Although, I'll confess that then and today, those are hard issues to deal with. They're not simple for four-star Gen. Hill, Pfc. Hill or Mrs. Hill.
"MCEC is taking that on, and I'm gratified to be a part of that," Hill said.
He urged MCEC officials to ensure they take care of those at the bottom of the totem pole. "If we don't as a function of this organization, and if we don't as a people look for those at the bottom of the mountain, we'll never be the nation that we really should be," Hill said.
Doran said the issue transcends the individual service cultures.
"From the Navy's point of view, each of our services (has) a very strong, distinct culture, he said. "We tend to approach issues very differently. This may be the one issue, however, that cuts across the board. If you're looking for a joint issue, this is about as joint as it gets -- the concern we all have for our families."
Though Defense Department statistics show that all the services are doing well with retention and recruiting, Doran said that may not always be the case.
"We'd better not take that for granted," he said. "Those numbers are going to take a tremendous amount of nurturing as we adjust to the events that are going on in the world today."
The admiral said more surged deployments required by the global war on terrorism "will bring a certain amount of uncertainty into the lives of our sailors and Marines."
After intently listening to the other panelists, Resnick interjected, "This is a new world for me. I'd never heard about MCEC before you (Keller) called me a few months ago."
The university professor said according to what she'd heard, "We might call this (conference) the 'Readiness of the Schooling Institution for all Children.' The mobility issue isn't unique to the military, she said but it's more extreme in the military.
"But you actually have more support than most people who experience mobility, because you have an organization like MCEC," said the internationally known scholar in the cognitive science of learning and instruction. Her recent research has focused on school reform, assessment, effort-based education, the nature and development of thinking abilities and the relationship between school learning and everyday competence.
"We have to take on every single child, one child at a time," said the founder and director of the Institute for Learning, which focuses on professional development based on cognitive learning principles and effort-oriented education. "But we can only do it through organizing systems so they work with the needs of each child."
However, that would require organizing every school system, school and classroom to focus on one child at a time, said Resnick, who is also co-founded and co-director of the New Standards Project, which has developed standards and assessments that have widely influenced state and school district practice.
The nation started moving toward new standards in the early 1990s, she noted. For example, she said, in 1989, the National Governors Association called for a national system of standards, assessments and expectations. In 1990, the White House conducted a conference that resulted in a call for a national test. A voluntary national education goals, standards, test and assessments program was established in 1991.
"The general response in the country was that it was either immoral or un- American, or at least crazy -- that it could never happen," Resnick said. "Ten to 12 years later, it's our national policy. The irony is that in its very success, given the states' rights environment, it may actually be making it a little bit harder for the highly mobile child."
That's because there's no national standards system, "which, in the end, is all that really matters to the kids and their parents," she said. "In my judgment, we're not going to get one in the next 10 years or so," Resnick said.
"So the questions is," she continued, "what might we do to use the existence of the state standards, which are helping anybody that's mobile within (the) state?"
Keller emphasized that different standards around the country make things difficult for military children.
"We (as educators) agree with raising standards, (and) having assessments for these standards so you'll know when they're being met," he said. But when they're so different from state to state, this movement of increasing standards and assessments is having a negative impact in many ways on military children."
Washington, Oklahoma and Hawaii are the only states that accept another state's history to fulfill the graduation requirements. However, Keller emphasized that parents shouldn't give up fighting to make arrangements with local school districts to waive the requirement.