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Education Coalition Created for the Sake of Children

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2001 – About four years ago, a group of people in Killeen, Texas, got together to seek ways to solve the plight of transitioning military schoolchildren.

That first meeting has blossomed into a powerful children's advocate at several locations in the United States and overseas called the Military Child Education Coalition. And its leaders have hopes of going Armywide and touching all the services and the private sector, too.

"We were looking for ways to help our children, not just ones that were there in Fort Hood and those in the school district, but the ones that were transferring," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor, coalition chairman. "How could we hand them off from school to school with the least amount of turbulence in their lives"?

MCEC is headquartered in Harker Heights, Texas, about 20 miles west of Temple. Taylor, one of MCEC's founders, retired from the Army on Dec. 1, 1993, after serving as commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, Texas. He has a daughter, two sons and six grandchildren, all military brats.

He said no one at the time was doing much about helping military youngsters during their transition from one school to another.

"A lot of good people were looking at how you treat kids while they're in school, and mobile kids, but because the rules were so different in various places, nobody was looking at handoff," Taylor said. "We decided to form an organization to do that. It wasn't an Army, Navy or Air Force problem, it was a military issue because the problems of military kids from all services were very similar."

The idea to form a group blossomed in summer 1997 at the first of what has become annual Supporting the Military Child Conferences. Conferees sought solutions that would allow mobile military students to be treated equally in the educational process. That's when the Military Child Education Coalition, or MCEC, was incorporated to provide a forum for conversation and to showcase the needs of the military child, Taylor said.

He said the group established a vision and elected a local board of directors in Killeen in 1997. It took a year to write the bylaws.

"The Killeen independent school district supported us financially and with assistance in-kind," Taylor said. "Our bylaws were finished in September 1998. We then incorporated and started taking memberships."

MCEC continued exploring the issues of the military child in October 1998 during the Serving the Military Child Sharing Creative Approaches conference in Alexandria, Va.

The search for solutions kicked into high gear in 1999 at a MCEC-sponsored conference at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., co-hosted by Bellevue Public Schools and Offutt, Taylor noted. More than 200 teachers, administrators and government and military officials attended. Split into eight working groups, the conferees sought solutions for three major issues: variety of school schedules and calendars; courses and credits; and the transfer of student records.

The coalition, Taylor said, "was an idea of a bunch of people who saw a need to help kids and were dedicated to kids.

"We wanted to focus on the child, keep the child uppermost in our minds. We didn't want our kids viewed as disadvantaged kids because in many ways they have a great and wonderful life," he continued. "Not many kids get to take their senior trip in Paris and places like that. But in other ways, they did have some challenges to face."

Complaints from students and parents about problems military children were experiencing all over the world played a major role in MCEC's creation, Taylor noted. "The experiences of military-connected people brought the problems to light," said the retired three-star general.

"I spent 34 years in the military and have three children, and our kids moved an average of 10 times in K-12. There were many other people like me. We saw our kids turn out very well and had a great life and are doing well. I saw the challenges they had.

"They had a wonderful mother who had been a teacher and she knew how to be a good advocate for them," said Taylor, whose wife is deceased. "Every member of our services across the board didn't have that same advantage. They weren't quite as equipped to be a good advocate for the kids.

Taylor said MCEC wanted to be an advocate for military children in the transition process and to get military parents involved as much as possible. "It's not what goes on in the school once the kid gets in and gets settled, but what happens as they're going out or coming into the receiving school," he emphasized.

All schools are different and all states are different. There are also differences within a state, Taylor pointed out. "Just the fact that they're different and getting accustomed to different things is a big challenge for transitioning children," he said.

Service members have a lot of commonality in their lives, Taylor noted. For example, when service members move from one military installation to another they carry their rank or grade with them and move into a system that is similar to what they left.

"But school kids do not," he emphasized. "They move into different systems. So just the differences are a problem, such as the number of credits required for graduation and particular subject requirements."

The transfer of records is a major problem, he said. "While you and I have been talking here, millions of dollars have been transferred electronically all over the world, but we can't electronically transfer one kid's school record across the street legally in most states," Taylor noted. "So it's a very difficult thing for a family to pick up and leave a post in Texas, go to another state, and get those records transferred in a timely and smooth manner. Most school districts would allow them to hand-carry them, but they are not their official record. And when they get to the next place, they may or may not accept them."

He said 18 states require an exit exam, in addition to the course exams, to graduate from high school.

"And there's no reciprocity between the states," the general noted. "One state won't accept another's exam. That's a real challenge for kids if they move at the wrong time."

For example, Taylor said a military child recently had to take an exit examination her first day of school after returning from overseas. She flunked it.

"She shouldn't have been given the test on the first day she went into the new school," Taylor said.

However, he pointed out that Washington state and Hawaii have agreed to accept state history test scores from other states.

"State history tests are not as big a problem as some other things," he noted. "Math is a major issue. Most mathematics is a sequential learning thing as you go through algebra, calculus and geometry. Getting things out of sequence can cause problems for students."

For instance, if a student takes a certain level of math in one school and is unable to continue to the next sequential level at a new school, they've got to start all over, he said.

"That gets them all messed up," the general said. "Math is so important for people in the learning process."

Studies have shown that the higher level of math students take at the secondary level is the best indicator of how well they'll do in college, regardless of whether the student is majoring in engineering or music, he said.

"It's the rational learning that you go through in math," Taylor said.

MCEC is fortunate, Taylor said, because the organization was established at a time when there's a lot of interest in education in the public sector and the federal government.

"The timing for coming into this area and advocating for kids is a plus for us, because there's a lot of interest in education," he said.

In the post-Cold War years, there's more and more talk about the importance of the family, quality of life and well-being within the military services, he noted. "And the educators, of course, are getting a lot of notoriety and encouragement from every level of government to do a better job," Taylor said. "We can work together for the sake of the children and really make a difference."

MCEC's work doesn't mean much to young service members, unless he or she has children, the general said. But he added that more and more young service members have a family.

"But mainly, it's the noncommissioned officers and officers who have children in school," he said. "I'm not talking about first and second-graders, although that's important, too."

The immediate response of high schoolchildren, who have experienced the transition process, is "Why hasn't somebody done this before? Why have we waited to long"? Taylor said.

His answer is: "The timing was right."

"This isn't just about military kids; it's about all kids that have a mobile lifestyle," the general emphasized. "The Department of Education says that in public schools today, there is a 25 percent mobility rate on an annual basis, regardless of what profession their parents are in. And generally, the schools that serve the military, as an average, it's about 35 percent."

The other services, including the Coast Guard, have voiced an interest MCEC. "We have to overcome some of the parochial feelings, that it was started in the Army, because you've got to start some place," Taylor said. "

"We are blessed with a wonderful executive director Mary Keller -- who understands education," Taylor said. "She relates well with educators. And then we've got a number of people on our board who are military related, military spouses, retired military like myself and others, that relate in that respect. It's a coalition, educators and military related people that have come together for the sake of the child. That is very important to me."

"They focus on the mission -- taking care of kids," he said. "It's for the sake of the child. And they have not allowed egos and things like that to get in the way. They're willing to work.

"The thing that we're most concerned about is that not enough people know about us and the work we do," Taylor said. "We're only effective if we can get the word out about our organization. We're there to advocate for their kids and we want them to come to us and tell us what their concerns are, so we can be effective advocates for them and we can help them be effective advocates."

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