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Family Matters Blog: Military Children Deserve Top-notch Education

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2010 – As servicemembers step up to serve in this time of war, military families are serving in a quieter way alongside them.

They too sacrifice as they deal with long separations from loved ones, the effects of multiple deployments and frequent moves. But the one sacrifice they will not have to make is a quality education for their children, Marilee Fitzgerald, acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, told me.

"As our parents move from place to place and they serve our nation and they make sacrifices, we don't want them to believe they're sacrificing the education of their children," Fitzgerald said. "That is just not one of the sacrifices they’re going to have to make."

I sat down with Fitzgerald recently for a one-on-one interview to find out her priorities for the new school year. She assumed her leadership role at the activity in June, but already was very clear about the path she’d like to take in the months ahead.

The activity's No. 1 priority, she said, is to help students reach their fullest potential through a focus on high student achievement and a rich and varied curriculum.

Initiatives such as the virtual high school and language arts curriculum will make major inroads toward that goal, she predicted.

The activity's virtual high school, new this school year, is an accredited distance-learning program for military students, whether they're geographically separated, transitioning between schools or just dealing with a scheduling conflict. The virtual school offers students 48 online courses in a wide range of disciplinary areas, including foreign language, math, science, social studies, language arts and physical education, as well as 15 advanced placement courses. I wrote about the virtual high school in "Virtual High School Keeps Students on Track."

The activity also has developed new standards of learning for its language arts program, based upon best practices in the United States. This has resulted in new instructional materials for students in all grades.

Fitzgerald also praised the reconstruction and renovation program that kicked off with the school year. The Defense Department has provided the education activity $3.7 billion to address its reconstruction and renovation needs over the next six years, she explained. My colleague, Heather Forsgren Weaver, wrote about the renovations in "Military Children Get Improved Schools."

Along with their physical environment, Fitzgerald said it's also important to meet military children's emotional needs. The education activity has an obligation to ease transitions for military families, she said, with schools acting as a place of support for children as they deal with the consequences of frequent moves and deployments.

To assist, the Defense Department has authorized additional military and family life consultants for its schools. These consultants can assist with detecting student behavioral issues and problems with performance, and work with the parents and school to find the right solutions.

An understanding of military children and their challenges is something Fitzgerald said she'd like to see extended beyond the education activity's borders.

Only a small portion of the nearly 1.2 million active-duty school-age military children and youth attend the activity's schools – more than 90 percent attend non-Defense Department schools - but the issues extend far beyond school borders. All military children experience long separations from a parent who may be in harm's way, as well as frequent moves and multiple new schools.

"We need to build the capacity to understand our military population," Fitzgerald said. The director said she'd like to see an increased exchange of information between Defense Department-managed and municipal-run schools. A greater understanding of the challenges confronting military children can only benefit them in the long run, she added.

"It could be something simple, such as teachers giving children some homework in advance so they can spend a dedicated day home with a deployed parent home on leave," she said. Or, understanding a school's requirements in advance to ensure children don't fall behind.

Above all, Fitzgerald wants to ensure the focus is first and foremost on the students, and that quest is never ending, she said.

"There isn't an end-state," she said. "We're like every great teacher; we only see possibilities."

For more on my interview with Fitzgerald, see my American Forces Press Service article, "Students Rate Quality Education, DoDEA Director Says."

To comment on this blog, please visit the Family Matters blog.

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