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Gina Harkins is MOAA's Senior Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at: @ginaaharkins.
The military's readiness and retention are at risk when servicemembers' children don't have access to quality schools, according to a new study.
Researchers with the Lexington Institute think tank studied the academic performance of military-connected students across four states with high active duty military populations: Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia. They found inconsistencies in key areas they say contribute to children's academic success, including access to quality education, school standards, support for military families, and policies.
Servicemembers might consider leaving the military or declining in-demand assignments if their new duty station has subpar schools, says Jim Cowen, the executive director of Collaborative for Student Success, which sponsored the Lexington Institute's study.
“Schools can be a readiness issue for our military,” Cowen said during a panel Jan. 24 about the study. “ … Servicemembers will vote with their feet if schools are not performing well enough.”
Nearly 1.2 million school-age children have parents serving on active duty. Those students deal with stressors their civilian counterparts don't face, like frequent moves or deployed parents.
Military families don't always have the option to live off base or to attend schools outside their assigned districts due to DoD or state policies, says Don Soifer, the Lexington Institute's executive vice president and report coauthor. Those policies can be especially challenging for families with special-needs children, he says, if the schools they're forced to attend don't have the resources their student needs.
Good military leaders, Soifer adds, recognize access to strong schools affects retention. Commanders can take steps to improve base schools or give families more flexibility. Otherwise, they risk losing essential personnel, he says.
“If there was one prevailing lesson that came from this throughout,” Soifer says of the study, “it's understanding that the quality of the military experience is hinged largely on the quality of the education experience.”
Ensuring military children have access to good schools is especially important to today's generation of servicemembers, says Christi Ham, with Military Families for High Standards. And that means it must be a priority for military leaders as well, she says.
“Our force is an educated force,” she says. “ … This force knows the value of education - their education put them in the armed forces and is allowing them to advance professionally.”
School districts, states, base commanders, and parents all can take steps to ensure military children's educational needs are met, according to the researchers.
Districts can make sure their websites have robust information parents can access if their child is about to start school there. This could include contact information for school leaders running programs for special-needs children and detailed academic requirements.
States should allow military children to enroll in nearby school districts that might be better suited for them, according to the report. Many states, including Missouri and Virginia, don't allow students to enroll in nearby school districts, forcing some military families to live far from a servicemember's base. Access to charter or virtual schools could give military families more options, the report states.
The researchers also urge states and districts to use a new military-student identifier, which helps educators and policy makers better track the children's academic performance. While the identifier doesn't yet have to be attached those with parents in the National Guard or Reserve, the panelists say they would benefit from it because those students often are “invisible” inside their school districts, despite facing many of the same challenges of students connected to active duty servicemembers.
Researchers also found students benefit when base commanders communicate with educators in their communities. Doug Mesecar, an adjunct scholar with the Lexington Institute and report coauthor, says commanders must ensure incoming families understand academic options available to their kids.
“The unknown is easily feared,” he says. “As a base commander, if you're looking around at your surrounding districts where some of your servicemembers are living, [ask] 'What are those districts producing in terms of information?'”
Ultimately, Mesecar adds, commanders want to make their post an attractive one for military families.
For parents, Ham says it's vital they know their children's academic history, the next requirements they'll face, and what the community has to offer.
“They can't sit and wait for this information to come to them,” she says. “They can't make a single inquiry and just assume that the world is going to open up and provide them with all the details they could possibly want.”
Parents also can help newcomers navigate their new school systems - something many already do, Mesecar says.
Over time, Mesecar says he hopes the data collected in the Lexington Institute's report and military-student identifier can provide DoD with a clearer look at how students living on or near certain bases are performing.
“The military is pretty data driven, and if they can see more of this information it'll rise in estimation,” he says. “[Until now] a lot of this has just been based on intuition.”
Gina Harkins can be reached email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter:@ginaaharkins.
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