Having My Children’s Charter School Recognize and Understand a Military Youth’s Distinct Academic Needs

How could I ever expect you to understand the challenges I face; you could not even see that I exist before you…

Setting up a Family Military Resource Table at this year's Annual Curriculum Conference

Charter schools pride themselves as having a parent-choice, student-led education system. Hence, it is extremely difficult for me to explain why I see a need, to formally launch an awareness campaign and support program for military-connected youths enrolled at my children’s charter school without first sharing a part of my military family’s journey.

 

So, here is my story.

I am a Navy wife. My husband, who is a surface warfare officer, has been in the service for almost 20 years now. Last July, with a few days notice, his command deploys him to the Middle East. We have been through several deployments and TDYs. TDY is temporary duty assignment that could be as short as being away for only three weeks to three months; a deployment could be as short as three months to more than a year. Although, this would be the first short-notice deployment experience for us, I convinced myself this would not be as incredibly difficult as the abrupt deployment in 2004, while stationed in Japan, when he reported for work at five in the morning only to call me an hour later to say that the ships were leaving for an undetermined number of months. It was during this deployment when I have not heard from him for almost four months; neither an email nor a phone call. I consoled myself by thinking that as long as I did not get a phone call or a knock from the military, he was alright.

I have learned through 15 years of being a military spouse that provided I have a current power of attorney, the kids and I should be OK. This, however, does not mean the hurdles would be less challenging.

The story that  I would like everyone to focus on are the accounts that center on my children’s education, and the battle my brood and I had to take on by refusing to have them be penalized as a consequence of their father’s military service. Let me set up the next paragraphs by sharing that as a family; we had been through 12 geographical relocations.

All my children are bright students. I have four children all of whom are currently enrolled in River Springs Charter School. The three younger kids of the brood are 12 years old, seven, and five. They are in the Montessori Academy. The academic journey of my military-connected children is best illustrated through the rich experience of Chace, my oldest son. I will focus more on him, although I will also mention his siblings now and then.

Chace, who is 13 years old and a ninth grader, attends the KEYS High School independent study program. He would have preferred to enroll in a traditional high school system that offers a variety of sports opportunities and an ROTC program. However, upon learning that we will most certainly relocate by spring of 2012, overseas, and after carefully analyzing what courses the traditional high schools in our district and a program at another charter school would only be willing to give a ninth grader; we both agreed that his best option would be to continue with River Springs Charter School.

With the guidance counselor’s assistance, Chace and I designed his academic instruction for this year. It is a hybrid of classroom learning, online classes using the technology of a Blackboard program, and independent studies with guidance and supervision from credentialed teachers. He is taking on eight subjects that include Laboratory Biology, Engineering Essentials, and World History and Geography. A typical ninth grader would probably enroll in five to six subjects, including Physical Education. Chace is not a typical high school student. He has to work harder and smarter than his peers. He has to, so he does not have to play catch up in his next school. This is the strategy that my family has to adapt, so my students can somehow even the academic playing field for them. Unfortunately, for what it is worth, this strategy has never been fully grasped and appreciated by any schools they had been enrolled.

Many schools, whether a unified district or a charter school, are failing to see the challenges, transitions, and changes that face every military child. There is no distinct differentiation because, much as the school leadership appreciates the military and its invaluable service to the country, it has yet to connect the role the dependents play, and the sacrifices and punishments they suffer, so that the active-duty military could do his or her job.

Chace has attended 10 different schools including magnet, private, district, and charter systems. When he was in first grade, he was tested and placed by his school in a GATE program. We moved during the early stage of the first academic semester in his second grade. In his new school, we were informed that transferring students does not have the privilege of a continual GATE placement. He had to go through the same process, which he did and successfully passed. Unfortunately, he had to wait for the next school year to avail of the service because the budget for the program, apparently, has maxed out.

Soon after finishing second grade, we PCS’ed to Singapore, so obviously his recommendation for the GATE at third grade did not even matter. During his fourth grade at Singapore American School, he was referred by his teacher for GATE. Again, for us, this was just a neat, redundant information to know, since we were already scheduled to move back to the US of A, in the State of Rhode Island, two months before school officially ended.

By this time in Rhode Island, Chace was in fifth grade, but no sooner than expected, and having been enrolled for only two months, it was time to transfer to California. The school he was enrolled at that time was receiving Impact Aid funding, but he was told, nonetheless, to return all textbooks and work books he was given during the start of the school year. My older daughter, who was a fourth grader during the same period, had to experience being instructed by two substitute teachers before the school has finally hired a permanent one (a few weeks before we left).

When we got to California in December 2008, we had no permanent place to stay for two months. We lived at different military lodges. By February 2009, my children were finally back to school again. On the second week of school, I raised a question to my son’s teacher about a certain homework and a test that Chace was not able to do, being that he was not a student yet at that school when they were given. According to the teacher both were provided during the week Chace started school, so even if he officially started on Thursday, and that the assignment was due Friday or the the quiz was given on Wednesday, scores on both would still be counted. The test and the homework, in which he both scored zero, will be added to his overall grade at the end of the school year. I was given the assurance not to worry because she can see that Chace is a bright student, ergo, he will still pass and will be promoted to the next grade level. All the while, my five year old son who attended the same school was told by his teacher that because he was accepted late into the year, he would be recommended to repeat kindergarten. The teacher has arrived at this recommendation during my younger son’s first week of school and without the benefit of conducting a kindergarten assessment.

Frustrated, I transferred my children to Eagle’s Peak Charter School in March of 2009. The charter offered a foreign language course to all their students. The blended program of classroom learning and home schooling they offer appeals to the kind of lifestyle my family leads. It was not a smooth transition, however. Except for Mathematics and foreign language, the curricular support that was promised to parents during orientation was missing. My family had to spend monies we barely had to carry through home school projects and activities. Eagle’s Peak Charter School had to shut down after the school year ended. So then, the family had to transfer student papers to River Springs Charter School. The Student Center director and teachers remain the same. The first year at River Springs tested my patience as a parent-educator. There were obviously some adjustments and getting used to the new system that the teaching and the administration staff at the learning center had to overcome.

Foreign language was eliminated from the program, although Mathematics curricular support was still available for home schooling days. In any regard, I had no doubt that if given more time, the River Springs Charter School’s Montessori Academy blended program of classroom instruction and home schooling would be the better academic option and preparation for my children, especially if we were to relocate again. Just the same and given my familial situation, I did not know if I could give the school the luxury of time to get settled and work out the kinks in the system. My military-connected students, while they waited for their educators at school to get their act together, were also faced with deployment-connected issues and the possibility of another geographical relocation. Fortunately then, my husband received for his next tour the orders to report to a command a few miles away from his previous duty station, so we did not have to relocate. 

Leaving old friends and trying to make new ones are already enough to overwhelm any child; playing catch up with learning would only complicate things for them. But, it was getting expensive, buying materials and getting resources to supplement what they were learning from school. Nonetheless, it was necessary, so that when it was time to move, academics would not be a significant part of their adjustment. This is why when the pilot for Home School Parent Education was launched by River Springs, I grabbed the opportunity to register so I could avail of the free Language Arts curriculum for my children.

Soon after, the academic support in the center improved a great deal at my children’s charter school. Of course, other than the temporary inadequacy of curricular support for home school days, I can not sing enough praises for my children’s teachers. I had the best parent-teacher relationship with them. We did not always agree, but we communicate. I saw some of the most dedicated educators I have encountered since Chace was in kindergarten at this student center.

Last year was a better year for all my students, although there were two incidents that probably left indelible marks on Chace’s psyche, and that also demonstrated the total lack of understanding of people from the academic field of the nature of a military child’s life.  The first incident was when a teacher referred to him during a conference as a lazy boy who is only motivated to do the minimum requirement set by the school. This was how Chace was seen by this teacher even if he was able to manage to submit all his work on a timely manner and has achieved straight A grades in all subject areas. The second incident was when a vice principal from one of the district high schools referred to his academic successes as irrelevant since he got them while enrolled at River Springs Charter School, a school he refers to as a home school system of no system.

Outside his regular five days a week, six hours a day, seventh grade schooling, he successfully finished an online Language Arts course at John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. He took ACT (American College Testing) and SCAT (School College Ability test) and scored impressively on both tests compared to the average test scores garnered by graduating senior students at any high school in our region. He was promoted from seventh grade to ninth grade. He had all these successes while also being active at various sports (Kenpo Karate, Swimming and Stick Fighting Club) and volunteering at a public library, and while additionally dealing with transitional changes brought upon by his father’s job in the military.

Chace is shown in this photo being congratulated by the city mayor during a recognition ceremony for youth volunteers held at the city hall in 2010.

 Chace’s STAR test results came back with Advanced scores. This fall of 2011, he will be  among the group of bright students whom John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth will recognize, nationally with an Academic High Honors Award, for having achieved a high score in either Mathematics or Reading test in SAT or ACT. Chace was also successfully admitted during the 2011 school summer break in the University of Stanford Education Program for Gifted Student (EPGY), coming back with an impressive score of 96th EPGY Population Percentile in Logic, which was one of the three primary cognitive skills that the EPGY Mathematical Aptitude Test attempted to measure.

My disbelief and growing disappointment at how the academic sector handles a military-connected youth’s academic challenges and needs are the reason why I began a formal request to the director of my kids’ student center, to introduce a Military Family Awareness and Support Program, at least initially at the center. To be fair, most people from the academic profession did not even have an idea what the children of military personnel went through with their daily lives; or if they even knew that these children were military kids in the first place. Military families, for the most part, are the invisible residents of the civilian community. By and large, the “We Support our Troops,” declaration of support by a non-military family feels like no more than just a courtesy gesture, unfortunately. For the benefit of the youths, who also sacrificed and continually served with their military parent, this has to change.

 

A new beginning…

Last school year, I solicited the assistance of Mrs. Reyna Reyna, a chapter director for the Blue Star Families, a support group for military families. For many years she has been doing military awareness and support  campaign at the unified district level. Thankfully, through the directive of the school superintendent, the unified valley school district in our city, has started surveying for military-connected students enrolled at every district school. This is a huge accomplishment for the military families living in our city. I asked Mrs. Reyna to share her wealth of experience and knowledge and help me bring the same resources to the military families in my charter school.

Fortunately, the director quickly saw the urgency and the need to look into this. Mrs. Johnston, the site director for the Murrieta Student Center, has supported a set up of a family resource table during the school’s Orientation events. Mrs. Johnston has also taken it upon herself to make a display of  military family support materials available in the center’s lobby; I ordered these materials from the Military One Source, which is a free program provided by the Department of Defense to service members and their families.  The center also participated in giving away school supplies to families who came forward to identify themselves as military. The free school supplies were collected for distribution through the wonderful and tenacious community service efforts of Mrs. Reyna. What my children and I did were simply organize the supplies – put in huge, individual ziplocks and according to grade level, and forward these to Mrs. Johnston for distribution.

 

First Military Family Awareness and Support Campaign in June 2011 at the Murrieta Student Center

 

In August of this year, I coordinated, through the director of my children’s student center and by calling Mrs. Swanson (the liaison officer), a presentational meeting between all the directors of River Springs Charter School and a representative from the School Liaison Office of Camp Pendleton. It happened yesterday. River Springs Charter School would become the first charter school that the Camp Pendleton’s School Liaison Office has formally worked with. Among the topics covered during the event were: introduction of the nature and purpose of the Camp Pendleton School Liaison Office; synopsis of Interstate Compact Agreement; Impact Aid; and an overview of the challenges and transitions military families and children go through, and how schools can assist them through these changes. Also, stressed during the meeting is the need to bring support to the military families who live far from the base. I trust the meeting has paved way for a partnership between the military family School Liaison Office and the River Springs Charter School. 

Mrs. Swanson, school liaison officer from Camp Pendleton, is shown in this photo doing a power point presentation during last Friday's monthly Directors Meeting in River Springs Charter School office.

Military Impact Aid

Interstate Compact Video

One very important difference and advantage that River Springs Charter School has that is probably working for it is that there is less bureaucracy in its system. The system may not be perfect and there are kinks to iron out, but I would suspect its reaction time is perhaps quicker and timelier. Although we had some missteps, the openness and flexibility in its organization and leadership structure would certainly benefit the military youths; at least that is my hope.

I can only wish that when I hear people from the academic community say, “We support the Military,” it transcends to the actual understanding and commitment at easing, to the level that they could participate, the transitions and life changes a military child faces.

 

Online Resources for Military Families*

Military Children’s Interstate Compact

 Navy Region Southwest School Liaison Officers

MCCS – School Liaison Program

 FOCUS: Family Resiliency Training for Military Families

 Military Impacted Schools Association (MISA)

 Military One Source

 Military Youth on the Move

SOAR (which is designed for military families)

Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP)

 

*Please be aware that some of these websites may have changed, moved, or no longer updated. 

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