How to Give Military Kids a Fighting Chance at a Good Education

How to Give Military Kids a Fighting Chance at a Good Education
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Students who come from military families experience unique challenges throughout their educational career. These children will transfer an average of six to nine times from the time they start kindergarten until they graduate high school. The frequent moves and the added stress of having a parent deployed to a war zone can be very disruptive to academic progress, especially when students transfer across state lines and find they are either ahead of or behind their new classmates.

A new report released last month from the Lexington Institute looks at how schools and districts serving large military populations are using some form of a Military Student Identifier (MSI) to ensure a high-quality education for military-connected children. The report identifies best practices that can be adopted by others looking to improve how they serve the families of soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen and women. There are about 1.2 million children with at least one parent who either serves in the military or is closely connected to the military, such as a U.S. Department of Defense contractor. According to the report, about 200,000 students transition each year to new schools.

The title Military Student Identifier is a bit of a misnomer. Students are not personally identified. It is instead a subgroup classification that identifies military kids in the same way that ethnic demographics, students with special needs, and low-income students are tracked for reporting purposes. Subgroup reporting was enforced by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and it has helped schools identify where they need to improve to help all students succeed. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced NCLB, adds the MSI as a required subgroup classification for reporting student achievement information so that there will now be a focus on these students specifically.

One of us is a former Marine and co-authored ESSA. The other is a military parent and former educator. We wholeheartedly endorse requiring schools to use an MSI to improve the quality of education for military-connected students.

At Grovetown High School in Georgia, for example, the school liaison officer and principal have both noticed that families of enlisted personnel tend to transfer more frequently and during off-times, such as in the middle of a school year. Some enlisted families also fall on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale so knowing those two things about new students will help teachers and administrators ease their transfers. In Virginia Beach, VA, there is a large population of special forces operators whose families may not know where they are on deployment or how long they will be gone. The public schools there offer dedicated counselors for military students and their families.

Depending on the school, the specific military population can be anywhere from 10 to 50 percent. Missouri’s Waynesville R-VI School District, which is near the U.S. Army’s Fort Leonard Wood, may have one of the largest populations of military-connected students, at nearly 80 percent. The superintendent there said that he and his team “make professional development a constant priority,” according to the Lexington Institute report.

As the United States military looks at how best to meet our nation’s needs over the next decades, it is shifting resources around. That means that some areas with little to no military presence may soon see an influx of such families while other areas may lose populations. The U.S. Army Cyber Command, for example, is moving to Georgia, and that presents unique challenges to schools in the area. In instances like this, the MSI will be a valuable resource to help schools identify programs that are the most effective at helping military kids integrate and get the most out of a public education.

The Lexington Institute report is an invaluable tool for policy- and decision-makers who are committed to helping military students succeed.

Ultimately, the goal of the MSI is to ensure that military-connected students are getting the same high-quality education that all of our students should receive. Identifying clear staff responsibilities, focusing professional development based on individual school and district student populations, as well as creating an environment in which the whole child is supported academically and emotionally will lead to seamless school transitions.

Military-connected families have enough to worry about without the added stress of fretting over the quality of their children’s education. By sharing best practices already being used in schools with high military student populations and through use of the MSI, transitions to new schools and districts can be made easier for our nation’s children of parents who serve.

John Kline is a former U.S. Congressman who served as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and co-authored the Every Student Succeeds Act. He also served 25 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Christi Ham is chairwoman of Military Families for High Standards.

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