Imagine you are a child sitting in a classroom. The teacher casually mentions “Susan Constant” and “Christopher Newport” in her lecture. You look around the room, and no one else seems confused. They are following right along, nodding their heads.
You don’t remember Susan Constant or Christopher Newport, but you never had Virginia history before either. You had two years of California history, when your parents lived there. Then you moved to Texas for a year and listened, like a disconnected observer, to its history. You learned about St. Augustine when you were in elementary school in Florida. And now you are in Virginia, realizing you know very little about Jamestown.
You know a little bit about a lot of different states (that’s a good thing), but you are in a school system that might not care about what you learned in California, Texas or Florida (that’s a bad thing). And they certainly aren’t going to test you on it.
Welcome to the school experience for the majority of military kids.
I grew up in the Navy. But as far as military kids go, I was somewhat of an anomaly. While the majority of military dependents — my husband included — move every two to three years and attend multiple schools by the time they graduate from high school, I attended the same school system from kindergarten to 12th grade.
My dad was an F-14 pilot, and the Navy was consolidating the aircraft to NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Once Dad was stationed in Virginia, my parents didn’t move until after I was married. What this meant for me, basically, was I stayed in the same curriculum and with the same friends for 13 years straight.
Most military kids have a different experience. On average, they attend six to nine different schools by the time they graduate. They often move multiple times in the socially and academically sensitive high-school years. (Watch how fast military dependents sigh if you mention your “in state tuition.”) As they go from school system to school system, they need to adjust to a different curriculum, standards, course requirements and grading. And if they are in athletics, mid-year moves might mean they miss tryouts and the opportunity to play. They have no idea which state to call “home.”
Of course, all of this says nothing of the emotional and social toll that multiple moves takes on a developing child.
When I was a kid, military students suffered alone. Today they have the Military Child Education Coalition, or MCEC.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak at MCEC’s national training seminar in Washington, D.C. Teachers, counselors and military leaders from all over the country convened with MCEC staff and professionals to discuss the needs of military children, who all too often get lost in transition.
For example, MCEC has been instrumental in getting 48 states to sign the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children, sometimes called MIC3, which essentially levels the playing field for kids going from school-to-school. Athletes can get waivers to try out past the deadline for sports. Active duty families can get school absences approved if they are related to deployment and/or homecoming activities. A child whose birthday is October, who was eligible for kindergarten in one state but moves mid-year to another state where the age requirement is a September birthday, can get a waiver to finish the year anyway. Because, oh yeah, every district has its own ideas about age requirements, too.
MCEC, along with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, also sets guiding principles to better educate soon-to-be teachers about military children. So far, they have commitments from 113 colleges and universities across the country. The guiding principles help future educators, who might not have experience with military life, better understand the unique challenges faced by military students.
And MCEC is advocating for a national Military Student Data Identifier, which would allow educators to better track military kids’ academic progress, special needs, dropout rates and patterns across state lines.
It’s all about making the military child’s transitions smoother and ensuring those transitions do not become a liability in the child’s education.
I was honored to attend last week’s seminar and to watch my own state, Maine, receive the LTG (Ret.) H. G. “Pete” Taylor Partnership of Excellence award for its work in recognizing and meeting the special needs of military students. I was especially excited to learn about and meet participants from MCEC’s Student 2 Student program, which is a student-led initiative to connect mobile students with peers who understand and can help build connections or just be a friendly face at a difficult time.
I sometimes — OK, often — criticize the military for being slow to change. But programs like MCEC and Student 2 Student surrounding the military give me hope that in just one generation, military children today have a more stable school experience than my military-childhood peers ever could have imagined.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.