Give military students a great education

Published 9:25 pm Thursday, September 27, 2012

By Senator John Miller

The start of the new school year in Virginia was accompanied by the welcome news that for the first time in more than a decade, there are no units of the Virginia Army or Air National Guard on active federal duty.

This means thousands of Virginia citizen soldiers — who are also parents — were home for the first day of the new school year, rather than on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or along our southwestern border. These military parents were able to see their children off at the bus stop and participate in all of the back-to-school rituals that make this a special time of year.

Email newsletter signup

And their children are able to focus on their studies without worrying about the safety of a dad or mom far away.

But tens of thousands of other students in the commonwealth, children of reservists on active duty and full-time military personnel, are beginning the school year with parents overseas — or in a new and unfamiliar school as the result of a recent transfer.

Given that Virginia is home to some of the nation’s largest and most important military installations, it is not surprising to learn the commonwealth’s schools educate more military children than almost any other state.

Approximately seven of every 100 students in Virginia classrooms have at least one parent or legal guardian in the military. These include children of full-time soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen, marines and airmen in Hampton Roads, Central Virginia and Northern Virginia as well as children of reservists and National Guardsmen in nearly every community in the state.

Military-connected students share a set of common challenges. Frequent transfers may disrupt learning, friendships, athletics and other extracurricular activities. And there is the emotional toll on military children of a parent’s deployment and absence for milestones and celebrations — especially when a mother or father is in a theater of active operations overseas.

From kindergarten to their senior year, it is common for children of active duty personnel to attend schools in six to nine different districts — and often in several states. These dislocations have always been a part of military life, but there is much that can be done to mitigate the impact on student learning. Schools also can help military children manage deployment-related anxieties and avoid inadvertently adding to them.

To date, 43 states have adopted the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. These states have replaced widely varying policies with a comprehensive approach that provides military families with consistent rules and requirements governing enrollment, records, sequencing and testing, without infringing on the prerogatives of state and local school boards in the areas of standards and curriculum.

Virginia adopted the compact in 2009. Since then, a state council made up of legislators, educators, a military liaison officer and a military parent has identified best practices and reached out to school divisions with training and guidance.

A key resource at the local level for both military families and schools is the school liaison officer. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all have school liaison officers to help families identify educational opportunities and navigate local requirements.

School liaison officers provide a communications channel connecting schools divisions with the post or base command structure, ensuring that military parents are “in the loop” and that local educators are aware of issues — such as an impending deployment — that may impact students.

School liaison officers promote parental involvement so military parents and children experience the benefits that accompany full-fledged membership in the school community. They also make sure families and school divisions are aware of the resources offered by organizations such as Blue Star Families and the Military Child Education Coalition.

The men and women who volunteer to wear our country’s uniform have sacrificed much to preserve peace and defend our freedoms far from home. We owe them our admiration, respect and gratitude.

One way to show our gratitude is to insist our public schools provide military children with the flexibility and understanding they need to achieve academic success. While military men and women are overseas protecting our freedoms, we must ensure their children get the very best education here at home. The Virginia Council on the Interstate Compact for Educational Opportunities for Military Children is dedicated to making that happen.

Senator John Miller (D-1st) is the chairman of the Virginia Council on the Interstate Compact for Educational Opportunities for Military Children.