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COMMENTARY: Big push to designate military-friendly schools in Virginia

COMMENTARY: Big push to designate military-friendly schools in Virginia

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VIRGINIA is making major strides in helping military-connected children transition to and from schools in the commonwealth, an effort that is often fraught for military families due to the frequency of moves.

The state has adopted the so-called Purple Star school designation program, a growing national effort to create programs and services at the school level that help 1.2 million military-connected students make the transitions.

Moving from one school to another is difficult enough for many children—whether they’re from civilian or military families. But military kids ship out with great rapidity every one to three years, sometimes to different states or countries.

As a military spouse and mother for nearly two decades, my experience is typical for a military family. Schools simply are not equipped to assist these students when they come in or in smoothing the way to the next school when they leave.

Even more troubling is that education quality from one school to the next is often inconsistent and is exacerbated when schools lack effective mechanisms to help military children and their families transition to a new school.

To receive the Purple Star designation, schools must meet certain criteria, which can vary among states. But broadly, they must have designated staff to work with military families and they must be trained in military-connected student issues.

The schools must provide resources and information for military families on the school website, and they must complete another relevant activity such as extra training for teachers and staff, the issuance of a school board resolution, or holding a military-friendly school event.

Some states have additional requirements. For example, Virginia schools must include information on their website regarding enrollment and disenrollment, academic planning, graduation requirements, special needs and parent rights.

Virginia has one of the nation’s largest military populations with nearly 150,000 active duty and reserve members and approximately 80,000 children in tow. As of last year, the first year the program was up and running in the state, Virginia had 66 schools that earned the Purple Star designation (the overwhelming majority are public schools) with many more added by the end of 2019.

The need for a program to help with transitions is glaring. The typical military child will likely experience six to nine different schools through their K-12 education. On average, a military-connected student will move at least once during the high school years.

Military-connected children are exposed to immense variation in schools, one of the major difficulties in transitioning. Students coming from a school with lower expectations may find they must make up missed content, take additional prerequisite classes, or even face different graduation requirements.

Students moving into less well-funded schools may lose out on planned academic opportunities such as Advanced Placement classes. Parents of students with special education needs must navigate numerous and varied support programs.

The concern over education transition for military kids was so great that in 2006 the Council of State Governments joined the Department of Defense in creating an Interstate Compact to address eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation issues faced by military families.

But after 14 years, military-connected students still face a patchwork when it comes to education. The good news is that a handful of states are waking up to the problem. Ohio launched the first Purple Star School program and it is inspiring others. Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Tennessee have since launched their own variants. Other state programs are in the works.

As laudable as these efforts are, though, until every school meets Purple Star criteria and until the compact is fully implemented, military families will face a ZIP code lottery when transitioning into a new school.

These families have stepped up for America. It’s time America stepped up for their kids.

Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman is an Air Force spouse and advocate for military-connected children. A member of Military Families for High Standards, she is co-author of the book, “Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers.”

Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman is an Air Force spouse and advocate for military-connected children. A member of Military Families for High Standards, she is co-author of the book, “Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers.”

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