Every school that has welcomed new students after a move or transfer knows that transitions can be rocky for both students and their parents. For most families, adapting to life at a new school is an occasional strain. But for one segment of the population, relocation is a regular part of life. In the U.S., more than 1.5 million students have at least one parent deployed on active duty—and even more come from military-connected families where transfers, moves, and new schools are common.
Families connected with the military relocate often–up to three times more frequently than other families. Research suggests that these moves, coupled with the stress of parental deployment, can lead to academic and social problems in students (or magnify existing issues).
For military-connected students, resiliency is a critical skill, according to Susan Bendele, the Assistant Superintendent at Randolph Field ISD (RFISD), a district that exclusively serves the children of parents assigned to San Antonio-area Army and Air Force bases. “RFISD students are very special,” Bendele says about her district. “They are asked to be strong and brave well beyond their peers who are not military-connected.”
Up until a few years ago, Bendele’s district focused its attentions primarily on academics, which yielded some positive gains but did not address the myriad social circumstances that students contend with. To help develop social-emotional support programs for its students, last year Randolph Field applied for and received a series of Education Partnership Grants from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).
To begin with, Randolph Field started a peer-to-peer mentoring program called Student 2 Student and coupled it with professional counseling services that focus on social-emotional development. Grant funding also supported implementation of Franklin Covey’s The Leader in Me, a district-wide program focusing on building leadership skills. Another program, called Capturing Kids’ Hearts, homes in on creating positive behavior and relationships. For stress relief, the district now offers a yoga program. “We’re providing opportunities linked to the positive character traits and social skills necessary to foster leadership,” Bendele says. “It’s about building a learning community where everyone feels valued.”
Making (and Measuring) Progress
Nearby Lackland ISD has a lot in common with Randolph Field. Located across town, Lackland serves students connected with Lackland Air Force Base, and received the same DoDEA grants to enrich social-emotional skills for its students.
Lackland ISD has created many of the same types of programs found at Randolph Field, such as the Student 2 Student peer mentoring, as well as leadership and conflict-resolution classes for middle schoolers.
But for Jason “JJ” Johnson, the project director at Lackland ISD, the main impetus for applying for the DoDEA grant was to shore up college and career readiness, an area where he says students of military-connected parents can often fall behind due to the stress and unpredictability associated with the deployment cycle.
Johnson teamed up with the Military Child Education Coalition to introduce a new staff member, called a Military Student Transition Consultant, who can work with students as they transition into (or out of) the district. The consultant works almost like a specially trained guidance counselor, focusing on building custom-tailored post-secondary plans that take into account each student’s unique circumstances.
Both districts are also measuring progress in much the same way, using a specially constructed social-emotional learning survey from Panorama Education, developed in partnership with researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The free and open-source survey tool lets students reflect on their personal social-emotional skills and the support structures provided by their schools. Administrators can use the resulting data to chart advances in areas related to social-emotional learning, such as Growth Mindset, Grit, Self-Management, Emotion Regulation, and Sense of Belonging. Knowing all this can help administrators gauge where their efforts are succeeding and the areas where they need to invest.
“The surveys help us determine where best to allocate resources, target professional development, and mitigate transitional challenges for our students,” Johnson says. “It all adds to the engaging and enriching educational experience our teachers create with our students.”
Connecting with Every Parent
It’s not just domestic moves that on-base schools must contend with. Just as the U.S. military maintains a large population of soldiers stationed overseas in places like Germany and South Korea, foreign militaries station their troops on stateside bases. With foreign soldiers come foreign families, frequently with school-age children whose parents are eager to have their children learn English, the international language of business.
Fort Sam Houston Elementary School is located on a military base in Texas that has an exchange program inviting military personnel from several allied countries to trade places with their American counterparts. Kindergarten teacher Dr. Melanie Morgan has seen students pass through her class from all corners of the world, but especially Germany, Mexico, and South America, where students may have only a rudimentary knowledge of English, if any. While most of Dr. Morgan’s students are native English speakers, her ELL population often requires special attention.
Like many teachers introducing English to low-proficiency ELL students, Dr. Morgan uses a lot of music and visuals to engage all her students. This past school year, one of Dr. Morgan’s students, a young girl from Peru, knew no English. To help bridge the language gap, Dr. Morgan explains that she “played a sort of game where I would hold up an object while saying both the English and Spanish words for it.” Along with a student translator who could understand Spanish but not speak it, she was able to make significant progress in understanding her Peruvian student.
She had less luck at first with the student’s parents, who had limited English language skills themselves, a fact she says is not uncommon among recently-arrived families. “The biggest frustration for the non-English speaking families is that they want to be involved with their child’s education, but the language barrier makes it difficult,” says Dr. Morgan, adding that despite the language barrier all parents want to know how their child is doing academically, emotionally and socially. “A non-bilingual teacher, however, may not be able to communicate these things to them with any kind of certainty.”
Since leaving a portion of her families out of the loop was not an option, Dr. Morgan scouted around and found a parent-teacher communication app called Bloomz with a built-in translation feature that auto-translated Dr. Morgan’s messages about activities and classroom progress for her Peruvian parents. “The family was extremely worried that their daughter would have trouble acclimating,” Dr. Morgan says. “But it put their mind at ease when they could use the app to read my translated communications and see pictures of their daughter participating in classroom activities.”
That level of engagement is crucial when families are stationed thousands of miles away from home, because parent-school interaction is something that tends to transcend cultural borders. “Every parent needs to see class pictures and upcoming events, which give them topics to talk about with their children,” Dr. Morgan says. “Keeping parents involved benefits students, teachers, and the parents themselves.”
Stephen Noonoo, the former editor of eSchool News, is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant.