FORT POLK, La. -- About 700 educators, Soldiers and family members congregated at Fort Polk's Bayou Theater March 27 to attend an Education Symposium spearheaded by Fort Polk Progress, a regional community organization that takes a proactive stance in the growth of Fort Polk. The Education Symposium was part of a larger Education Initiative, a partnership among Fort Polk Progress, the Vernon Parish School District and Fort Polk, to acknowledge the achievements of the Vernon Parish schools and prepare for future educational challenges.

The Education Initiative was formed, according to local educators, to identify educational challenges and develop an action plan with measurable goals that will move Vernon Parish schools from ?"good to great."

Education Initiative goals also include educating parents about Common Core State Standards and how they can support their child, and benchmarking Vernon Parish schools against the national average and school districts that support other major Army installations.

The symposium opened with a performance by representatives of those the Education Initiative serves: Students from the Vernon Middle School Choir singing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America," directed by Gene Davis. Katie Kennison, an 8-year-old-student at South Polk Elementary School, led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Brig. Gen. William B. Hickman, commander of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, thanked those in attendance. "We are honored to welcome our Vernon Parish friends here today." Hickman also lauded the commitment of community leaders to improve the education of not just military children, but all children. "We are proud to be part of a school system that is dedicated to improving each year the level of instruction that takes place from pre-kindergarten through high school. We are excited about today, and we are excited about the months and years to come as we continue to partner with Vernon Parish. What we take away from the symposium today will benefit all of our children. That's a goal we can all get excited about, no matter our varied backgrounds and walks of life," he said.

Attending the symposium on behalf of Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, was Stephanie Hoehne, the Installation Management Command's Deputy Chief of Staff for Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Programs. Hoehne will be briefing the CSA the week of March 31 on the Education Initiative. "I find it exciting that there's so much synergy going on between Vernon Parish and Fort Polk in focusing on something that's so important to all of us: The education and futures of our children. What you have here is a model that I'll take back with me (to CSA) to see if we can expand it and create that kind of synergy and partnership among all our schools," Hoehne said.
Vernon Parish schools provide a quality education for students -- with the district ranked fourth academically among the 70 school districts in Louisiana, said Jackie Self, superintendent of Vernon Parish Schools, and a speaker at the symposium. "Our success is attributable to our staff, community support and the support of groups like Fort Polk Progress. It's a team effort and we can't do it by ourselves. It takes positive interaction from all these parties to make education a success. I thank you for the opportunity to help your student grow and support your student along the way."
Other presenters at the event included Paul Sawyer, with Louisiana Economic Development; Dr. Kelly Laster, Louisiana Department of Education; the Rapides Foundation; and Dr. Ben Martindale .
Keynote speaker was Jamie Vollmer, an award-winning advocate of public education who speaks at schools nationwide.
Vollmer stressed that today's school system is based on a model created by Thomas Jefferson around 1781. "I'm here to tell you, it's got to change. Things cannot stay the same as they have been for decades."
America needs great public schools now more than ever, he said -- and that's going to take the entire community, not just those who have children in school. "For example, when a community comes together and works to increase a student's success, the crime rate in that community falls. When a community like Vernon Parish bands together to ensure that each child gets a decent education, property values go up. Life gets better when local schools improve. We are all tied into this in a way that many people don't see. In a community like Vernon Parish -- where your schools are moving forward -- you have momentum. If you take advantage of that momentum, you could create not only the best schools in Louisiana, but the best schools in the world," Vollmer said.
Building that momentum is why the symposium was developed. Keeping that momentum going is the goal of the Education Initiative and why people like Sgt. Sheldon Brooks attended. Brooks, with the 162nd Infantry Brigade, said the Education Symposium is important because it helps military parents understand the local school system. "I am the type of person that thinks parents should be more engaged and not just leave education up to the teachers. I hope that's something that can be learned from what happens here today."
Ulita Watson, principal of Evans High School agreed. "I come from a rural school system, but we have military children and a connection to Fort Polk. It's essential to give teachers and parents the opportunity to cooperate in improving our children's education. I've personally never been to an education symposium, but I'm open to gaining all the information I can to bring back to my school and help our students -- military and civilian -- in any way that I can. This symposium gives us insight into how Vernon Parish and Fort Polk are working together to make our children's education a success."
If Fort Polk Progress, the Vernon Parish schools and Fort Polk have their way, educators like Watson and parents like Brooks will attend many more Education Symposiums, where momentum, partnerships and insight keep education traveling the road from "good to great", said Mike Reese, chairman of Fort Polk Progress and master of ceremonies for the symposium. "We hope to be coming back to you often to report the progress of our action plan," he said.