By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffApril 2, 2009
During her husband's 36-year career in the Army, Nancy Jones moved her family - including three school-age daughters -- more than 20 times.
Jones and her husband, retired Lt. Gen. Tony Jones, are now settled in Huntsville. But during their military years, their mobile lifestyle meant each daughter shared in at least 17 family moves. Between them, the girls enrolled in 33 different schools during their school-age years.
A teacher by profession, Jones was able to advocate for her daughters, helping their school administrators, counselors and teachers understand the challenges that military children endure when they are affected by mobility, family separation and transition. But, for most military families, knowing how and when to advocate for their children can be confusing, difficult and intimidating.
"Young Soldiers may not have had a good school experience themselves. Or, as young parents, they may not know how to go about having a school conference with their children's teacher," Jones said. "We need to train military parents to be advocates for their children."
The Military Child Education Coalition was formed 11 years ago at Fort Hood, Texas, to do just that. Today, the coalition is a worldwide, all-military organization working to increase awareness of the challenges faced by nearly 2 million military-connected children and to implement educational programs to meet these challenges. Its 2,000 volunteers work with a staff of 14 to make a difference in the lives of military children across the globe.
"Only 10 to 15 percent of military children are in DoD schools. Most are in the community going to public schools," said Jones, who is MCEC's project assistant for partnership and development, and who represents MCEC in Huntsville.
"If you raise funds to send a child to camp, then you've helped one child, and that's good. But if you educate a counselor, there's no telling how many children you can help. So that's why we're focused on professional development activities for counselors, administrators and teachers."
Locally, MCEC is known for its Student-2-Student program at Columbia High School, where the student-led program is a support group for military-connected students transitioning to and from the school. MCEC has also recently been involved with the Transition Counselor Institute on Redstone Arsenal designed to teach counselors about the impact of transitions on the military-connected child. But there are many other MCEC programs that Jones hopes to see implemented in Madison County and, eventually, in North Alabama. MCEC also offers several information resources to military families.
"There is a great opportunity to make a difference here with our programs," Jones said. "Even though there is not a large military population, there are many National Guard and Reserve Soldiers here and we have DoD civilians coming in here with BRAC whose children can also take advantage of our programs. If we can get the program strong here, it will help with transitions associated with BRAC."
To raise funds for its nationwide and local efforts, MCEC is sponsoring its first local golf classic at The Ledges in Huntsville on April 20. Retired Gen. Tom Schwartz, MCEC chairman, will attend the golf classic as will local dignitaries, including AMCOM and Redstone Arsenal commander Maj. Gen. Jim Myles, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison Mayor Paul Finley.
"All the programs we are trying to bring in here are very expensive," Jones said. "We want to provide free professional development classes to anyone - counselors, first responders, school nurses, administrators - who want to affect the lives of military kids.
"It is so important that we find ways to help parents and administrators address the issues of military children. The education of military children is affected by moves and transitions and deployments. Different school systems have different standards. There are also social issues associated with every move. Then there are also other issues faced by special needs children or gifted and talented children who have military parents."
On the educational level, military children must deal with things like transitions between high schools on a block schedule versus a standard seven-period schedule, the differing expectations of teachers from school to school, different subject matter instruction in the classroom, and the wide range in high school graduation requirements and testing.
On an emotional and social level, military children must learn to fit in to different school environments, must leave old friends and make new friends, and must find ways to continue extracurricular activities while moving from school to school.
"There are different rules and different standards at every school," Jones said. "There are different social organizations, and teachers and coaches. A teenage boy may have been the star quarterback at one school. But when he moves he may be at a school that has one or more established quarterbacks and there may not be anywhere for him on the football team. That is a tough transition."
One student whose case Jones is familiar with moved to Huntsville from New York during his senior year. Yet, based on Alabama standards, he would not have had enough credits to graduate from high school at the end of that year. Arrangements were made with the help of MCEC so that the student can live in Huntsville with his family but graduate from high school in New York.
"We have to get counselors to understand how hard it is for students to make a transition," Jones said. "We've also got to train parents to advocate for their children."
The challenges faced by military children are amplified in today's society by the growing number of young military families, the nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deployment of National Guard and Reserve Soldiers. Of the nearly 2 million military children, 75 percent are under the age of 12 and 40 percent are under the age of 8, and most of those children will move six to nine times while one of their parents is in the military. About 700,000 of those children have had a parent deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"When you talk about kids who are 6 or 7 years old, they have only lived in a world when war is going on and they have a family member that is deployed," Jones said. "And it's not just one or two deployments. We're talking three, four, five deployments. And when those parents come back, they are different. We are trying to get school counselors to be sensitive to the issues of a deployment and a return."
In addition, there are many children of National Guard and Reserve Soldiers who are "suddenly military" because of a deployment.
"Teachers might not even know what's going on in the lives of these children," Jones said. "We had one little girl who always went to school looking perfect and in every way she was the best student. But her teacher noticed that she started coming to school with the hair on the back of her head all matted.
"In every way, the girl was doing well, but her hair was matted. The teacher noticed and with the help of the counselor they learned that the father had been deployed and the mother was so depressed she couldn't get out of bed. The little girl was doing her best. The teacher and counselor worked together to get the mother the help she needed."
MCEC offers 20 programs to support military children and their parents. One of its newest programs - Living in the New Normal -- deals with issues during and after a deployment.
"This program is supporting children through what is going on in the world now, the new normal," Jones said. "Parents deploy, and they come back with head trauma or a missing limb. Or they are killed. Military children need a support network to get through these kinds of things. Everything we do is research based and is there to build a network of support for the child."
Besides Student-2-Student, MCEC also has a Parent-2-Parent program that is an information resource for military families. MCEC also offers an Education Resource Center that provides information on school requirements in all 50 states, an arts program that features the art of military children, an early literacy program for children from birth to second grade, Space Camp scholarships, a Junior Student-2-Student to develop a student-led support group in middle schools, an Interactive Counseling Center that provides online help with relocating to a new school, "Tell Me A Story," an empowerment program the uses literature and encourages military children to tell their own stories, and other programs.
Throughout the community, MCEC works with coalition partners that support military children. MCEC provides a handbook for Garrison commanders and a reference guide for school superintendents that includes ideas for providing support to military children. And MCEC has a partnership with Sesame Street to provide a "Talk, Listen, Connect" outreach effort for military families and young children.
"We have to be proactive in helping the children," Jones said. "I know how valuable it is to be involved with your children because of the issues I faced with my three daughters. MCEC is an organization that will advocate for military children and their parents during frequent moves, deployments and difficult times."