FORT BLISS, Texas - Fort Bliss hosted local educators and community leaders for the 21st Partners in Education Program kick-off event held at the Centennial Banquet and Conference Center Sept. 30.
The Fort Bliss School Liaison Office brought together unit and community leaders and educators from partner schools to recognize outstanding partnership success from the previous year, discuss program changes, and allow those present to collaborate on ways to make the partnership successful this year.
The event opened with the Bel Air JROTC Color Guard of Ysleta ISD posting the colors. Jonathan Cash Vazquez, a kindergarten student from Bliss Elementary School, then led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an invocation by Chaplain (Col.) Kevin Wainwright, senior command chaplain, and finally, the National Anthem played by the 1st Armored Division Band.
Brig. Gen. Michael Simmering, deputy commanding general of operations, 1st Armored Division, delivered the opening remarks. He highlighted the challenges the COVID pandemic created for our educators and, more importantly, the students. The aftermath of those challenges has resulted in a drop in student test scores across the country, which for the Army, has resulted in a larger number of individuals who wish to join the armed services but cannot pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery or ASVAB.
“It is extremely important that we have events like this to bring us back to a sense of normal to get the United States back to where it needs to be,” Simmering said. “Even in those challenging times, we have partners who have found ways to provide meaningful support and interaction with their partner campuses and slowly began to re-engage. And the purpose of this kick-off here is we’d like to take it to new heights as we get into the next school year.”
The Partners in Education Program has been active between the Fort Bliss and El Paso communities for 36 years. However, this year Fort Bliss realigned installation units with schools to increase the number of schools that receive partners and maximize the program's potential.
“What it means, from our perspective, is that Fort Bliss, as we come out of this COVID environment and as we wrestle with recruiting challenges in the Army today, we realize that we must do a better job involving all the units on Fort Bliss with as many schools as possible,” Simmering emphasized.
“We think we need to take a more proactive role in our community,” he continued. “We can’t simply support the few schools out there that have large military populations and not allow our Soldiers to be seen by the greater community. We need to be out there with you, the educators on the edge helping make the children of today into the citizens, soldiers, and quite honestly, the leaders that will lead this nation into the future.”
Simmering discussed the fact that the Senior Mission Commander of Fort Bliss Maj. Gen. James Isenhower encourages maximum participation in the PIE Program by units on the installation. The team needs to apply emphasis to academic support to the El Paso and Southern New Mexico campuses by matching skillsets to create deeper connections with the community and provide impactful resources that promote positive student outcomes. He also reaffirmed to the educators in the room Fort Bliss’s commitment to engage with and support them.
“Education is a high priority for Fort Bliss. I know it’s a high priority for every community out there, and we want to work together to make everyone better at the end of the day,” he said as he closed his remarks.
Simmering turned it over to Simone Hendricks of the Fort Bliss School Liaison Office to present the Partnership Awards for the 2021-2022 academic year.
“As you all know, the last three years have been challenging for many campuses, and this also presented a challenge for some of the programs that are so hands-on, like the Partners in Education program. But, what we saw, were partnerships rising to the occasion, and we saw resiliency at its best,” Hendricks said before announcing the awards and winners.
Top Hour Awards – Presented to the units that had the greatest number of hours reported to the School Liaison Office.
2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment, 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade partnered with Morehead Middle School, El Paso ISD
3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade partnered with Charles Middle School, El Paso ISD
86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 11th Corps Signal Brigade partnered with Congressman Silvestre and Carolina Reyes Elementary School, Canutillo ISD
Outstanding Volunteer of the Year – Presented to the individual who made the biggest impact on the unit’s partnership, which had a direct impact on student achievement.
Winner: Staff Sgt. Tyler Burkel – 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade
Outstanding Unit Award – Presented to the unit chosen for the strength of the partnership leading to improvement in student achievement and performance.
Winner: 86th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 11th Corps Signal Brigade
Partnership of the Year Award – Presented to the partnership that traveled the extra mile and made a significant impact in students’ lives throughout a challenging time. This partnership was selected for its strength of reciprocal relationships between the unit and the campus.
Winner: 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade partnership with Charles Middle School
After the awards presentation, Hendricks provided an overview of the PIE Program and guidance to develop goals and standards for successful partnerships. Then, she invited all in attendance to collaborate amongst their partners to discuss ways they can enable their partnerships for the school year for the remainder of the event.
Many of the leaders and teachers who stayed to collaborate felt positively about the event.
“It was great, you can feel a positive vibe in the room, and I think everyone is eager to establish partnerships for the betterment of our kids and the betterment of our community,” said James Vasquez, associate superintendent of Ysleta ISD. “So, there’s a lot of excitement in the room, and you can hear great conversations happening on how we can work together to achieve this.”
Carole Lindsey, the military, parent and family engagement liaison at Montwood Middle School, Socorro ISD, felt it was a wonderful event.
“This was the first time I attended this event. I’m very pleased that our campus is actually receiving a unit. I’m so, so excited,” she said. We have worked with Ms. Simone and her group for several years now and we just got lucky this time, so we’re really happy. It’s beautiful.”
Lindsey shared that this partnership is a stepping-stone for her campus and its students as this will allow Fort Bliss to be less foreign to her students. The partnership will create learning opportunities for those with no military connection. Some of the opportunities she discussed with her partner brigade included having Soldiers come to play basketball with the kids during lunch hours and a PE day for the whole school where the Soldiers introduce some of their physical training requirements.
“Thank you to Fort Bliss, to all of you, to everyone in charge for allowing this to happen and for continuing to support, not just the schools that are close by, but reaching out to the entire community, and we just hope it continues to be a very good partnership,” she said.
Col. Micha Hutchins, commander of the 1st Armored Division Sustainment Brigade, found that his unit has had a long-standing partnership and deep connection to the Paso Del Norte School representative the DSB partners with. Their school representative’s husband was the 377th Transportation Company (Heavy Equipment Transport)’s first sergeant when the unit moved from Germany to Fort Bliss. The brigade’s company had an ongoing partnership with the school before the realignment, so it was a happy coincidence they continue to partner together following the installation’s partner realignment efforts. He thinks the partnership will be good not only for the children but for the Soldiers.
“I think is going to be very helpful not only for the students but also for the Soldiers, you know helping people, just giving back to society,” Hutchins said. I think it will also help with some of our other adjustment challenges that new soldiers have as well, to let them get out, out of uniform and go do something different, and at times help people that don’t have as much as they have, but they don’t realize that. I think that will show them a different side of life and bring some fulfillment to their hearts.”
The DSB is expanding the partnership from one company to all of the companies within their brigade. The leadership plans to support school competitions, including science fairs, debates, sporting events, fairs, or other events that need judges. They also plan to have Soldiers volunteer to tutor and discussing big brother/big sister mentorship opportunities.
Hendricks was pleased with the turnout for the event. She felt it was a great conversation starter and is looking forward to the opportunities.
“The biggest takeaway, I think, is that the schools are really, really excited to have soldiers come out. It is, you know, all of the schools are excited to engage with Fort Bliss in some fashion or another, whether that be an elementary school, middle or high school. So, I think they are thankful for the support, and they understand what a great asset soldier support can be for those schools,” she concluded.