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Peripatetic Students Thrive At Department of Defense Schools

NPR
Fort Bragg, NC | January 1, 2015

The Pentagon runs a school district that spans the globe, with more than 82,000 students. By many measures it's very successful. The students perform well academically despite moving around a lot.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All this week, we're hearing about our nation's 2 million military children, children of military families. They are children like 10-year-old Ayssis Longoria. Her father has been deployed to Iraq twice. Ayssis is 1 of approximately 82,000 children attending Department of Defense schools. There are 180 of these schools around the world that report to the Pentagon, not the Department of Education. WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza takes us inside.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Ayssis Longoria is a fourth grader at Irwin Intermediate, a Department of Defense school at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. She wears a bright, yellow hair band and smiles a lot, but that changes when she talks about her father deploying. It's hard to talk about this stuff, so that sound you hear is the rustling of tissues. Ayssis's father, Staff Sergeant Adam Longoria, provided security to convoys in Iraq.

AYSSIS: I'm kind of scared that when he is deployed, he's not going to come back. On his first deployment he got - he came back with this thing we call a daddy bear. It's a bear that has his voice recorded in it. And every time I miss him, I just press the button, and it talks to me.

CARDOZA: What does it say?

AYSSIS: It's just saying how much he loves me and how much he's proud of me and what I've accomplished.

CARDOZA: Ayssis says she missed playing basketball and softball in the yard every evening with him.

AYSSIS: Whenever he was gone, it was hard for me to do my homework because his pictures were everywhere.

CARDOZA: Did you still try?

AYSSIS: I still try to do my homework, and I still manage to get done and get it correct.

CARDOZA: Ayssis isn't alone. The average student at this school has had their parents deploy at least four times in the past decade.

JULIE ALLEN: And subtraction. Make sure you read the...

STUDENTS: Questions.

ALLEN: This is the most compassionate, flexible, wise, worldly group of kids I've ever worked with.

CARDOZA: Teacher Julie Allen checks in with her 8-year-old students as they rotate through different tables solving math problems. They use blocks, computers, even a board game.

ALLEN: Remember you're looking for the largest difference.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Oh.

ALLEN: Can you visualize what a triangle looks like?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I outsmarted the teacher.

ALLEN: (Cheering).

CARDOZA: On the latest national test, DOD students did better on average than those in public schools on both reading and math for fourth and eighth graders. Those results are even more striking when you can consider that approximately a third of military children move every year, and 45 percent of students in DOD schools in the U.S. are low-income.

So how do they do it? Student success often starts with strong, effective teachers, but as a journalist who covers urban education, I was surprised that of the 50 teachers in this school only 1 is new. I was even more surprised Julie Allen doesn't consider herself a veteran teacher.

ALLEN: I've worked with different student populations, you know, only eight years.

CARDOZA: Only? You've done eight years which to me is, like, a really long time for a teacher.

ALLEN: OK (laughter).

CARDOZA: But a really long time means something completely different in military schools.

JULIE GIBBONS: My name is Julie Gibbons. I've taught for 19 years.

GRACE MERKEL: I'm Grace Merkel. I have 36 years.

DONNA SCHULAF: I'm Donna Schulaf. This is my 27th year.

CARDOZA: A big reason teachers rarely leave is because the pay and benefits are much better. Deborah Bailey teaches the third grade.

DEBORAH BAILEY: If I went back to the county now, I would take over a $30,000-a-year pay cut. It's probably closer to $40,000.

CARDOZA: The curriculum, textbooks and graduation requirements are the same. Next year, all military schools will adopt the Common Core standards, making it easier for military children who move often. Another reason - they've got money. Principal Ginny Breece says there's also a lot of support in terms of personnel.

GINNY BREECE: I've got two full-time counselors, a full-time nurse. I've got a speech therapist, an occupational therapist. We have 20 percent of kids on special education, and we have a lot of resources to support those kids.

CARDOZA: And these efforts are paying off. The achievement gap between white and black students is significantly lower than the national rate. Experts believe while the military system may not be perfect, it still sets high expectations for everyone.

GINETTE PENA: I'm Ginette Pena.

CARDOZA: Ginette Pena's husband has served for 22 years in the Army. They live on base just so their children can attend Irwin Intermediate, both for the academics and emotional support.

PENA: I have a 12-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old.

CARDOZA: You've got three boys?

PENA: I do. I have three boys.

CARDOZA: Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

PENA: It's always a fun day in our house every - as soon as we walk in. I know my husband - he loves it though. He says he has to stretch before he comes into the house 'cause that's the first thing they do is jump on him.

CARDOZA: Pena says her husband has had multiple deployments and has missed half of his 12-year-old son's birthdays.

PENA: My son said his stomach was hurting, and the teacher said he started laying down a lot of the floor. And I said, yeah, I don't know why he's doing that. Well, come to find out, from the counselor, he was just missing my husband, and he didn't know, I guess, how to say I miss daddy.

CARDOZA: Pena says she reassured her son all the time, but...

PENA: As much as we went through it on a map - this is where daddy is, you know, he's over the Atlantic Ocean, he's over here. He said, daddy's lost. And, you know, that broke - it still hurts because he'll be deploying again.

CARDOZA: He's going to be deploying again?

PENA: Yes, shortly. And it takes a - it takes a toll on families.

CARDOZA: You can find those same pressures at military bases across the country. Quantico base in Virginia is known as the crossroads of the Marine Corps because there are so many military training and educational institutions here. At Quantico Middle/High School, the daily attendance rate is around 94 percent. And Daniel Mulhern, the assistant principal, says discipline issues here are almost nonexistent, in part because in the military, parents can get into trouble if their children misbehave.

DANIEL MULHERN: There's seldom times when I have to call the parents. I always have full support. There's never been a, you're picking on my son or daughter. We got it, Mr. Mulhern, we'll have a discussion with our son or daughter this evening.

CARDOZA: But perhaps the biggest reason many children go to these schools is the sense of belonging and shared experiences that can be hard for them to find in the civilian world. Sixteen-year-old Destiny Oakley is a junior here.

DESTINY: You may have friends who are not military who say, ugh, I don't want to go to my grandma's house for Thanksgiving, and it just almost seems like a pain to them. I don't even remember spending a Thanksgiving with any of my distant family. Sometimes people complain, and you just think to yourself, maybe you shouldn't take it for granted.

CARDOZA: Destiny says maybe military children understand what it means to cherish every moment you do have because you don't know what moments you might not have together. For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

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