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School Reflects Uncertainties of Sailor Families

February 23, 1986|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Six-year-old Alexia Hill inched up to her first-grade teacher and whispered in her ear: "We don't have to move."

Alexia was wrong. She will probably be in a new school in San Diego, near another Navy station, by next week.

"She has been anticipating this move for two weeks," said teacher Mary Ann Koepp. "Today, when she whispered in my ear, she was saying what she wants to happen. There is an unsettled feeling in these children's lives."

Alexia's whispered hopes and her teacher's reassurance of new friends elsewhere formed a scene that recurs daily at Elizabeth A. Hudson Elementary School in Long Beach, where between 100 and 140 children enroll or check out of school each month.

Such impermanence has been a matter of fact at Hudson since the school was built on the west side, north of the sprawling Savannah and Cabrillo Navy housing projects in 1968. Today, about 850 of Hudson's 1,160 students are from the families of Navy enlisted men.

That makes Hudson different from any other school in Long Beach, said principal Drucilla Grenier.

Unusual Challenges

And it creates unusual challenges and problems: Whole classes turn over during a school year, forcing teachers to be very good and very flexible or they fail; and often, extended sea duty for sailors leaves young families to fend for themselves for months at a time.

"Many of these moms are from small towns and are very young, 18 or 19 or younger," Grenier said. "It takes them a while to get adjusted, and they sometimes vent their frustration on the school. We sit down and they vent. They just need someone to talk to."

When fathers are away on deployment, teachers notice that some kids become angry, fight more and are moody.

"When (a father) first goes, we don't notice it," said Grenier. "But after a little while, when mom gets frustrated and needs relief, we hear it. I've seen real true depression among some of our moms. And boy, it sure changes when dad comes home."

Sometimes, however, a father's return after a long absence creates confusion for the children, who get used to the way their mother runs the home and then have to readjust to their father's wishes.

"Sometimes the only stability these children get is at school," Grenier said.

But Grenier and several teachers said the movement of Navy children every year or two teaches the youngsters how to adapt quickly to change and to be kind to new Hudson arrivals.

"We're always getting new ones, and our children are very understanding," said first-grade teacher Koepp. "They'll say, 'I'll be your best friend today.' We don't have those closed, cliquish groups that come from a stable neighborhood."

And Grenier added: "It's an openness and a lack of sophistication that's really quite lovely to watch. They know the feelings of loneliness."

Teachers also said that most Navy parents provide strong backing for the school. Attendance at Hudson runs at 99%, third highest among Long Beach's 57 elementaries. And discipline problems at school prompt a firm hand at home.

'They Support Homework'

"I have a couple of students in mind whose dads are Navy chiefs," said counselor LaNedra Munson. "We say, 'Would you like to talk to dad about this?' and that's usually very effective."

"Most of our parents," Grenier said, "think education is the one thing that's going to make a difference. They support homework. They want their children to do better than they have done."

That attitude and the talent and stability of Hudson's instructors, several of whom train university students in their classrooms, have produced solid results.

Student scores on state tests of basic skills are above the norm at all grade levels. And several Hudson parents said the school has been a bright spot in their stays in Long Beach.

"We love this school," said Cora Hill, Alexia's mother.

Catherine Antley, mother of five children who have attended Hudson, said: "There's nothing bad I can say about that school. Whenever I've had a problem I've spoken to them about it and it was worked out. They're aware that sometimes the Navy children have a few more problems."

And Capt. Kevin M. Healy, commander of Long Beach Naval Station, said Hudson is a special place. The naval station, in fact, has adopted Hudson, sponsoring special events and programs since last year.

"I get complaints about everything in this job," said Healy, "but I have never once had a complaint about that school."

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