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'Army Brats' Get School Continuity

Military: Service moves to smooth out the disjointed educational maze faced by soldiers' uprooted children.

July 05, 2001|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Ashley Nicole Bianchi entered Leilehua High School in Hawaii, she quickly established herself as the kind of successful, broad-gauge kid that colleges yearn for--an A-student, a competitive swimmer and a future leader in the marching band.

But by the time she graduated from Mount Vernon High School in suburban Washington last spring, Bianchi was struggling to hold a B average. She had given up swim team. Her dreams of leadership in the band had been abandoned. So had membership in the National Honor Society, extra credit from honors courses and other hallmarks of academic excellence.

Ashley's problem was not a learning disability. Not a medical catastrophe. Not poverty or discrimination. She was just, in her words, "an Army brat."

That is, she was one of half a million school-age youngsters whose educations and future opportunities are often hampered by the mere fact that their parents, as members of the armed forces, move a lot more often than most Americans.

Today, the Army will unveil what it sees as a landmark step toward reducing the resulting problems and their effect on young people. Base commanders and civilian officials in nine school districts that serve large numbers of military dependents have signed a first-ever agreement to seek changes in policies and procedures that may hinder transferring students.

Because of red tape, varying academic yardsticks, differences in schedules and curriculum sequences, uncooperative officials and other factors, students who change schools frequently can pay a little-noticed but surprisingly high price for that mobility, no matter what their parents' occupations may be.

The problem is that children connected to the armed forces are three times more likely to change schools than other students. Many move 10 times or more before college, as many as two or three times in high school alone.

The result can be lower grade point averages and lost chances to take honors courses or succeed in social, athletic and extracurricular activities. Similarly, learning-disabled students may find their new school system unwilling to credit their past work or follow through on personal learning programs that were designed elsewhere.

Initially, the new agreement will involve schools serving Ft. Benning, Ga.; Ft. Bliss and Ft. Hood in Texas; Ft. Bragg, N.C.; Ft. Campbell, Ky.; Ft. Lewis, Wash.; Ft. Sill, Okla.; and bases in Germany and South Korea. Eventually, the Army hopes to extend the program to other areas, and the other services may increase their own efforts to deal with the problem.

The plan will "enhance the quality of life for our soldiers and their families," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki. "We want to ensure that no Army child is left behind."

The Army's effort has practical as well as altruistic roots: Like the other armed services, it faces increasing difficulty retaining qualified officers and enlisted personnel. Paying more attention to quality-of-life issues such as education has become critical to recruitment and retention.

"You lose a good soldier who, if you had spent just a little time [on support services], might have stayed in--that costs money. It's tied to budget dollars," said Patrick Jenkins, a retired Army colonel and defense consultant who has observed a sharp rise in the armed forces' concern for family-related issues in recent years.

Jenkins, who made 18 military-related moves in a 22-year career, learned firsthand that frequent transfers pose problems for students at all ability levels. His family faced continual challenges for both of their two children but especially for their youngest son, Andrew, now 17, who is learning disabled.

"Andy has been on an individual instruction plan since second grade. So every place we've gone, we've had to go through this learning process about what the standards were and what they'd give us," Jenkins said.

Last fall, when he moved to Robins, Ga., under contract to work for the Defense Department, local school officials refused to accept Andrew's credits from a Washington-area school. "They just said it's our way or no way," Jenkins said.

Faced with the prospect that Andrew--then a junior in high school--would be moved back at least a full year or shifted onto a vocational track, Jenkins elected to quit his job and returned to Washington and Andrew's old school.

"I took a 14% pay cut and don't regret it a bit," Jenkins said.

To be sure, students with exceptional drive and talent find ways to surmount many of the problems, but even they pay a price at the margins--not because their parents are in the military, but because of what comes with moving so often. And students with fewer resources may face harder consequences.

While educational disruptions are a problem for all children whose parents move, military-connected students are affected disproportionately. For them, the problems are also more likely to continue into high school, which experts consider especially serious.

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