Lengthy separations from a parent serving in the military. Heightened anxiety about the safety of their mom or dad in uniform. Frequent moves from one town to the next and leaving familiar things behind. Overlaps in school curriculum and graduation requirement differences. Watching a military parent return home with an injury, or an invisible one like depression or post-traumatic stress. The grief of losing loved ones in combat. These are some of the realities that take a toll on young military hearts every day.
Navigating these challenges takes a village. Some Missouri schools have joined forces with families in the Armed Services to help provide military students with a softer academic landing.
Dr. Blaine Henningsen is the assistant commissioner in the Office of College and Career Readiness at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He tells Missourinet the school districts near the state’s two active-duty bases – Fort Leonard Wood in Waynesville and Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster and Warrensburg – are especially committed to the state’s more than 12,000 military kids.
Take Knob Noster, for instance. It has a feature smack dab on the home page of its website detailing its commitment to the military student population.
“With two out of every three Knob Noster students being military-connected, we understand the challenges of military children and families that result from frequent PCS assignments and deployments. The education of all students is very important to us and our team is committed to facilitating your transition into our schools in a welcoming, supportive, and positive manner. Once enrolled, we are dedicated to providing excellent, personalized learning and leadership opportunities for your children,” the page says. “For 2016 and 2017, Knob Noster Public Schools received the highest Annual Performance Report from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of all school districts in the region. In 2017, Knob Noster Public Schools also produced the top Advanced Placement Qualifying Scores in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math of all high schools across Global Strike Command.”
Global Strike Command is a U.S. Air Force command in charge of America’s nuclear weapons arsenals. It includes the storage of weapons and weapons systems delivery.
Liz Clark serves as Whiteman Air Force Base’s school liaison for 19 Missouri public school districts in the Knob Noster area and all the way up to the Jackson County region. She tells Missourinet many programs are in place to help these families at home and at school.
“If the family is under stress, the active-duty member can’t do the mission,” Clark says. “We want to help make sure the family is as prepared as possible with every resource they can have so that when it comes time for deployment or when it comes time to PCS, which is changing from one base to another, that they’re ready.”
She says the base works one-on-one with families transitioning from other bases, for deployment reasons, and for other events. It holds camps for kids, team-building workshops, and helps students apply for college scholarships. Operation Homefront hooks up each military student with a free backpack annually.
Clark says the base works closely with the military life counselors in school districts. There is a peer-to-peer program in the schools, essentially a buddy system, to pair up a new student with a student that has been around for a while. The base also works closely with the Exceptional Family Member Program to help connect family members with special needs and get them support services.
She says new initiatives and options happen frequently, like virtual services, grant opportunities, and STEM programs for math and science lovers.
Clark says the programs have been very beneficial.
“The military member, of course, is who signs up. It’s the whole family unit that is really serving,” she says.
The state plans to launch a Purple Star School Program in August to showcase schools who are going above and beyond the call of duty to support Missouri’s military kids. The Military Child Education Coalition says nine other states have similar programs and when Missouri launches one, there will be 10. Henningsen says the program is an effort that has been in the works for a couple years.
“I think the various branches of the military are really taking a long, hard look at the communities where their bases are located and they are looking at the quality of life situations that those communities offer. We think Missouri is in a good place, says Henningsen. “When we work with our economic development people around the state, they have really emphasized the importance of these military bases, not only in terms of the jobs and the economic impact they have on their local communities, but all around the state because there are lots of supporting industries and businesses. What we are seeing here is when we have these thousands of military personnel deployed to Fort Leonard Wood or Whiteman Air Force Base, at the time of their leaving military service, we’re seeing many of those move back to other areas of the United States. But we want them to know how important they are to us and we want them to really consider Missouri as a place to live, work, and to raise their families after their military service.”
Joe Driskill, the executive director of the Missouri Office of Military Advocate, says U.S. Department of Defense information updated this year shows Missouri has a total of roughly 43,000 members in military uniform and service civilians.
The program requirements are a work in progress but Henningsen says they are expected to include a designated military family liaison, professional development for teachers to help these students, and various military family recognition efforts.
“I think this Purple Star Program will show military families, when they move into these new communities, that they have a friend here in the local communities and that they have someone to go to,” he says.
According to the Military Child Education Coalition, a military-connected child can expect to move six to nine times from kindergarten through their high school graduation, with approximately 200,000 students transitioning to a new school in any given year. It says about 80% of America’s military kids attend public schools. Schools are often a source of stability for these students.
“The physical, social and emotional well-being of military children is essential not only to that student’s success in the classroom, but also the success of their family who have dedicated their lives to serving our country,” Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said in a press release.
Gov. Mike Parson, a U.S. Army veteran, has proclaimed April as the Month of the Military Child. He wants to pay tribute to Missouri’s military children for their commitment and sacrifice as they support their family members who have sworn to serve and protect our country.
“When parents serve our country, their kids serve too,” he said in a press release.
Parson has designated today as “Purple Up Day” – a day to encourage Missouri businesses and citizens to wear purple and hang purple ribbons to show support for military children. The color purple represents all branches of the military; it is the combination of each of their respective colors combined into one. The Missouri Capitol dome and Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City will also be shining the color purple tonight.
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