- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

Erin Klein, who spent a portion of her childhood in Northern Virginia, easily recalls the discomfort of sitting by herself in the school cafeteria.
Ms. Klein , now 20 and visiting with her family at their Woodbridge, Va., home, faced that situation repeatedly during her school days. Being in a military family meant any town wouldn't be home for long, and new friends had to be made over and over again.
Her education also stood on shifting ground. Every move forced her to learn a new school system, grapple with a new curriculum or measure up to a new standard for which she might not be prepared.
Thanks to understanding teachers and her determined nature, Ms. Klein navigated her way through a maze of schools and now is studying at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.
Others in her situation may not fare as well. The mobile student, whether perpetually displaced for military or economic reasons, faces an array of complications on the road to a high school diploma.
Military children are obvious examples of transient students. But Keith Gayler, associate director of the District's Center on Educational Policy, says others face frequent movement.
"Poor students have mobility rates of about 50 percent or more," says Mr. Gayler, whose group serves as an advocate for better public schools. "Some schools I've been to had 120 percent turnover. Kids came in once in the middle of the year and left later on."
Even students who move to a school in the same district as the school they just left might find themselves studying a different section of the textbook.
The problem intensifies in cities such as the District, which borders two states.
"In large urban areas, students move across state lines with regularity," he says. Different states typically have their own educational standards.
Ms. Klein remembers moving every two or three years, a shifting landscape that didn't affect her so much during her elementary school years.
"After middle school, the moving got harder," she says. She hit a rough patch when she moved to New Mexico to start eighth grade. "I didn't know anybody. Everybody else knew everybody."
Scholastically, Ms. Klein enjoyed a few advantages that helped her overcome the initial turbulence. Teachers, in general, were patient while she caught up with her new fellow students. And instructors in Virginia, where she spent some of her childhood, understood the needs of mobile students because of the presence of military bases like Fort Lee.
Mary Keller, executive director for the Military Child Education Coalition, based in Harker Heights, Texas, says a military child, on average, attends six to nine schools, which is 30 percent more than the typical child attends.
"Military children serve, too," says Mrs. Keller, whose group supports schools and military installations in helping all transient students.
The concern is greater now than in years past.
"There are more married military families with children than at any other time," she says.
The coalition's research found that mathematics courses, which often are taught in a specific sequence, prove the hardest for military students to conquer. Reading, particularly for younger students, is another tough subject since schools may have different reading philosophies and development programs. Even physical education classes can cause problems when districts decide what classes will and won't transfer.
Despite that, Mrs. Keller's group reports that military children eventually adjust, often with high grades.
"We do know that military children do as well, or better than, other students [in school], even when you adjust for poverty," she says.
The military has made modest changes in recent years to protect children, such as a policy allowing parents to ask for a delay in reassignment if they have a child entering senior year.
"They can apply to stay in that location one more year until they graduate," she says. The services also try, when possible, to concentrate personnel moves during the summer.
That said, even a child's paperwork can be frustrating for parents who frequently move. Records can take four to six weeks to move from one school to another, she says.
"This is especially amplified if the student has special needs, or is in a program that is a prerequisite to an AP (advanced placement) program," she says.
Some districts that routinely deal with military children help in ways such as accepting hand-carried records for placement purposes, she says.
And not all records read alike. Student transcripts, like the lesson plans themselves, vary from state to state. Even the abbreviated course listings can be tricky to unravel.
"We found 64 different ways that 'Algebra 1' was listed," Mrs. Keller says. Some courses were for eighth-graders while others were for honors students.
Patrick Bingham, principal of David A. Harrison Elementary School in Prince George County, which is south of Richmond, grew up as a self-described "military brat." Mr. Bingham, who has two children, says he was able to give his own children a more stable life by remaining around the District while his wife, also in the military, made occasional moves nationwide.
Still, his background shapes how his school assists military children. Mobile students are assigned "buddies," fellow classmates who can show them the school and help with assignments, if needed. The bonds also can begin potential friendships.
While military personnel are used to structured movement in their careers, children don't have that luxury, he says.
"It's much more challenging than adults realize," he says. "There's often times lots of lip service to make sure kids are taken care of, but the needs of the military come first."
Children can be resilient, he says, "but are there scars left behind? You never know."
Tutors can bridge any gaps formed by the constant movement, but all agree that diligent parents are the secret to a glowing report card.
Mrs. Keller advises parents to get copies of their children's transcripts and find out as soon as possible which new textbooks will be in use at the new school. Parents also can visit her group's Web site, www.militarychild.org, to explore its Assessment Center link. The resource features information on all 50 states, covering the various rules and regulations each state has for its students.
School districts such as Prince George County's accept a disproportionate number of children from military families, given its proximity to Fort Lee.
Because of that disparity, Dorothea Shannon, the district's superintendent, says school administrators meet at least four times a year with military officials to keep tabs on the educational needs of military children.
"Military personnel work with principals and counselors to help us understand the impact of sudden moves," Mrs. Shannon says.
Among the topics discussed is what a rapid deployment will mean to military children, particularly now with a war with Iraq a distinct possibility.
Mobile students have to worry not only about their work piling up, but also about fitting in at their new schools.
Ms. Klein says they can take an active approach to their social lives by joining after-school clubs.
"It's a great way to make friends," says Ms. Klein, who joined school choirs and sports clubs during her school days.
Every time she moved, she mentally prepared for the new school, in part, by exploring what groups she could join.
"You know you're going to make friends, eventually," she says.


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