Flying Blind? 3 Tricky Education Challenges (and Solutions!) for a Smooth Landing at Your Military Student’s New School
For a military family with school-aged children, moving and changing schools can feel like flying an airplane blindfolded. An experienced pilot knows the runway is out there somewhere. The pilot trusts skills, instincts and instruments to execute that perfect three-point landing. When it comes to landing at the right school for our kids, military parents know it's out there, too. We have to trust our instincts as parents, our experience in military life, as well as important tools to create a smooth landing in a new academic environment.
Military families who move with school-aged children know how different schools can be from one assignment to the next. Each state, for the most part, manages and controls its own schools, so from funding to curriculum and education standards, a child's academic life can change each time a family moves.
Military-connected students can be affected by any of fifty varying state standards, as well as those of the Department of Defense Education Activity, which runs the schools our kids attend at overseas and some stateside assignments. Within each state, districts and local schools also have their own curricula, academic standards, budgets, placement criteria and more.
With so many variables in play, school changes present hurdles for students in military families, whether they move across the state or around the world. Here are three of the challenges military-connected students face and some tools to create successful landings at each new school:
Challenge 1: The Official Transcript. Parents may not think an official transcript should present a problem; but it can if it's the only information a receiving school has about a new student. The sealed manila envelope handed over when a student withdraws from school may contain only one school's version of a student's education history—possibly only a few flimsy sheets of paper. Schools send what they have at the time of a student's withdrawal, which may be just one year's record of grades. At best, it may also include a reading assessment and maybe the results of a recent standardized test. None of these, together or separately, provides a complete picture of the student's abilities and needs to a new school.
Solution: An Unofficial Transcript. Parents can create their own record of a child's education from kindergarten through high school, an unofficial transcript. In our book Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers, my co-author Amanda Trimillos and I call this an Education Binder and provide complete details about how to build it. An Education Binder is a portable record of the personal and academic history of a military-connected student. The binders I keep for my two children hold their complete educational history compiled and maintained by me, often with help from key educators.
My kids' binders include information about where they excel and where they need improvement, to help a teacher and school meet my children where they are. In my kids' binders, I include things like:
Letters from previous teachers about my kids and their abilities
Work samples that show their strengths and weaknesses
Past report cards and standardized tests to show academic progression
A military student's complicated academic story will never truly be told with an official school transcript. The Education Binder completes the picture and can be presented to the receiving school for enrollment and class placement. This PCS Education Checklist from NMFA is also a great printable resource to help!
Challenge 2: Mismatched Curricula. A major issue facing military students is the mismatched curricula they may face with every move. Some discrepancies are expected with each grade and school change. Repeated school changes over the academic lifetime of a student—six to nine changes, according to DoDEA—means high potential for mismatched curricula and patchwork of content standards. A student in a new classroom may be either ahead or behind in his classmates, or ahead in some subjects and behind in others. All these variables can hamper learning progress. This can create a cumulative effect on a student's education when those discrepancies are not addressed with each move.
Solution: The Parent-Teacher Team. From the first day at a new school, it's important for parents and teachers to become a team of support for a student. Parents can request a meeting with the teacher to discuss the past several schools, standards, strengths and weaknesses. Use the Education Binder you've built for your student as focus of the meeting.
Teachers have twenty or thirty students in each class. Don't let your military student get lost in the crowd. Give new teachers an awareness of your child's academic history so they can provide the best support and the smoothest landing at a new school.
Challenge 3: Assumption. Military families facing school transition may assume a receiving school will take into account a student's past placement in school programs when placing them at a new school. Parents may assume a school or teacher will recognize a student's needs and test and place him appropriately. However, states, school districts and individual schools vary widely in curricula, standards and acceptance. (See Problem 2). Aside from federally supported Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 accommodations, states and school districts set their own policies and standards for services supported, activities offered, and credits accepted.
Solution: Never assume anything. It is up you, the parents to understand the challenges your student may face with any school transition. Do the homework and research new schools. Read the fine print about credit acceptance, special education, testing and placement for gifted or other special programs. Ask for help from the school liaison officer assigned to your military installation to help navigate the differences. Contact the guidance counselor of the receiving school as early as possible to discuss standards, services, and placement. Get any decisions or agreements in writing.
Most importantly, read and know the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children and how to use it. The Compact, effective in all states and DoDEA, was created to offset the academic challenges of military life.
Schools have hundreds or thousands of students, each with their own needs. Military-connected students can get lost in the shuffle at a new school, if parents don't take the initiative to learn the ground rules and help educators understand the unique lives of military-connected students.
Just as a pilot trusts skills, instincts and instruments when making a safe landing, military parents can develop skills, trust their instincts, and use the right the tools to bring their students in for a smooth landing in a new academic environment. The tools and information are available, and there's no reason to fly blind when it comes to school transitions for military-connected students.
What tricky situations have you encountered with your military student? How did you navigate that perfect landing? Share your experiences in the comments!
Posted by Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman, NMFA Volunteer, Air Force spouse, writer, mother, and advocate within the military family community. As a parent-to-parent trainer for the Military Child Education Coalition she leads workshops and seminars on topics related to military-connected students. She is the coauthor with Amanda Trimillos of Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Tips for Parents and Teachers. More information at SeasonsofMyMilitaryStudent.com