Monday, April 22, 2013

The Challenges and Rewards of Leading a Military-Impacted School

I attended a high school where about 25% of the students were military dependents.  When I started teaching, about half of my years were spent on a military base, working with students from military families.  However, I never realized the full impact of the challenges these families face as well as their resiliency to deal with these challenges until I became the principal of a military-impacted school.

I have been the principal of Hale Kula for over ten years. Back in February 2003 when I was first appointed, we had a student population of about 450 students.  Today, we more than doubled that number with our student enrollment fluctuating between 950 and 1,050 students this school year. The change in the number of students has much to do with the privatization of housing on military bases and the high occupancy rate because of these beautiful new homes.  As the principal of a school with 99% military dependents, the way we do things, our culture, is different from that of a "local" school.

I recently read an article in an issue of "Principal" magazine titled "Helping Military Children Feel 'At Ease'"  Few people realize that the military is a culture, and students face unique challenges as a result of being a military dependent.  Moving to Hawaii can be exciting, but it can add to the stresses which families face; being so far away from extended family and other systems of support.

Transitions are a major challenge for some military-impacted students.  Our students might attend three different schools in one year, and possibly many more before graduating from high school. Because the Schofield Inn is within our school's geographical boundaries, we have a high number of transitions each school year. Students are enrolled when they are at the Schofield Inn, but unfortunately, once a family is assigned permanent housing, the student may have to leave our school if they will not be living in our area.  Imagine having to be the "new kid in the class" several times in a school year.  It takes a student with confidence and resiliency to be able to make the adjustment each time he/she is enrolled in a new school.

Oftentimes, the curriculum and the school rules and procedures are different, and when a child moves in the middle of the year, adjusting can be a challenge. We have had students enroll after being out of school for several months because they were visiting family on the way to Hawaii.  As a result, military students can have gaps in their learning and may have missed important instruction which can impact their learning.  Unless the teacher is cognizant of these gaps, the student may go through the rest of the year without learning something which is an important foundational skill not just for that school year, but in future years as well.

When I became the principal ten years ago, our families did not have to worry about deployments.  Then things changed in the Middle East.  The first deployment took place nearly nine years ago, and after that, a significant percentage of our students were experiencing the challenges of dealing with a parent who was away from the family, in harm's way. Some families faced multiple deployments while they were attending our school.  The challenges of deployment didn't necessarily end when a parent returned home.  Families had to readjust to having a parent back home, and sometimes, the parent changed after experiencing trauma during the deployment.   Some students and families deal with deployment challenges positively while others have great difficulty.  

These challenges in military schools need to be addressed, and because we have flexibility over how we spend the funds allocated to us, we have been able to create positions at Hale Kula to address some of these issues.  For example, we have four counselors as well as a School-Based Behavioral Health Therapist.   They provide essential supports for students who may be experiencing difficulties which are impacting their success in school.  Our Transition Center Coordinator greets all new families to share information about our school and our policies prior to the child's first day.  Additionally, the Transition Coordinator checks on new students to ensure that he/she is adjusting to their new school.  Our Primary School Adjustment Project  Child Associate works with younger students who may be experiencing problems with adjustment which includes deployment or a new school.  We are also fortunate to have the support of the US Army Garrison Hawaii through their Army School Liaison Officers as well as a partnership with Tripler Army Medical Center which provides support through their School Mental Health Team. Our school staff works closely with District support personnel as well as the Tripler team to ensure that programs and supports are in place to ensure the success of all students and their families.

The "At Ease" article shared suggestions for schools which can have a positive impact on military students and their families.  Perhaps the most important support, however, comes from the teacher in the classroom.  Our teachers are a special group; they deal with transitioning students (sometimes several a week); they provide interventions for students who may enter their classroom with significant learning gaps, and they deal with deployment challenges which may affect a student's behavior and academics in the classroom.  Parents have shared that they appreciate the support from their child's teacher or from another adult in the school.

It is equally important, though, to address the needs of the families.  As a school, we made it a priority to plan activities for families so they can connect with other families - activities such as after-school parent-child workshops, Book Fair Family Events, parenting trainings, or student performances.  Additionally, we have been communicating with parents through social media as well as a weekly blog and our school website.  Parents appreciate being updated about what's going on in school and being able to communicate with the school via technology especially when there is only one adult at home.

I am proud of our school and the supports and services we provide for our military students and their families. Our goal is to ensure the success of every student and to provide them with the tools to be independent and to be responsible for their own learning and individual growth.  This means that we need to be aware of the military culture and addressing the challenges of our students and their families.

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