Military kids need strong `school connectedness'

Communication and a good environment are keys to helping students adjust and easing difficult transitions, a Johns Hopkins study says


Washington -- For most students, first-day-of-school jitters only come once a year, but for children in military families the first day at a new school can happen more frequently and often in the middle of the year, bringing with it a host of challenges.

Creating a school environment that fosters strong connections for new students is the key to easing that transition, according to a study released this week by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. Robert Blum, chairman of Johns Hopkins' Department of Population and Family Health Sciences and lead researcher on the study, said many school administrators don't want to treat military children differently from other students because "it will make them feel singled out.

"But they are singled out," he said. "To not acknowledge that difference is to ignore that they have special circumstances."

The study, funded by the Department of Defense, stresses the importance of "school connectedness" for military children with both their academic and social needs. Students from military families often move 10 or more times before high school graduation, which can create many unique challenges, from difficulty making friends to changes in graduation requirements.

The report outlines a variety of recommendations for strengthening the connection students feel to their new school. At the top of the list are creating strong teacher-student relationships, setting high expectations in the classroom and ensuring a physically and emotionally safe environment.

"Schools are second only to parents in protecting kids from negative outcomes," said Blum. "When you're as mobile as these kids are, unless you adopt special strategies, these kids are always going to be on the periphery."

In Maryland, more than 20,000 students from military families are in public schools, Blum said.

About 100 of those live at Andrews Air Force Base and attend Stephen Decatur Middle School in Clinton, where many of the report's recommendations are in place.

Communication is key, said Decatur Principal Rudolph Saunders, which is why Andrews employs a school liaison to help incoming pupils and parents with the transition. The liaison helps with things such as figuring out what school bus to take and setting up meetings with teachers.

"That, I think, makes a big difference - that communication system," Saunders said.

Flexibility is another issue for school administrators and teachers, who are often dealing with students with one or both parents in harm's way.

For example, many schools have strict no-cell-phone rules, but, "If you have a parent in Iraq, and you don't know when that parent's going to have a chance to call you, you're not going to turn off your cell phone," Blum said.

Saunders works with parents on a case-by-case basis when such situations arise.

"They shouldn't be concerned, in addition to everything else, that this would mean another disruption," he said.

Making friends is another major concern for students at a new school.

"Probably the biggest deterrent they have is they get on their bus and they go someplace else, whereas the other kids live right here," Saunders said. "That's probably the biggest segregation. I don't know how much they socialize after hours."

To ease the potential for isolation, Saunders made sure that buses for after-school activities included stops at the base so pupils could participate in sports and other events.

The results and recommendations of the study will be sent to every school with military students, along with every superintendent in the nation. While the study focuses on military children, said Blum, the recommendations can be transferred to any high-mobility group.

"Our educational system is based on an assumption from the early 1900s that you grow up, live and graduate in the town where you were born," said Blum. "But increasingly Americans, for a variety of reasons, are on the move. Military kids highlight a set of issues that are relevant to all kids."

Katie Wilmeth writes for the Capital News Service.

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