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School leaders urging support for keeping children of wounded at Bethesda school

Military families who are part of a wounded warrior program in Bethesda have for years sent their children to nearby Bethesda Elementary School while their injured service members are treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The families would like it to stay that way.

New Montgomery County school attendance zones would assign the children to Rosemary Hills Elementary School for kindergarten to second grade and North Chevy Chase Elementary School for third to sixth grades, a change some say could be a hardship for families already facing enormous stress.

“They would have to get to know two new schools, in addition to the transfers they already have had,” said Horace Franklin, a school liaison officer for Naval Support Activity Bethesda, which houses Walter Reed and the wounded warrior program.

Public support for keeping the children at Bethesda Elementary for kindergarten through fifth grade has been considerable, and the issue has been scheduled for discussion at a public hearing next Tuesday. A school board vote that could change school assignments and allow the Walter Reed families to stay at Bethesda is expected March 24.

“I think this is the humane thing; it’s an act of kindness,” said Board of Education Vice President Patricia O’Neill, advocating during a recent board meeting for keeping the students at Bethesda. O’Neill, who represents the area, said officials need to “do everything we can to provide stability in these children’s lives.”

At any given time, about 12 such students attend Bethesda Elementary. The children attend classes for as little as six weeks or as long as two years as their wounded parents receive care for a range of conditions including the loss of limbs and traumatic brain injuries, Franklin said. The school has been an added layer of support, he said.

“We were just trying to keep it as seamless as possible, with the least possible disruption in the children’s schooling,” Franklin said.

Franklin testified before the school board in November, calling attention to “the littlest warriors” and saying that more consistency in schooling allows a focus on healing. Shortly afterward, the school board approved a school assignment study on the issue, and an advisory committee submitted a report in late January, expressing support for assigning the students to Bethesda Elementary.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr weighed in more recently, saying in a Feb. 24 recommendation that the enrollment impact was minor and the capacity of the school, which is slated for an addition project, was adequate.

Starr and others said they wanted to do what they could for the children involved.

“Anything we can do to lessen the anxiety of those families,” said board member Judith Docca.

The study that sparked the reassignment — examining unusual attendance patterns in several areas — was conducted in 2011, school officials said, leading to changes that took effect last August.

The military children were granted transfers this year, allowing them to attend the Bethesda school. Montgomery school officials said some children also received such transfers in the past when they had been assigned to Rosemary Hills for the early grades, but were allowed to attend Bethesda instead.

Board member Shirley Brandman said at a board meeting last week that the Bethesda school’s history with families is important.

“You develop some sensitivity in the school community, knowing how to interact with the families, being able to provide some support for the students who are in a different position than some of our other students,” Brandman said.

Randi Tercyak, a Bethesda Elementary PTA member, she has heard only positive feelings about the students attending the school.

“It’s nice to be able to include those families,” Tercyak said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.



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