Melissa Helmick was an Army wife for 37 years, moving more than 20 times across the country and around the world. She has worked as an occupational therapist in multiple school systems, served as a member of school improvement committees at various military posts, and she loved being in a classroom as a substitute teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. She’s a member of Military Families for High Standards. Here, she argues that children in military families have an unusual challenge in college preparedness, because they typically have to move from school district to school district without common curriculums and standards. She proposes a solution — the much-debated Common Core — to ensure expectations and requirements are consistent state to state. — Susan Svrluga
When my daughter graduated Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School in 2009, it was the capstone to a K-12 education that took her to nine different schools.
She was a senior at Washington-Lee and had her freshman year there, as well. In between, she attended school in Vicenza, Italy, at a Department of Defense Education Activity high school on the military post.
Like so many U.S. military families, mine was mobile through my husband’s 37-year service in the Army. My children quickly learned that “putting down roots” was a relative term. We moved every two to three years to a different part of the country or another continent, a pace that presented challenges as my children navigated new school systems while (we hoped) gathering sufficient knowledge and ability to succeed in college.
Our story is repeated across the military. Over one million school-age children have at least one parent serving on active duty. The overwhelming majority of military-connected children attend traditional U.S. public schools, with a small percentage attending schools run by the Department of Defense Education Activity. For military families, adjusting to the varying quality of state education standards and effectiveness of schools from locale to locale is something they deal with regularly.
Getting a child college ready is a prime mission for any parent, but it is made more difficult for military parents due to the mobility and inconsistent schooling. Military parents often work closely with school liaison officers provided at local military bases. But these officials can’t help a military family overcome a school system that has mediocre performance.
That’s why military families have responded with a new nationwide effort to ensure high K-12 education standards in schools in and around military installations, and to ensure that military kids are properly prepared for higher education.
Military Families for High Standards brings together the spouses and family members of active-duty and former service members. The group alerts policymakers about why military-connected kids are particularly vulnerable to standards that are inconsistent from base community to base community and is working to implement high standards that ensure our kids are skilled enough to tackle college, if that is their choice.
In my own experience, when we moved from Vicenza to Arlington for my daughter’s senior year, it was difficult to discern whether the curriculum of her sophomore and junior years had adequately prepared her for her senior year stateside, much less prepared her for college.
And I say that even as an educational insider as an occupational therapist registered in multiple school systems and as a substitute teacher.
The answer for military-connected kids — and for civilian kids alike — is high and measurable academic standards that are clear and consistent from state to state, standards such as the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core outlines the skills and concepts students should master in math and language arts from kindergarten through the end of high school.
Importantly, Common Core doesn’t set curriculums — schools and school districts maintain control and design their own curriculums and lessons.
More than 40 states, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted Common Core, and military families are banding together to ensure that they are actually implemented.
When I speak with young military families with children just entering school, the concern is etched on their faces. In addition to worrying over the safety of the parent serving the nation, they struggle with a nomadic way of life and educational uncertainty. Some ask: “Am I shortchanging my children? Will my kids be ready for college with all the moves?”
Worry over a child’s education is universal to both civilian and military families. An American parent, whether he or she wears the uniform, has no greater responsibility than instilling a love of learning and setting the conditions by which a child can launch into the world — poised for college or directly into the workforce.
Challenging education standards like the Common Core reassure parents that no matter the time zone or area code, their child is being provided with the tools to succeed.