Meaningful Support for Students of Military Families

I am constantly amazed by students from military-connected families. Due to their parents' service, school-aged children in military families move to a new state or town, on average, six to nine times--that's three times more often than most American families. From school to school, these students must navigate inconsistent learning standards, new environments, disrupted classroom time and academic stress, all while making new friends and trying to discover their sense of self. Unfortunately, for many students, these shake-ups can have a lasting, life-altering impact that reaches through high school graduation and beyond.

Nearly two million students in the U.S. have at least one parent serving in our nation's Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard. And yet somehow, as a nation, we are falling short of addressing the unique needs of these students.

One of the most meaningful ways we can support military families is to rally behind programs and policies that prepare military-connected kids to thrive.

Fortunately, successful models for supporting military-connected students are emerging. For many of us, these structural and cultural shifts begin in our own communities, and we all play an important role. Here are critical next steps the education community must take to support military students effectively:

Policymakers: Prioritize military-connected students in education policies and discourse. Just as we devote critical resources to supporting students from low-income families, English language learners and students with disabilities, we must also dedicate resources and policies to supporting students in military families. Not all students in this community have the same journey, and the necessary supports will differ across states and districts, but we must begin by rethinking the way we support military-connected students on a broader scale. Following the leadership of the Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission (MIC3) and Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) on these critical matters is paramount for all state policymakers.

Advocates: Enhance your mission by partnering with military-connected organizations. Here at the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), we partner with the national Joining Forces initiative calling on all Americans to support service members, veterans and their families through wellness, education and employment opportunities. The partnership helps extend NMSI's proven College Readiness Program (CRP) to military-connected schools. This collaboration doesn't just help NMSI achieve its goal to expand student access and success in AP courses to underrepresented communities, it also allows Joining Forces to meet the goals it established when it launched in 2011. Advocacy organizations across education, wellness, equity and workforce development would benefit from this kind of win-win collaboration with organizations and agencies such as the Department of Defense, MCEC and the Military Families for High Standards project of the Collaborative for Student Success.

Teachers and community leaders: Be a mentor. Mentors make a tremendous difference in the lives of young people, in particular, who lack stability and consistency in other aspects of their daily lives. Mentors may be teachers, guidance counselors, pastors and athletic coaches. Mentors also expose students to new opportunities and career options, both within and outside of military service. Above all, mentors provide a source of encouragement through what I call "taps on the shoulder." These "taps" remind students that someone is in their corner and encourage students to reach higher than they ever thought possible.

School administrators: Raise the bar. When students are held to higher expectations, they rise to the challenge. Supporting students in rigorous coursework such as Advanced Placement® (AP®) better prepares them for college and career. NMSI's CRP, which partners with schools to equip teachers and students with the resources and support they need to succeed in these college-level classes, is reaching more than 175,000 students in 117 military-connected schools nationwide, and is expanding to reach 200 schools in the next two years. In just one year, students in NMSI's military-connected partner schools show an 87 percent increase in qualifying AP math and science exam scores--more than 11 times the national average of 7.7 percent.

I think about high school junior Eric Cleckner from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, whose father, now a retired Major, served in the Army Special Forces and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Eric has lived in five states and attended four different schools since he was a kid. "It's hard to know where other students are at when you start somewhere new," he said. Fortunately, he now calls Ocean Springs High School, a NMSI partner, the best school experience he's ever had due to the support he receives from his teachers and district. Through CRP, he discovered his passion for environmental science after enrolling in AP and thriving in it. Eric plans to study physics and environmental science in college after he graduates next year.

Keep in mind, we have a responsibility to serve the children of those who serve us on behalf of freedom and safety. We cannot solve the problem of mobility, but we can ensure every military-connected student can succeed in college and career.