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‘Army Brats’ Get School Continuity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ashley Nicole Bianchi entered Leilehua High School in Hawaii, she quickly established herself as the kind of successful, broad-gauge kid that colleges yearn for--an A-student, a competitive swimmer and a future leader in the marching band.

But by the time she graduated from Mount Vernon High School in suburban Washington last spring, Bianchi was struggling to hold a B average. She had given up swim team. Her dreams of leadership in the band had been abandoned. So had membership in the National Honor Society, extra credit from honors courses and other hallmarks of academic excellence.

Ashley’s problem was not a learning disability. Not a medical catastrophe. Not poverty or discrimination. She was just, in her words, “an Army brat.”

That is, she was one of half a million school-age youngsters whose educations and future opportunities are often hampered by the mere fact that their parents, as members of the armed forces, move a lot more often than most Americans.

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Today, the Army will unveil what it sees as a landmark step toward reducing the resulting problems and their effect on young people. Base commanders and civilian officials in nine school districts that serve large numbers of military dependents have signed a first-ever agreement to seek changes in policies and procedures that may hinder transferring students.

Because of red tape, varying academic yardsticks, differences in schedules and curriculum sequences, uncooperative officials and other factors, students who change schools frequently can pay a little-noticed but surprisingly high price for that mobility, no matter what their parents’ occupations may be.

The problem is that children connected to the armed forces are three times more likely to change schools than other students. Many move 10 times or more before college, as many as two or three times in high school alone.

The result can be lower grade point averages and lost chances to take honors courses or succeed in social, athletic and extracurricular activities. Similarly, learning-disabled students may find their new school system unwilling to credit their past work or follow through on personal learning programs that were designed elsewhere.

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Initially, the new agreement will involve schools serving Ft. Benning, Ga.; Ft. Bliss and Ft. Hood in Texas; Ft. Bragg, N.C.; Ft. Campbell, Ky.; Ft. Lewis, Wash.; Ft. Sill, Okla.; and bases in Germany and South Korea. Eventually, the Army hopes to extend the program to other areas, and the other services may increase their own efforts to deal with the problem.

The plan will “enhance the quality of life for our soldiers and their families,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki. “We want to ensure that no Army child is left behind.”

The Army’s effort has practical as well as altruistic roots: Like the other armed services, it faces increasing difficulty retaining qualified officers and enlisted personnel. Paying more attention to quality-of-life issues such as education has become critical to recruitment and retention.

“You lose a good soldier who, if you had spent just a little time [on support services], might have stayed in--that costs money. It’s tied to budget dollars,” said Patrick Jenkins, a retired Army colonel and defense consultant who has observed a sharp rise in the armed forces’ concern for family-related issues in recent years.

Jenkins, who made 18 military-related moves in a 22-year career, learned firsthand that frequent transfers pose problems for students at all ability levels. His family faced continual challenges for both of their two children but especially for their youngest son, Andrew, now 17, who is learning disabled.

“Andy has been on an individual instruction plan since second grade. So every place we’ve gone, we’ve had to go through this learning process about what the standards were and what they’d give us,” Jenkins said.

Last fall, when he moved to Robins, Ga., under contract to work for the Defense Department, local school officials refused to accept Andrew’s credits from a Washington-area school. “They just said it’s our way or no way,” Jenkins said.

Faced with the prospect that Andrew--then a junior in high school--would be moved back at least a full year or shifted onto a vocational track, Jenkins elected to quit his job and returned to Washington and Andrew’s old school.

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“I took a 14% pay cut and don’t regret it a bit,” Jenkins said.

To be sure, students with exceptional drive and talent find ways to surmount many of the problems, but even they pay a price at the margins--not because their parents are in the military, but because of what comes with moving so often. And students with fewer resources may face harder consequences.

While educational disruptions are a problem for all children whose parents move, military-connected students are affected disproportionately. For them, the problems are also more likely to continue into high school, which experts consider especially serious.

“High school is high-stakes. You don’t have a lot of time to recover,” said Mary M. Keller, chief researcher on the study that led to the Army’s new plan.

“Military kids have always moved, but high school is different now. The world of high school has ramped up.”

For one thing, competition is growing for admission to college and more factors are weighed in the balance. For another, as more and more states adopt standards-based education reforms, establish more detailed requirements for promotion and graduation and impose their own competency tests, students who move frequently must run a gantlet of often-conflicting demands.

“Sometimes rules and regulations and bureaucracy get in the way. We don’t always do the right thing,” conceded William Harrison, superintendent of schools in Cumberland County, N.C., which encompasses Ft. Bragg and the city of Fayetteville.

“We want to make sure every youngster has an opportunity to have his needs taken care of,” said Harrison, a signer of the new agreement who believes greater effort by school officials can make a difference at the school and classroom level.

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The problems take many forms, ranging from what looks like bureaucratic trivia to issues that seem more difficult to resolve.

For instance, military transferees have learned to carry copies of their records with them, but many schools refuse to accept anything but official transcripts, which can take weeks or months to arrive.

Minor as it may seem, “the impact of records not getting there or arriving late has real significance for the life of the child,” Harrison said.

Yvonne Rosario, now an 18-year-old senior at E. E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, said she passed the state competency test with the highest possible grade while attending another school in Hoke County, N.C. When she transferred to Fayetteville, her transcript did not reflect that fact, owing to a clerical error.

Teachers told her she only thought she had passed the test and had to take it again, Rosario said. “I went straight to the guidance office, but I had to be in tears for them to believe me.” It took five days of calling Hoke County officials to straighten out the problem, then another snafu forced her to repeat the process.

More serious, since grading systems and even the curriculum abbreviations used on transcripts vary widely, transferring students often have trouble getting full credit for work they have done, including advanced courses.

Grade point averages and class rankings may be reduced at the new school because its systems are different. A Sebring, Fla., high school tried to knock down A’s that Bianchi earned in Hawaii because Sebring used a different grade chart.

In Virginia, her GPA and class rank were reduced because extra credit she had earned by taking more challenging courses at a previous school was disallowed.

New students may also face educationally costly delays in being placed in appropriate classes or courses. Rosario had to spend a year taking earth science when she moved to Cumberland County because there was no room in the honors biology class she was qualified to take.

Standardized tests and promotion requirements pose other hurdles. Bianchi had to pass high school competency tests three times--in Hawaii, Florida and Virginia. “A sixth grader could have passed the tests, but I was missing class time for things I needed to learn,” she said.

And, because curricula and course sequences vary, a class taught to freshmen in one system may be required for seniors in another. Or new students may be barred from advanced courses because they have not had prerequisite classes.

Bianchi took prestigious International Baccalaureate courses in her senior year at Mount Vernon High School but could not receive an IB diploma because her earlier schools had not offered the program.

Along the way, she gave up swimming because in one school it conflicted with the marching band. Getting a leadership post in the Mount Vernon band, which almost all seniors did, was out of the question for her because those honors were awarded at the end of junior year--before she arrived.

As for the National Honor Society, she said the chapter at her school in Hawaii admitted only juniors and seniors; by the time she reached that level, she was attending schools in Florida and Virginia that accepted students only after they had attended more than one full year.

“I had the grades, but I never got in it,” she said.

What saved Bianchi, now a Basic Cadet at the Air Force Academy, was exceptional determination, a tablecloth-sized list of community service and other outside activities, and the fact that the service academies must reserve 100 places each year for the children of career members of the military.

Through it all, Bianchi has remained philosophical. “I’m a stronger person because of it,” she said.


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