Over one million school-age children have a parent serving in active duty in the U.S. military, with three out of four under age twelve. For these families, transition is the near-constant in their educational experience.
It is common for military-connected students to attend more than six different school districts during their K-12 school careers. The uncertainty that can accompany these constant changes can impact military families’ decisions about continuing to serve the country.
Retention is critical to military readiness, particularly as the military is poised for growth: the Trump Administration has announced its intention to raise the overall strength of the armed forces by as many as 125,000 active-duty service members. How these proposed increases impact Colorado may depend on non-military factors like the quality of education military-connected students receive.
For military-connected students and their families, transitioning to Colorado can represent an attractive educational opportunity. The active-duty service member population in Colorado is growing, with almost 38,000 personnel, largely concentrated in the Colorado Springs area.
From an educational performance standpoint, using the longstanding, common benchmark — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card — Colorado in 2015 ranked above the national average in the percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on fourth-grade ELA and in eighth-grade math.
A new Lexington Institute report, Better Serving Those Who Serve: Improving the Educational Opportunities of Military-Connected Students, examines how Colorado and other states are supporting military families and their students in their educational experiences. The report looks at how active-duty service members frequently face shortages of high-quality educational options for their children and what that can mean for academic achievement and a family’s satisfaction with a military career.
This analysis is reinforced by a recent national survey of military families conducted by the Collaborative for Student Success and the Military Times. The poll found over one-third of respondents indicated that dissatisfaction with a child’s education is a “significant factor” in deciding to continue military service or not. Forty percent said they have declined or would decline a promotion if it required moving to a different installation in order to stay at their current military facility because of quality educational opportunities.
To ease the transition of military-connected students, Colorado signed on as an original member of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. Colorado’s Compact commissioner is Cheryl Serrano, the former long-time superintendent of the Fountain-Ft. Carson school district, who said, “Military families from all over the world choose to come to the district, request to stay longer and even choose to retire from the military so their children can stay in the district – that is the highest compliment any district can receive.”
Any district with relatively large numbers or percentages of military-connected students deals with high levels of student mobility as active duty service members transition for military needs, promotion potential, or quality-of-life issues. Fountain-Ft. Carson is an outlier, where over 70 percent of its current enrollment is made up of military-connected students and where some district schools can experience half of their students being brand-new from one year to the next.
Effectively supporting these students requires that receiving schools understand military-connected students’ needs, including academic, social/emotional, athletic, and extracurricular considerations. In particular, students with special needs face an even more difficult time transitioning.
These challenges, combined with high rates of mobility and other pressures associated with military deployments pose challenges to maintaining academic rigor and graduating students on time. At Academy 20, Fountain-Fort Carson, and Widefield school districts — the three Colorado districts examined in detail in the Lexington report — four-year graduation rates meet or exceed state averages, and all but Widefield meet or exceed the national average of 83 percent.
Results like these can make a powerful difference. Leveraging technology, employing personalized learning, and supporting teachers with strategies and actionable information on where students are in relation to state standards, districts can cut through lost time and angst.
Colorado’s policymakers have made solid progress in strengthening educational opportunities for all students. Adding greater focus to the educational opportunities for military-connected students holds great promise for the future of those students and families, as well as for the state and our military.
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