Schools on base
As parents deploy, teachers add coping to the curriculum
Leaning shyly toward the tape recorder, blond hair framing her gentle young face, Farinn Cain whispers the latest news: She ate cereal and toast for breakfast this morning, is today wearing a T-shirt that says "Tough Cookie," and just finished drawing a bar graph in her third-grade math class.Skip to next paragraph
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Then she makes a soft kissing sound into the machine and breathes, "Keep safe, Daddy."
Keeping Daddy up-to-date on the details of daily life while he's in Kuwait is not within the purview of most elementary schools. But Wilson Elementary is not exactly like most other schools - particularly not as the nation prepares for war.
Wilson is one of 224 public schools located on American military bases throughout Asia, Europe, and the southeastern United States.
Although these schools are administered by the Department of Defense, they differ little from well-run public schools in terms of curriculum, teaching style, and appearance.
But with the US poised on the brink of war with Iraq, it's not the presence of soldiers in fatigues or raw recruits on parade that most seems to mark the lives of more than 3,000 children living and going to school on the grounds of Fort Benning, an Army base in Columbus, Ga.
Rather it's an absence that seems most striking - the absence of about one-quarter of the children's parents.
Absentee parents are a fact of life on a military base, even in peacetime. But the larger number of deployments, and the keener sense of danger involved, create a pressure that often creeps into the classroom.
"Sometimes [the students] just burst into tears," says Evelyn Montgomery, a school counselor at Fort Benning. At times like these, hugging becomes one of the most vital functions of Ms. Montgomery's job.
The special empathy that surrounds the children of the military is one of the extras offered by the base schools. And it goes beyond simple kindness.
Because many of the schools' staff members are military spouses or adults who were once military children themselves, they specialize in a type of knowledgeable sensitivity that recognizes that the small things are sometimes the hardest ("Only Mommy knows how to fix my hair right") and that the children least likely to ask for help may be those who need it most.
But such support was not the reason the base schools were created.
Overseas, the need for the schools became clear at the end of World War II when decisions were made to permanently station large numbers of US troops around the world.
At the same time, however, black soldiers in the newly integrated armed services were unhappy at the idea of putting their children into domestic segregated schools while serving on bases in the South.
The best way to serve soldiers' needs, the government concluded, would be to create integrated schools right on base.
In some ways, the schools succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. They have not only met the needs of military families for decades now, but they have compiled a record many off-base school systems would envy.
A recent study of the military-base schools showed that the 112,000 students at the 224 schools academically outperform the national average, despite the fact that as a group they are poorer than students at most US schools. They also are more racially diverse but show a smaller achievement gap between racial groups.
The study concluded that while slightly higher than average per-pupil spending is helpful, the real secret to the schools is the powerful bonds that form there.