Schools on base
As parents deploy, teachers add coping to the curriculum
COLUMBUS, GA. — 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.
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.
"The schools create community, trust, familiarity," says Prof. Claire Smrekar, head of the study conducted by Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "The students are not anonymous; they don't get lost."
The success of the schools, in fact, has become a rallying cry for those interested in preserving them, now that there is talk of turning them over to the states to run. With schools in the South now more racially integrated, some suggest they have outlived their original purpose.
A two-year study, commissioned by the government as it deliberates over the fate of the schools, is under way.
Before relinquishing administration of the schools to civilians, some say, careful consideration should be given not just to their academic success but also to the special support they offer to military families at times of conflict.
Knowing that one's children are safe and well cared for is more than just a warm-and-fuzzy benefit for a soldier, they argue. Such a feeling of security may also be a powerful contributor to job success.
"If you want a focused soldier in the field, he can't be worrying about his family back home," Professor Smrekar says. "The military is very aware of that."
And for some soldiers, keeping the family content at home is harder than ever. For one thing, the rise of the 24-hour news services makes many military spouses and children better informed - but also far more jittery.
In addition, there are more single- parent households in today's military (137 single-parent families at Fort Benning alone) and more children are seeing their mothers deployed - an absence that for some is more difficult to bear than the deployment of a father.
Children in single-parent households may continue to live on base during deployment if another family member - a grandmother or aunt or uncle - is there to play the role of live-in parent. Particularly for single mothers, there can be a great sense of relief at leaving the child nestled in such a tight-knit community.
It's also a community that has become adept at learning how to help children cope with deployment.
There are nine full-time counselors at Fort Benning's seven schools. Each counselor works somewhat differently, but most set up deployment groups, clusters of children who come together regularly for talk and support.
Some find practical ways for the kids to help their parents - like sending socks - while others focus on emotional needs. They may make tapes and letters to send overseas, or do craft projects, like decorated pillowcases with a special slot in which to slip the parent's photo.
It's a delicate task to keep children informed about and proud of the jobs their parents are doing without causing them to focus obsessively on the absent loved one.
Sometimes, everyone recognizes, the best thing for the children of the deployed is simply to be busily occupied with other things.
At Stowers Elementary - another Fort Benning school - Trish Coughlin has her second-grade deployment group spend 10 minutes talking about their feelings and recording daily activities in a special book for their overseas parents to read.
"It's hard to find the right radio station without him," says Hasaan Mason, his lively face suddenly growing sad as he remembers that his father is in Kuwait.
"I miss just driving in the car with her," says Michel Louissaint of his mother.
"I can't sleep at night sometimes," says Randi Seeyuls, pushing a crayon and speaking through a veil of fine blond hair. "Every night I'm praying for my father."
After this brief session, Ms. Coughlin switches gears, and for the next 10 minutes the children lean into games of checkers and Candyland, laughing and shouting as if all were right with their small worlds.
That's the only way to handle the situation, insists Principal Thomas Dignam.
"You can see how if you weren't careful you could make a monster out of this."
There are also opportunities to turn the children's newfound fascination with the Middle East into teachable moments.
In Anne Trawick's fourth-grade enrichment class at Loyd Elementary, another of the base's schools, two of the six children have fathers in Kuwait. One's father recently returned from Egypt, another's is just back from Afghanistan.
They had been studying Egypt, but have now turned their attention to Kuwait, with class discussions enlivened by tidbits of concrete knowledge - about spiders in the desert, fights on the street, the restrictions on women's clothing - all gained from letters and phone calls from parents overseas.
There is nothing ordinary about the global perspective these children have. Not only do their parents travel, but many of them have also lived overseas.
Bridget Siter, wife of an officer and mother of three children in Fort Benning schools, is continually astonished by her troop of 7- to 11-year-old Girl Scouts.
"They have a real grasp in terms of what's happening in the war on terrorism and with the UN inspection teams, and they casually use terms like 'weapons of mass destruction,' " Ms. Siter says.
To help the students grasp in a more immediate sense what "deployment" can really mean, the schools rely on their best resource at hand - other soldiers.
At Stowers, for instance, Sgt. First Class Jorge Perez serves as the official deployment mentor. Amid one group of children whose parents are deployed, he stands in battle fatigues, answering questions about what it's like to set up camp in the desert.
And there is no shortage of queries. Eager hands tremble in the air, waiting to be called on. "What kind of food do they eat?" "Do they have partners?" "What do they do about spiders in the desert?" "Do you know my dad?"
Each school at Fort Benning is partnered with a division of soldiers. Dressed in uniform, the soldiers are a regular presence in the school. Many volunteer as tutors.
"The units that are left here, we have to do this kind of work," says Adam Grein, a first lieutenant who tutors young students at Dexter Elementary.
"We all have to take care of each other."
As adults in uniform, these soldier-tutors provide one more link to the soldier a child may be missing.
It's part of what make the base schools unique and invaluable, some say.
"I've worked in both [civilian and military base schools]," says Joyce Flatt, education technologist at Dexter. "And I'm not sure any civilian school can ever fully relate to what these kids experience. But the people here can."
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• The Department of Defense runs 224 schools on American military bases - 72 in the US and 152 in 14 countries in Europe and Asia, with a total of approximately 112,000 students.
• Total annual per-pupil expenditure is almost $9,500, compared with an estimated $8,800 national average at US public schools.
• Only 60 percent of the base schools' students finish the year in the same school they start in.
• In the domestic schools, at least half the students come from households poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.
• 80 percent of base-school graduates go to college, compared with a 67 percent national average.