Kevin: There are roughly 1 million U.S. military children living around the world. And by the time they finish high school, they will attend nine different schools on average. With so much upheaval in their lives, I wonder what we can do to provide stability in their education. How can we help them acclimate to new surroundings, new friends, and new curriculum? How can we help them deal with the stresses of having a parent deployed in a combat zone? And what should our traditional public schools be doing to ensure these kids get the support they need to succeed? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by the USO's Jennifer Thompson to find out. Jennifer Thompson is the Executive Director of the USO's northeast region, where she leads operations, programs, and fundraising. She is also a military spouse and the mother of two children who are just entering school age. She is here today to help us understand what more we can do to support a student population that is too often overlooked in our conversations about reform. Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me on here. I'm very honored to talk about such a near and dear topic.
Kevin: You have been an activist, if you will, in ensuring that spouses and family members, their needs are met. And I wanted you to talk a little bit about in the beginning, how you came to be so engaged in this area. It's an important area, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the show.
Jennifer: It's just the changes and how many times our military families move and the disruption that it does cause to our military families and children from when you're little all the way up through teens, it's hard to kind of wrap your brain around. I think civilians do move quite often, it's just the volume that our military families have. So, anything that I can do, that the USO can do, the organization I work for, to help with that and help make that transition as smooth as possible, or at least give something for somebody to look forward to, have some normalcy, is what I like to do, is what the USO likes to do. So, anything that we can provide to help a little bit.
Kevin: So, you mentioned USO. And what does USO stand for, just for people...?
Jennifer: Yeah, it's the United Service Organizations.
Kevin: And what do you do?
Jennifer: I am the executive director over the New England area. So, it's in our northeast region. So, I'm in charge of our six states and kind of the New England area. So, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut. And it's any kind of military programming and support that we can provide in those six states is what I'm in charge of.
Kevin: Now, I know your kids are young, but in your role, you obviously work with families who have children who have to make that adjustment and go to a new school, try to find new friends. Talk about some of those challenges and how you, as part of the USO, try to help them overcome those challenges.
Jennifer: It's hard when you get older, because when you're transferring credits for high school, maybe some states don't accept that credit, and then you're having to try to find different classes that can satisfy that. Or even with activities, so outside of the academics, with activities, depending on when you move, you might miss the cutoff date or the signup date in order to participate in sports and activities, extracurriculars that you might otherwise have been participating in. Even with summer camps, right? In the heart of the summer, a lot of camps fill up and you're not sure where you're gonna live. So on that form, you can't really say, "Well, I'm gonna live in this county," because you have no idea. So, that's definite challenges that face our military community. And for us, we just try to provide any type of programming that can provide them an outlet.
So whether it's...we had a program called Impact, and it really talks about...it focuses on the child and the teenagers, the children, and what kind of challenges that they're going through, what are they scared about. And having that facilitated conversation and dialogue between their parents or their caregiver and what it means to them, just so there's some awareness. And I think it's really eye-opening to do that. We actually did that at Hanscom Middle School and had teachers doing that facilitation as well so they could also learn what challenges the military students were going through because it's eye-opening. I think one of the challenges in the New England area, there's a lot of guard, and so there's not a big installation where it's uniquely, "Oh, yeah, there's military everywhere," like in DC, there's military everywhere.
Kevin: Or Norfolk, Virginia or something like that.
Jennifer: Exactly, exactly. And so, it's, how do we bring that awareness to teachers. And through programs like that, it's kind of keeping that top of mind or... I know in fourth grade, you learn all about your state's history. Well, that could be your state's history in one state, but then you move and so it's a different state's history. So, teachers talking about, "Oh, you learned this last year," well, some students didn't learn that last year, and so...no fault of their own, but there's already that, "Like, I missed out, like, I don't know." So any kind of community events that we can bring the civilians and the military communities together for understanding, the USO tries to do, with any type of programs, whether it's an Impact program or baby showers, coffee connections, bringing military spouses together. So, we really just try to look where there's some outlets for us to provide that missing gap, if you will, with the community.
Kevin: How about some of the psychological challenges. When these kids have a hard time adjusting, my understanding is that many of them do require some counseling or other services. I'm assuming you help with that.
Jennifer: So, we do not have counseling services at the USO. We don't have any trained professionals on that. But what we do provide is kind of, again, those coffee connections and those outlets of support. So, you're not going through this alone, you're not the only one out here. And so it's being that, again, that bridge, where people don't feel like they're isolated and they're the only one having this problem. There's others out there that have that. And back to that Impact program, it's kind of breaking down that wall of those fears and helping the kids open up a little bit to talk about their stresses and what's going on that maybe they don't wanna talk about because their father or mother is deployed, and they don't wanna bring up what their issues are because there's bigger things out there, like the absence of a father or mother because they're on a deployment. So, we have heard that as well. They just don't wanna bring it up because it's extra stress on the mom or dad when they don't wanna add to it.
Kevin: Yeah. And I've also heard of situations where, you know, when the child's in one state, they're performing like an A student, and, you know, favorite child status, if you will, in their school, they go to another state in another school, and all of a sudden, they're a struggling student. How do you balance those kinds of realities?
Jennifer: I mean, it's tough, because each state has different requirements. Counties can have different requirements, and the learning levels are different, too. And depending on what type of hands-on experience you have with your teachers... I'm grateful for the school that we're in right now. They really have the specialists and the resources out there if you need some specialized training. But if you have a need that was fulfilled maybe in one state, and there's just not the resources at the school and another, then there is a gap. There is a hole that the parents are gonna have to try to figure out to fill. And so, that adds into the stressors, and it adds into the students feeling behind or maybe they're not good enough. So, it's definitely something that we've seen as well, that's hard to deal with.
Kevin: And there is a different special kind of challenge when you're shipped overseas. And so, talk about some of what you've seen in those kinds of settings.
Jennifer: Sure. So, with overseas, it's, you know, the bases do a great job at integration with on-base education, which is wonderful, but it's still a new, crazy, strange, different environment. And so, my husband was actually in Scotland, I got to visit when he was there, but it was interesting seeing his fellow aviators and what they were going through with just the challenges of the curriculum is different than what was in the United States, the metrics, the learning metrics are different. And so, not only are you adjusting to moving overseas, being away from family, but then also adjusting to a new way of learning as well. So, a lot of people do opt for homeschool, because it's just...
Kevin: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that.
Jennifer: Yeah. So it's, I wouldn't say easier, but it's sometimes better and beneficial for the student because at least you can kind of control, for lack of a better word, what they're learning and there's some continuity there.
Kevin: Do you see that... For a while, my understanding was homeschooling was at a higher level then it trailed off a little bit. You do believe, as I understand it, that because of COVID, homeschooling has been on the uptick?
Jennifer: It has. It has. In my peer group, with my friends, I have seen that, that it's...its uptick. And one of the reasons is, well, we're already doing it. We're already kind of home anyway. Some friends have said, "Well, I kind of always wanted to try it anyway, because we move a lot." So they really are looking more into the homeschool options and programming, again, so you can kind of tailor those courses to the needs of your child. And you know that it, again, it's consistent, and there's continuity, to provide that education, so they're not falling behind.
Kevin: In terms of these students who are part of military families and their educational future, have you gained any insight as to their ability to move on to college, moving on to other careers? How are they being received by college admissions and the like? I wonder about that.
Jennifer: That's a great question. I would think as a college admissions officer, looking at a military child, you know you're getting somebody who is resilient, and Semper Gumby, they are flexible, they are flexible, and changing and adapting to any situation. So, we are seeing that they are going on to college, there is post-high school, as well as there's a fair amount that are going back to serve. So they...
Kevin: Yeah. I was gonna ask you that as well.
Jennifer: Yeah. They're growing up in the environment, they're seeing it. There's a lot of studies that are coming out now, but there is a high percentage that they are going to serve. So it's what can the school system provide, organizations like the USO that I work for, to help give them at least some continuity, consistency, to help shape them through to be, you know, the leaders of tomorrow, is what we were trying to help with.
Kevin: So, let's talk about a few solutions to some of the challenges, you know, that face young people in military families and their education experience. You alluded to it earlier, but I know this is a huge issue, and that is getting the educational record of students on time, making sure they get full credit. What are some of the things that you would like to see done to make that process easier? And I'm thinking about some of these kids who have taken courses, gotten credit, go to another state, they don't get reciprocity, they don't get credit. But what could we be doing differently to ease that transition?
Jennifer: You know, there's school liaison officers. And it's a tough job to really reach out to all of the military families coming and going at their installations or in their community. So I think it's...I have one friend, and she doesn't even know who her school liaison officer is to ask questions. So, not a fault of their own, it's just there's...the volume is just so large. So, I think it's spreading that out, giving more support. I think there's also a limited knowledge base. So when you're at an installation, and you're living on-base, and everything is through the installation, it's sometimes hard to forget that you also need to transfer your records to the next school. And so there's, on our part, too, some education of, here's the checklist, just because you move to another installation doesn't mean that your school records automatically come with you. And I think as well as we...when we moved to Connecticut, we got embedded right away that we are a military family, what can we do to help with awareness?
So, we took the onus on ourself that we're here, let's have some awareness and education about it. Some people didn't even know there was a reserve center right in their backyard. So, I think it's a lot on the military families as well to kind of get it out there. But as far as the school system, it's really seeing who self-identifies as a military family. And then educating teachers, educating whom is supporting their child. And if my husband's deploying, I'm gonna let the school know, and then hopefully, the school can let the teachers know. So, if they're having a hard day, well, there could be a reason because Johnny hasn't seen dad for six months, he's not gonna see him for another four. So it's a two-way street on that one.
Kevin: And what about the challenges when a spouse or family has to deal with injury or, you know, God forbid, death? How does that sort of impact that whole world that you're in, particularly during that time in need?
Jennifer: So, if a spouse is deployed, and there's that going on, it depends on how new you've moved to a place. I know, for me, when we moved here, our realtor was our emergency contact. And so, depending on where you're going, sometimes that support and help comes from the neighbor that looked like they had an honest face and you could help...you could trust them. And so, it's kind of hard to find that support. Also, back to Semper Gumby, military spouses, we're flexible, and we'll do it but sometimes we won't ask for help. And we've done it, we can do it on our own. So, there's some times that I'm not gonna ask for help, I don't wanna bother anybody else. And so it is hard if there's an injury or, you know, a death to really reach out because you don't wanna bother somebody else. And again, depending on your community, it could be your neighbor that you don't even know but they're your emergency contact, so you're not necessarily gonna go to them for the support of the death of a loved one or a big injury like that. So, it's hard.
Kevin: So, again, this has been interesting because we have a growing number of military family students. The numbers are close to a million kids in our schools who come from military families. And for those administrators and teachers out there in our traditional school system...because 90% of those cases, I understand it, go to traditional schools, and so, this is what I really wanna know, what should teachers, administrators, school staff be doing differently that would help meet the needs of our military family students?
Jennifer: I think it goes back to that education. Even if you've got a very populous area with military down to just a few military students in the population, I think it's training and education on what it really means, having local military leaders come in and just talk about it. Have a military family come in and talk about, you know, their experience and what they might be going through. It's April's Month of the Military Child, so celebrate Purple Up Day. Everybody wears a purple shirt. Our school actually did that, which was awesome. It was one of the first times they did that. So, I think it's more awareness so it's less foreign. Because I totally get where it's hard to fully understand if you're not in the military community or know somebody in the military to really fully understand, but I think it's again, just training and some education, even at a high level of what to expect and maybe what resources to support, and maybe know that that military spouse isn't always gonna reach out and ask for help, so sometimes the teacher could offer any help to that family.
Kevin: Yeah. As you said, knowledge is power and so is communication. Jennifer Thompson, thank you for joining us on "What I Wanna Know."
Jennifer: Yeah. Thank you so much, sir, appreciate your time.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous, thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Jennifer Thompson is the Executive Director of the USO's Northeast Region, where she leads operations, programs, and fundraising. She is also a military spouse and the mother of two children just entering school age.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.