Lack of quality school choices is hurting military families

Education
Spc. Cesar Vera-Martinez walks with a first-grader back to his classroom at An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News, Va. on June 8, 2012.  EDWIN RODRIGUEZ/U.S. ARMY
Spc. Cesar Vera-Martinez walks with a first-grader back to his classroom at An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News, Va. on June 8, 2012. EDWIN RODRIGUEZ/U.S. ARMY

Lack of quality school choices is hurting military families

by: Brock Vergakis | .
The Virginian-Pilot | .
published: January 25, 2017

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Some military families in Hampton Roads are choosing long commutes, homeschooling or living apart rather than enrolling their children in schools that aren't performing well, which can reduce satisfaction with a military career and ultimately contribute to decisions to leave the military, according to a report released Tuesday.

The Arlington-based Lexington Institute examined the performance of schools in four states with large concentrations of military personnel: Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado.

The think tank's report found wide disparities in the academic performance of school systems with large numbers of military-connected children, and recommends allowing students to enroll in nearby school divisions, which Virginia prohibits.

"Open enrollment laws provide some valuable flexibility for families connected with a military installation to cross district boundaries to take advantage of other opportunities that can better meet their needs," the report says.

The report notes that children in Virginia's schools tend to outperform other states, but that's limited to certain school divisions like Virginia Beach and Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.

"The quality of the schools available vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood and school district to school district, and that's a challenge for military leaders," said Don Soifer, one of the report's authors, in a telephone interview.

State data shows that children in Norfolk, which is home to the world's largest Navy base, lag far behind state averages in terms of fourth-grade English and eighth-grade math scores on standardized tests. Students in Newport News and Suffolk, which also have high numbers of military-connected students, also lag behind state averages.

Soifer said it can be difficult for a military family dealing with the stress of moving to find a school that works well for them in an area they don't know.

"In the immediate Hampton Roads region, there are 10 schools whose performance falls within the lowest five percent of schools statewide, which is one-third of the state's totals," the report says. "Given Virginia's constraints on school choice, this means military families may need to live multiple school districts away from their base posting in order to find schools that meet their standards."

A 2013 Hampton Roads Transit presentation showed that only 19 percent of Norfolk Naval Station employees live in Norfolk, while 23 percent live in Virginia Beach, 12 percent live in Chesapeake and 5 percent each live in Portsmouth, Hampton and Newport News. The presentation showed that the median commute time to the base for Norfolk residents was 25 minutes, compared with 45 minutes for all employees.

Soifer said that while Virginia is generally viewed as a positive place to be stationed because students in school systems like Virginia Beach perform well, not everyone can choose to live in the best-performing divisions. Soifer noted some people are required to live on the base they're assigned to. Others simply may not be able to afford to live in neighborhoods with the best schools.

"We say that open enrollment can definitely have benefits," Soifer said. "To change the system entirely is a tricky question. There are a lot of concerns. An awful lot of families in Norfolk would choose to enroll in Virginia Beach if they had that ability, not just military."

In April, Norfolk held a "military child convening" where there was a focus on getting military families and veterans to choose Norfolk instead of neighboring communities.

"Far fewer military-connected children attend Norfolk Public Schools than are eligible, likely due in part to the high numbers of Norfolk schools that have lost state accreditation," the report says.

Six of the city's 45 tested schools have been denied accreditation based on test pass rates.

A city presentation on the "convening" said large numbers of military families assigned to facilities in Norfolk choose to live elsewhere "largely due to perception of access to quality schools."

The report also faults Virginia for making it difficult for military-connected children to enroll in magnet schools or prestigious governor's schools for academically or artistically gifted students.

"Military relocations don't neatly follow a school calendar or coincide with application deadlines," the report says. "These timing challenges are heightened by the state's lack of an open enrollment policy among districts to facilitate public school choice and less than ten public charter schools."

Soifer said Virginia also has room for improvement when it comes to training educators to handle the special circumstances of military-connected children, who move about every three years. An Old Dominion University analysis found that more than 75 percent of educators working in schools serving significant populations of such students reported they hadn't received specific preparation for it.

"This is a significant finding in a state like Virginia, which is widely regarded as a national leader serving the nation's second largest population of military-connected children," the report says.

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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