Report shows difficulties faced by military-connected public schools

by Drew Brooks
The Fayetteville Observer, N.C

A report on military-connected public schools outlines difficulties facing some schools near Army installations in the United States.

But the report also shows no community is perfect when it comes to education.

The report, compiled by WestEd on behalf of the U.S. Department of Army, Child, Youth and Schools Services-School Support, examines 393 public schools across 22 states.

Since it was released in January 2014, officials have used its findings in an attempt to spur improvement or warn of education's impact on future troop cuts.

Army officials, both national and at Fort Bragg, have said education was going to be a key issue for leaders looking at where to make budget-driven cuts.

It's one of several categories Army officials are looking into as part of a larger process. That process also has included community listening sessions and input from Army leaders.

Officials have repeatedly warned Fort Bragg could be at risk due to its scores in the report, which compiled publicly available data for every school in the country with 200 or more Army-connected students.

North Carolina had the second-largest population of Army-connected students, with 31,575 outside of Fort Bragg. The only state with a larger population was Texas, home to Fort Bliss and Fort Hood. It had 46,533 Army-connected students, according to the report.

The report found seven out of 32 schools around Fort Bragg were in the state's lowest quartile when it came to academic performance.

Eleven of the schools ranked poorly for attendance. Eight for student-teacher ratio.

Other concerns outlined in the report came from the area's eight high schools, which include six in Cumberland County and one each in Hoke and Harnett counties.

Of those schools, six ranked in the bottom quartile for graduation rates. Four ranked poorly for performance on the ACT, a standardized test used by many colleges and universities.

WestEd is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development and service agency based in San Francisco.

In an introduction to the report, the agency said it may not be appropriate to compare schools in other states, given different methods of tracking and reporting data.

At the same time, it touted the report as a resource for military families.

"School quality is among the most important factors for families when choosing where to live," officials said in the report. "This is especially significant for military-connected families, who relocate often."

The WestEd report found similar issues outside other Army posts.

In Georgia, only three of 32 schools ranked in the bottom quartile for academic performance, but 13 of the schools suffered from poor student-teacher ratios.

Those numbers were almost on par with Texas, which had four of 51 schools ranked in the lowest quartile for academic performance and 13 ranked in the lowest quartile for student-teacher ratio.

Other states with similar Army posts to Fort Bragg include Washington, home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord; New York, home to Fort Drum; and Tennessee, home to most of the population around Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Washington had four out of 14 schools ranking poorly for academic performance and most — 11 out of 14 — ranking in the state's lowest quartile for student-teacher ratio.

New York only had one of its 12 schools rank in the bottom quartile for academic performance.

Another three ranked poorly for attendance and four had issues with student-teacher ratios.

In Tennessee, none of the 20 schools ranked in the lowest quartile in the state for academic performance and four ranked poorly in student-teacher ratio.

The only state with an Army post not included was Oklahoma, which did not provide information in time to be part of the report, WestEd noted.

While local leaders have repeatedly referenced the WestEd report, they've also warned it has its share of flaws.

Fort Bragg's garrison commander, Col. Jeffrey Sanborn, and the superintendent of Cumberland County schools, Frank Till Jr., have each said the study's methods did not single out military children who attend the school.

Till said Cumberland County's military children are performing above the state average for math, science and language art, something the WestEd report does not reflect.

But Till said the schools are not without their flaws.

He said the schools are improving, but need community support. or 486-3567.

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