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Program helps ease stress of students in military families

Military children at Santa Margarita Elementary School at Camp Pendleton point out which states they've lived in, before a meeting on Monday, Oct. 22 for newcomers to talk about what it's like to move a lot.
Military children at Santa Margarita Elementary School at Camp Pendleton point out which states they've lived in, before a meeting on Monday, Oct. 22 for newcomers to talk about what it's like to move a lot.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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For three years a professor of social work at USC has helped to educate a small army of counselors who work with kids in military families at schools and other agencies. Educators admit that this segment of the public school population is woefully underserved.

At Santa Margarita Elementary School, about six new kids arrive and six leave every week. All of them come from families in which at least one parent is in the military.

Christina Fossel leads a half-hour workshop for about two-dozen third graders. Some just started at this school. Others have been here  longer. 
“My name is Maria, first year here and I was in Okinawa, Japan… My name is Gwynn. I used to live in North Carolina…  My name is Amy, and I moved from El Paso, Texas,” the students introduce themselves.

RELATED: USC program trains counselors to help students in military families

The goal of this session is to encourage students to help one another cope with the stress of moving. Santa Margarita Elementary, run by the Oceanside Unified School District, is located on the Camp Pendleton Marine base. USC has placed social work interns like Christina Fossel there for the last three years.

In the next exercise, the third graders talk about how many times they’ve moved. These are eight-year-olds. Most say they’ve moved three or four times. Fossel keeps the exchange going.

“One word about how it feels to be in a new school, some of you have moved a ton,” she said.

“I’d have to say sad… adventurous… sorry… heartbreaking… fun,” the kids said.

This litany from her classmates prompts one student to share more.

“May I tell you why it’s ‘heartbroken’ for me? Well, because I used to live in Lancaster, California and when I moved all my friends were there. I had a couple, one was name is Jenny, Alison, Casey, Amanda and Jacob… those are the five friends that can never be replaced.”
Santa Margarita’s principal Pat Kurtz said these simple exercises go a long way toward welcoming students and helping them adapt. That, in turn, helps their academic performance. It wasn’t like this when she arrived at the school six years ago.

“The teachers didn’t know anything about the deployment cycle. They didn’t know anything about the resources available to the military. They didn’t really understand the terms. It was as though their situation was non-existent,” Kurtz said.

Educators, she said, need to accept that in many respects, students in military families are not like other children. They’ve had to deal with many relocations. They’ve had to cope with changing roles in the family before, during, and after a parent’s deployment. And they’ve had to handle the real possibility that war can permanently remove a parent from their lives. 

The social work interns who help these students work through a program called Building Capacity in Military Connected Schools, created by USC social work professor Ron Astor.

“Civilian culture has had people stand up in airplanes and applaud them, the president gives them honor, but what we’re finding research wise is that it’s the communities and the schools that create welcoming, caring environments that are supportive, that really make the biggest difference for these families and any other families,” Astor said.

Astor’s helped to place social work interns at 140 schools in eight Southern California school districts. He has also partnered with universities in San Diego to pair more social work interns with schools.  Columbia University recently published a series of books that outline how parents, teachers, and administrators can help kids in military families.

After a recent class at USC’s north San Diego County satellite complex, Shannon Milder, who heads the Navy’s western states school liaison program, praised the books and Ron Astor’s efforts.

“We are so thankful that Ron has been working to get these interns trained on military culture, get them out into schools, so many more of our kids will benefit because of these programs,” Milder said.

Word about the program is getting around. Schools in Chicago recently contacted Astor asking for social work interns to help with their students in military families.