From the Newport News Daily Press
“Tip of the spear” is a phrase sometimes used in military operations to mean the first soldiers and sailors to go into combat. In civilian usage, it can mean the first to venture into a new endeavor — a trailblazer.
Why is the phrase appropriate to a discussion of military-connected students? First, military-connected families transition from base to base four to six times over their military careers, meaning military-connected students transition schools as many as six to nine times during their K-12 education, often with the emotional challenge of having deployed parents.
Military families are frequently venturing into a new education endeavor; they are constantly trailblazing into new communities and schools. This mobility drives very real challenges around quality of life and educational opportunity for military-connected families.
This challenge is nowhere more evident than in the Hampton Roads region, home to Virginia’s largest concentration of active-duty military members, with nearly 70,000 dependents of active-duty parents. If all these students attended one district, it would be one of the five largest in the entire Commonwealth. The reality, though, is that these students are scattered across many districts that often struggle to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of these military-connected students.
Another reason “tip of the spear” is appropriate is because military families uniquely need trailblazing, innovative solutions like on-base charter schools and personalized learning to address the challenges that come with their mobility and lack of suitable local educational options.
The unfortunate reality working against military-connected students coming into Newport News and some other area school districts is that these districts have consistently scored below state averages on the Virginia Standards of Learning exams in recent years. This is not a unique situation and why as many as 1 in 5 military-connected students are homeschooled, attend private schools, or live apart from their families instead of settling for the local school.
Around the country, on-base charter schools are an increasingly popular and successful strategy nationally. Base commanders can make use of base resources and facilities, fill on-base housing, and can share benefits with their neighbors by offering seats to civilian children living nearby.
Virginia ranks almost last nationally in the number of military dependents attending charter schools. This is due to the commonwealth’s charter law, which is vague but complicated, lacking in real charter school autonomy for innovation. The law also only allows charters to be approved by local school boards, which have not shown an inclination to consider, let alone approve, charters.
This is a tremendous missed opportunity, as charters often offer innovative programs and pedagogies, as well as other initiatives to meet the specific needs of military family mobility that traditional public schools often can’t — or won’t.
Military-connected students come to school with a myriad of educational experiences arising from attending many different schools, with varying standards and methods. These students face challenges in quickly getting up to speed and having an educational experience that meets their immediate instructional needs, rather than designed-for-the-middle approaches that may only yield results over the course of many years. Military-connected students — all students — don’t have that kind of time.
Another promising solution that can benefit military-connected children would be implementing personalized blended learning models. Leveraging technology, state of the art adaptive instructional software, and supporting teachers with timely, actionable information on where students are in relation to state standards, personalized learning cuts through the lost time and angst of students failing before they get the opportunity for success.
Well-implemented personalized learning models, like the one currently being launched in Loudoun County, has become increasingly popular with educators, while helping school leaders attract and retain effective educators.
The emerging evidence about personalized learning is encouraging, as academic research and case studies of specific schools show that students benefit when personalized learning is used effectively. Making learning personal for each student can be a key way to close the gap for military-connected students.
The Newport News school district, a past recipient of a Department of Defense Education Activity Educational Partnership grant would be well positioned for this work, and could pursue new grant funding to support personalized learning to better serve its military-connected students.
Addressing the need to improve innovation and outcomes for military-connected students is particularly timely during May, the National Military Appreciation Month. On-base charters and personalized learning are truly tip-of-the-spear innovations and should be actively pursued so that Virginia can better serve those who serve us.
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