Mary Keller: Mobilizing for the Children of the Mobilized
Credit: Peter Hoey
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Roughly 850,000 K-12 students in the United States have parents on active duty in the U.S. military. The designation brings many needs, demands, and hardships, not the least of which is relocation every two to three years. It is a cycle that means the average military kid will cope with about half a dozen school settings through high school.
The Pentagon has tried to reduce the churn in recent years, but there's still plenty of upheaval -- possibly more than ever as wartime mobilizations separate family members and add new layers of risk and trepidation with each deployment. Mary Keller, executive director of the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), cannot bring parents home or confine them to familial quarters, but she can and does smooth the way for already burdened families to make transitions between schools and communities.
Keller started the nonprofit coalition in 1997, the result of a brainstorming session with friends around a kitchen table in Killeen, Texas, just north of Austin. The local school district -- for which Keller then served as assistant superintendent -- encompasses Fort Hood, one of the U.S. Army's largest bases; half its roughly 35,000 students come from active-duty families. Keller saw how moving could set the students back: They'd miss key chunks of history taught in one state but not another, or miss tryouts for a coveted spot on an athletic team, as part of a debate team, or in a band.
"The military has the challenges of moving and separation," Keller says, "but the school district has so many of the solutions -- like predictability and consistency."
The coalition -- with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, state governments, and foundations -- began building a database of information about schools near American military installations worldwide, gathering details on location and size, student demographics, academics, test scores, athletics, and other activities.
They also started training families to prepare "exit packets" for their kids, complete with school transcripts, work samples, and coaches' and club leaders' letters of recommendation. "We tell them to videotape your child cheerleading" to send as a proxy during tryouts at a new school, says Jacqy Matlock, a contractor working on program development for the coalition.
When her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Matlock, was assigned to the U.S. Joint Forces Command, in Chesapeake, Virginia, she used the MCEC to ease their two young children's move from schools near Fort Hood in 2003. The coalition "provided me with a list of five schools near his work," says Matlock, who used the data for a scouting trip and found a perfect fit. "It is hope-filled anxiety every time you move," she says, but the organization provided what she calls "the ease and comfort" necessary to quickly channel those feelings into confidence.
Last July, the coalition rolled out Schoolquest.org, a free online service that allows families facing a move to create student profiles and spell out criteria for good matches. The coalition also arranges "point-to-point counseling with 220 schools" in or near military installations, Keller says, so counselors at the sending and receiving schools can review student transcripts and negotiate credits to meet graduation requirements. Similarly, the MCEC's Student 2 Student initiative trains cadres of students to help newcomers assimilate quickly; the complementary Parent to Parent initiative provides peer counseling for adults.
Keller and the coalition also provide training for schools everywhere to better support military children, including the roughly 500,000 school-age youngsters whose parents serve in the U.S. National Guard or the military reserves. Most military children go to U.S. public schools, Keller notes.
The coalition's latest offering is Living in the New Normal, a training program Keller introduced in January to help educators and communities assist children coping with wartime trauma and loss.
Her goal, Keller says, is to keep all students "on track academically, socially, and emotionally." It's a tall order, but it's one she is determined to follow.
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