Linh Narum knows what it means to be a part of a military family. Her father served in the Air Force for 27 years and she and her husband, Air Force Col. Jerry Narum, a communications officer, have two sons of their own.
Like most military families, the Narums are no strangers to relocation. They currently live in Illinois, but have also spent time in Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
And they’re far from unique. As a new school year begins, many military families must get used to new homes, neighborhoods and schools as they continue to serve their country.
Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations at the National Military Family Association, says a typical military child changes schools as many as six to nine times during the course of their education. Sometimes teenagers attend two or more high schools.
“A lot of our kids really thrive on having so many different experiences in a lot of different places. But there is no denying that it can definitely present some challenges both academically and socially,” Huck said.
Though moving is never stress-free, military family advocacy groups work to make the transition a little easier for parents and children alike by providing resources and training sessions to teachers, administrators and community leaders.
For Narum’s sons, the hardest thing about the move to Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois was being “bored all the time.”
“When we moved to Illinois, it was quite an experience,” Narum said. “My kids were in advanced academic classes in Virginia, but they didn’t offer that here.”
One way the Defense Department and advocacy groups are trying to address that kind of situation for families like the Narums is through the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children.
On Monday, New York became the final state to join the compact, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo put his signature to the agreement between states that is aimed at easing the process of transferring student credits, grades and classes.
Huck said the compact brings consistency to a normally stressful ordeal by setting up a universal structure for dealing with roadblocks between schools and emphasizing the role of a school liaison officer as a go-to support system.
“We want to make sure kids get to a new school, can enroll right away, get placed in new classes and, for high school students, graduate on time,” Huck said.
In her work with the NMFA, Huck says one of the most common problems she sees in regards to transitioning military families is that teachers and other community leaders sometimes don’t even know the new kid is from a military family. So, she says, they don’t know how to best reach out to new arrivals in difficult times, such as when one parent is deployed overseas.
“Once you engage in that awareness and make that connection, there are definitely tangible things that you can do to help make that experience easier,” Huck said.
One way, Huck says, is to “involve the absent parent as much as possible.”
“We hear stories about teachers having classes sending letters to deployed parents. It’s about working with the child to know what the child’s comfort level is,” Huck said.
Comfort level in a new place is something that is always on Narum’s mind when it comes to her oldest son, who is 14. Moving around is toughest for him, she said, because he suffers from diagnosed social anxiety.
“It’s hard to be at a school for a few years and the faculty and everybody knows your child and knows how to react to [him] — and it’s difficult to start that process all over again,” Narum said.
The Military Child Education Coalition, a non-profit specializing in the schooling of military children, has seven programs to help community professionals reach out to military-connected families. The most recent, Helping Military Children Discover Their S.P.A.R.C.: Strength, Potential, Aspirations, Resourcefulness, Confidence, was introduced last November. It‘s a six-hour class aimed at helping kids succeed in new situations.
Sandy Franklin, director of curriculum development and professional standards, said the coalition wants to help kids move “beyond resilience” and “to not just make it by” in their communities.
All young people have specials interests and sparks, Franklin said. The curriculum uses these interests to develop kids’ goals for the future, both socially and academically.
Especially in an age where U.S. military action abroad keeps military families in a state of flux, it is important to keep military kids a top priority, said Cindy Simerly, MCEC’s director of marketing.
“It is very tempting for the issues facing our children to fall off the radar as the public perceives the wars drawing to a close,” Simerly said. “That is really the last thing that should happen because they will continue to face transition challenges.”