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Transitions: Eagle River High handles its military connection

Jerzy Shedlock
A second-year Adventure Program student at Eagle River High helps a group of local elementary school students during a collaborative leadership event between the two schools, which both have high percentages of military dependents in their student populations. Courtesy Melissa Casey

Eagle River High School’s student body is constantly changing. Kids show up midyear or mid-semester, often from the Lower 48 or far-flung countries as dissimilar as Germany and Japan. The students’ new Alaska home is Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson, having accompanied their parents as military units shift across the globe. The military transplants generally have a difficult time associating any one place with home, making friends, and keeping up with various schools’ curriculums.

For the past three years, Eagle River and three other schools have worked to help those “military dependents.” But grant money funding the initiative will dry up by the end of the school year, and many associated programs and positions may face the chopping block.

Adventurous military dependents

On a frigid mid-September day, a small group of students wearing identical navy blue T-shirts stood outside the high school’s main entrance. They were waiting for elementary school students to show up; they would spend the day with them, teaching the kids about communication and leadership, something they’re learning about, too. The students are part of the school’s adventure program, a course meant to introduce Outside students to Alaska’s unique opportunities.

Last week, they were conducting community outreach. Students committed to the program reach different levels as they progress from freshmen to seniors. During the course’s second year, students become model facilitators and participate in different leadership activities.

The adventure program is part of a larger initiative to support military dependents -- kids whose parents are active or reserve members of the military. And Eagle River leads the pack with the highest number of JBER kids at school, with a student body almost evenly split between Alaskans and the transplants.

“I don’t think we have a social split; military kids on one side of the cafeteria and local kids on the other side,” said Principal Martin Lang. “Kids growing up in this community are used to their friends cycling in and out, and even though that’s challenging, it’s part of living in Eagle River.”

Counselors and climbing walls

A U.S. Department of Defense grant has funded transitional programs at four Anchorage area schools for the past three years. Project Connect was a three-year grant due to end last school year, but the department granted a one-year, no-cost extension to use leftover money.

Project Connect gave four schools -- Eagle River, Bartlett High School, and Central and Gruening middle schools -- $2.7 million for counselors, other staff and program assets, such as online courses and climbing walls for two of the schools, said grant coordinator Gavin Vaughan.

Bartlett, another school located near Anchorage’s military base, led the charge in applying for the grant in 2009. The school had been running its own program to help military dependents, but it wanted to do more.

While writing the grant, Bartlett thought including other schools with large military presences would help win approval from the feds. Eagle River was obvious choice -- during the 2012-2013 school year, 46 percent of the students were military dependents.

Eagle River, unlike Bartlett, had no robust programs in place for its kids. Over the past three years, they’ve reversed the lack of transitional programs, Lang said.

‘Connections in the class’

During the first year of the grant, Eagle River hired a full-time counselor to help at-risk military students successfully transition into the school.

School counselors handle about 300 students. The military counselor's case load was kept intentionally low during the initial year. The school focused on kids having difficulty transitioning. Kids with parents deployed overseas, who were struggling academically or who had behavioral problems took priority, Lang said.

There were 50 kids to handle the first year. That number now sits between 75 and 100. The counselor is able to make daily contact with students, as well as their families, and the counselor's spacious office upstairs serves as a hangout spot during passing periods and lunch.

“We mostly picked ninth and 10th graders who weren’t on track to graduate,” Lang said. The counselor's first group of kids, those still attending Eagle River, are now seniors. “A lot of them turned it around in three years, thanks to this grant.”

The first day new students set foot into the high school, they spend one period at a transitional class. They play meet-and-greet games, take a tour around a school with a second-year student, and eat lunch with their new peers. That provides immediate connections, Land said.

After that first day, students can choose to stay in the class, and some kids jump at the opportunity, he said.

A part-time teacher was hired to instruct the course, though students progressing through the program serve as teachers after the first year. Melissa Casey, who also teaches English, says the class has an 11-week progression, and each week has a goal.

“The point of each goal is employability but also connections with kids in the class, because it really is a hodgepodge,” of students, she said, like athletes, mathletes and band geeks.

As a result of Project Connect, tutors are available a few days each week after school. There's also:

• A bus that takes kids back to base if their parents can’t leave JBER;

• Seats in the district’s online courses, so Outside students can finish classes not offered through the Anchorage School District; and

• A business partnership with the Army’s 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment, which helps with the school’s ROTC program and annual events.

The grant also helped forge a stronger connection between the base and the school, Lang said. Adventure program students spend time after school hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, but they also include themselves in the community through different events.

‘We build networks’

About 90 youngsters from the Eagle River Elementary optional school sat on the gymnasium floor of the high school. Second-year adventure program students led introductions during the event.

Casey announced the elementary kids would soon try to outwit NASA astrophysicists by way of a construction challenge. The NASA challenge includes small pieces of PVC pipe, and the kids were tasked with connecting all the pieces and leaving no holes in the structure.

Elementary students sitting in a circle fixed their eyes on the cloth bag an adventure student held. Casey gave the OK, and the student dumped the plastic pieces on the hardwood floor; the students darted for them with no real plan. “No pushing,” the adventure student said.

Standing on the sidelines, first-and-second-grade teacher Kelesha Dolan kept careful watch over her class. The largest issue for military dependents, she said, is having only one parent in the home.

“Last year and the year before, we had quite a few kids with deployed parents, staff members, too,” Dolan said. “And the community that’s built in our school really helps with checking in on each other, whether it’s helping kids in or out of school. We build networks to help.”

A potential absence

Eagle River Elementary built military connections without the Project Connect money, but high school students require a bit more. At a time when life seems so uncertain, counselors and peer-led groups may be the much-needed safety net to push new students through four years of teenage angst.

At the end of this school year, Eagle River and the three other grant recipients will need to rework their programs. Lang said it’s a top priority to retain the in-house counselors, as well as the transitional class, if possible.

The potential absence of those resources poses a problem for the school, Land said. “The military counselor, the teacher of the peer leadership class, I’m looking into ways to sustain those elements, because they have been the core of the program.”

Vaughan, the grant coordinator, is working closely with the district’s grant department, searching for alternatives to the program. He said the Project Connect grant still exists, and if the Department of Defense offers another round it will be pursued, but that would not happen until spring 2014, when the school year ends. The best bet is finding another, similar option, officials said.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms