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Local schools receive grant to aid military children - Department of Defense Education Activities gives eight schools a total of $7.6 million to address concerns

Children from military families will soon have help from local schools with addressing their unique needs and concerns that stem from their parents’ occupations, as the University of Southern California (USC) and Department of Defense Education Activity agency (DoDEA) have partnered with eight San Diego-area school districts on a $7.6 million initiative.

Fallbrook Union Elementary School District (FUESD), Fallbrook Union High School District (FUHSD), Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) and Bonsall Union School District (BUSD) were among the eight school districts that were part of the initiative to transform public schools into more supportive environments for military families and their children.

“Children from military families are coping with everything from the uncertainty of a parent overseas, to death, physical disability and the intense mental strain of a traumatized parent,” said USC School of Social Work professor Ron Astor, an internationally recognized expert in the area of school violence. “All can be burdens carried forever in their hearts and minds.”

Astor will serve as the project’s lead investigator. The federal grant comes at a critical time for the 1.3 million school-aged children with parents on active duty, many who have seen one or both parents through multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Some military students have seen one or both of their parents deploy, and might feel paranoid or be stressed because of it,” said Astor.

This partnership will allow the eight selected districts to receive additional support for the next four school years, without the need to reapply, said Astor. The collaboration involves districts located near military installations, including Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Ultimately, the four-year project will reach an estimated 100,000 children in 149 schools across the county.

The effort will focus on implementing programs that build on the unique strengths military families bring to their communities and testing interventions that can help ease the social, academic and emotional challenges youngsters face with deployed parents.

Researchers like Astor, who has a joint faculty appointment with the USC Rossier School of Education, believe schools can provide protective environments that help guard against what could be an impending crisis. Studies on post-traumatic stress disorder have shown that supportive schools could shield students from depression, conduct problems, feelings of alienation, anxiety and school failure.

Pentagon documents show an alarming increase in mental health problems incurred by military children. In 2007-2008, the demand for psychiatric services to serve these children doubled to 2 million outpatient visits compared to the start of the war. The number of child psychiatric hospitalizations for very severe problems, such as suicidal behavior, increased by 50 percent.

In San Diego, the USC team will assess the needs of each participating school by mining through state-collected data that explore everything from community supports and after-school activities to the students’ sense of safety, drug use and school-connectedness levels. They will also collect their own data from students, teachers, parents, social workers, counselors, psychologists and community non-profits.

The USC team will also be placed at the schools two to three days each week to help with writing school grants, lead parental support groups, and extracurricular activities.

The monitoring process was developed by Astor and Rami Benbenishty, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, for use in Israel, where it produced strong reductions in at-risk behaviors in the country’s 3,000 schools.

“After ten years, we saw that the schools were better, and that each schools’ specific needs were met,” said Astor.

Astor views the San Diego partnership as a national prototype. At the end of the grant period, he will have provided the DoDEA with data-driven recommendations and intervention models that can be disseminated to public schools nationwide. He hopes to provide the agency with a range of programs that can be duplicated in school systems throughout the country.

“Public schools can play a critical role in increasing resilience of children to separation, loss and other effects of war,” Astor said. “These military families have stepped forth to make our nation safe. Our country owes these students the very best educational experiences and supports that can be offered. This project is an honorable step in that direction.”

The program will operate in conjunction with the USC School of Social Work’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families (CIR) and the Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services. Astor will work alongside co-principal USC investigators Anthony Hassan, director of CIR, and Marleen Wong, assistant dean of field education. Benbenishty, of Bar Ilan University, is also an investigator on the grant.

Astor felt it important to clearly state that the 149 schools impacted by this collaboration would not receive the same support from the program; instead, each school will voice its concerns and needs, allowing for each student population to have their unique and individual concerns met.

“This is most definitely not a collective program,” said Astor. “While we might not be able to address each child’s needs, we can address each school. We will have an after school tutor that will help them with their needs at high school, building each program from the ground up.”

As part of the first step of the grant process, the schools must identify what the needs of the children with military parents will need. The DoDEA, Camp Pendleton and the school districts worked together in what Astor called a “fluid process.”

“No school that showed interest in the program was excluded,” said Astor. “The districts have the mindset that they want to do what is right for these kids. These are people who want to really make a difference.”

According to Astor, Fallbrook Union Elementary School District (FUESD) was instrumental in the coordination of the districts as the lead district for the grant.

“Professor Astor contacted me in November 2009 about becoming the lead district for a multi-district grant that they were pursuing through the Department of Defense,” said Brian Jacobs, superintendent of FUESD. “What the District will be receiving through this grant are the services of USC students who are gaining masters-level intern experience for a social work degree, while working with school-aged children of parents that are in the military and dealing with deployment family issues, post deployment issues, post traumatic concerns, and the potential impact these have upon school-aged children.”

“The interns will be an additional resource of assistance and support to the children and families of the military,” continued Jacobs. “It is hopeful that FUESD will have up to five interns working at schools throughout the district.

“The grant will also provide some professional development for FUESD staff, and provide a small funding source to support a designated Lead Coordinator within FUESD,” explained Jacobs. “The coordinator is not be a new position, it is just the funding from the grant would help off-set costs of an existing position.”

According to Astor, the interns will be able to provide 70,000 extra hours of support at the schools.

“We hope that the grant will be a direct support to a population whose specific needs we haven’t had the resources to meet,” said Tim Ritter, superintendent for the Temecula Valley Unified School District. “Now, the unique needs and set of conditions will by addressed by a social worker whose specific goal is to provide positive support for the students.”

The Temecula Valley Unified School District was informed that they were selected to be a part of the program in early June. The district has 29,000 students, with three high schools, 17 elementary schools, and six middle schools.

“When looking at the statistics, about 16 to 17 percent of our student populations come from military families,” said Ritter. “At one of our high schools, 250 kids come are from a military background. This program is truly giving us a sense of how many students of this sort we have in our district. We didn’t realize how many children in our district have their parents in the military. It’s a true eye opener.”

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