Some people's lives are overwhelmed by their own difficulties. Other people quietly fight battles for future generations. Never is this more true than for America's military homeschooling families. Not only do these soldiers give up comfort, security, and sometimes life itself to defend the United States and the world, they have also chosen the demanding task of educating their children at home.
"Before my children were born, we decided to homeschool," says Katie Githens, an Air Force Reserve senior airman. "My husband and I were from public schools in Miami. It was easy to excel because the curve was so low. You had to challenge yourself to get any kind of academic growth."
Born in Germany to a military family, Githens has also lived in Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, Colorado, Texas, and Alabama, with other temporary moves in between. This type of displacement is common for military families. It is only one of the unique challenges and opportunities they find in life and homeschooling.
"A lot of folks here have never been in the military," Githens says. "They stress about having to move across town. That's not different, it's still the same drive to your same church, co-op, support group. We're a little more detached than local residents because we have to not get so embedded in our community."
Githens, whose husband is an active duty Air Force captain, is the president of HEARTS, a military homeschool support group in Colorado Springs. Groups like this help members with their special needs. Many civilians do not know what these needs are, nor how to help the men and women serving them in the military.
Homeschooling: A Perfect Fit
"I've spoken at military bases in this country, in Japan, and Germany," says Chris Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association. "They just love homeschooling because when they move they don't have to have their education uprooted and interrupted. It's a perfect fit for military families."
Military publications report that the number of homeschoolers is as high as 10 percent of military families. Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute says that few studies have been conducted on this topic.
But military families don't need peer studies to enjoy the benefits of homeschooling. Kimberly Green now homeschools her two children in Belgium. Her husband, Tim, is an Air Force lieutenant colonel stationed there at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
"We went to Versailles to see where Marie Antoinette played in the grass with her children, and have visited Greece and Venice," she says. "We can do fairly well in a marketplace speaking French. We've learned to read menus in many languages so we can pick out different things for our pizza. It's really opened our children's eyes to all the different western European cultures. I'm fairly certain they're going to be well prepared for college because they've learned to adapt."
A military homeschooler may live anywhere from Charleston, SC, or Fort McPherson, GA, to Sicily or Okinawa. A tighter defense budget in recent years has slowed PCSing. ("PCS" is a military acronym often used as a verb by soldiers. It stands for "Permanent Change of Station." That's ironic, because the change is rarely permanent.)
"We're moving less, rather than more," said Lt. Col. Karen Finn, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. "That's not related to the War on Terror, but for fiscal reasons. We have less money than we used to."
Even so, less relocation for a military family effectively means once every three or four years instead of every other year. Soldiers move. It's part of their job.
However, military families often find that homeschooling cushions the jolts of repeated relocation. Homeschooling strengthens bonds between children and parents, providing another anchor for mind and emotions in oceans of change. The children also have academic continuity between homes.
"Frequent moving is a challenge," Githens says. "But it's also a benefit when you think of the ability to homeschool through it. Your child isn't ahead or behind of his supposed peer group because of the move."
Constant migration can lead to a sense of isolation for military families. People will often spend less time befriending the family when they know the relationship may be short. Green's homeschool support group had 17 member families when her family first arrived. This May, there were seven. Now, there are four families, but three more will soon arrive.
"Most of us are there for three years at a time," Green says. "I've never been in such a fluid group as this."
Community members can help military families conquer these disruptions by connecting with them immediately. When Green first moved to Belgium, another military mother she had never met before offered to watch her two children so Green could house hunt, get four required IDs, and take European driving lessons.
Regulations and Testing
Military families who homeschool inside the U.S. must follow their state's homeschooling laws. According to Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), these families do not need to seek additional approval from any military authority. If living abroad, a military family is not bound by the foreign country's education laws or by Department of Defense (DOD) regulations. They may simply begin homeschooling.
In 2004 Air Force Lt. Col. Tim Green, his wife, Kimberly, and their homeschooled kids visited the town of Ypres, Belgium, the site of a major World War I battle between the British and the Germans. That area was known for the Christmas miracle where both sides had a temporary truce and were heard singing "Silent Night" in both languages. Each army came out of their trenches and exchanged chocolate and cigarettes.
"Since the federal code that covers military doesn't have a compulsory attendance law, the military cannot force military kids into any option," HSLDA attorney Klicka says. "It's got to be hands off. We recommend that homeschoolers at least notify the local commander so he knows what's going on, but they don't have to send any tests or anything."
Military officials are creating increasingly flexible policies towards homeschooling families. Once, in Turkey, an Air Force base commander tried to require homeschooling parents to pass a national teacher's exam and their students to pass placement tests before beginning a home education program. HSLDA contacted the base and explained that the law didn't grant military officials authority to implement these requirements. The base families were then allowed to homeschool in peace.
"Those are the kinds of issues we deal with," Klicka says. "As time goes on, there's a lot less. We have friends at the DOD now and in the presidential administration. We can usually get things resolved pretty fast or even prevent them from happening."
Military homeschoolers have also been granted equal access to the educational resources of base schools. This means that a homeschooling child may take band, chemistry, or soccer at a DOD school without having to register or enroll.
Standardized testing is strictly voluntary. Many military homeschoolers test their children regularly because they do not know if they will soon move to a state where such testing is mandatory.
Moving overseas means one of two things to a military family: living on a U.S. military base together, or sending a parent away to war.
"One of the women in my support group says her husband has been deployed more than he's been home in the past three years," Githens says. "That's typical."
American families living abroad because of a DOD assignment find both joys and challenges. It is stressful to uproot yourself from family, friends, and your home culture. On the plus side, homeschooling families on foreign soil can actually see the beaches of Normandy, eat authentic sauerkraut, and even visit the Louvre. But they also live among people who do not speak their native language, they have fewer close friends, and they may not be able to play football American style or join a local orchestra.
It can also be troublesome for families overseas to buy curriculum. They cannot easily visit homeschool conventions or find bargains. Many sellers will not ship to APO addresses (even though it costs the same as shipping to, say, New York) and do not offer a drop-down listing for "overseas" on their online order forms.
Sending a parent to Iraq, Afghanistan, or another deployment invites another set of complications. Besides worrying constantly about the absent parent's safety, the family is left to patch holes in the family fabric. That's when they need extra support and attention from friends and family.
"We're doing more deployments," DOD spokeswoman Finn says. She continues, with typical soldier modesty, "All of us are making our trip to Iraq, because that's just what we need to do."
Friends and family can support military families when a parent is sent overseas by emailing and telephoning often, sending care packages with fun items like silly string and water balloons to break up the day, taking the family out to dinner, and helping the mother get out of the house.
"Those mom's nights out are crucial," military mom Kimberly Green says.
When her husband was deployed to active combat, Green found herself assuming the role of both parents. Her children felt fragmented because their father was suddenly gone.
"When my husband was deployed, it was hard to go to sleep at night," Green says. "You don't want to go to bed because you're going alone. You spend a lot of time on email. It's like you live to hear from your husband."
Like many other things connected with the U.S. military, Kimberly Green's story is one of many that fly below the radar. In this case, it is simply because she and her husband find nothing extraordinary about the fact that they have made the hard decisions to fight in the armed forces and homeschool their children.
"Sometimes people who aren't in the military think, 'You're only going to be here another year,' and they aren't anxious to be friends with you," Green said. "We think, 'Oh, I only have a year to get to know you!' Jump in with both feet and get to know military families fast. They need your support and friendship."
Ways to Help Military Families
- Quickly get to know military families who move nearby. Help plug them into the community by sharing tips about town and friendly people in it.
- Don't say you understand their situation - you don't. Do help in practical ways like inviting the kids over to play, sharing homeschool curriculum, and bringing over meals.
- Be sympathetic and encouraging. Ask how you can help.
- When a parent is deployed, remember the family often by sending notes and stopping by just to say hello. Support the parent left behind by offering to watch children or to help around the house.
- Send a letter or a package to a deployed soldier through www.AnySoldier.com.
- Encourage military service members at www.AnyServiceMember.Navy.mil.
- Visit www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil for ideas from the Department of Defense on how you can help military families.
Resources for Military Homeschoolers
Marine Gunnery Sgt. William Kublik, his wife, Christina, and their homeschooled children. Be sure to visit Christina's blog!
- Equal Access to DOD schools. Homeschoolers on base can use the resources of DOD schools. For more information: www.hslda.org/docs/nche/000002/00000258.asp.
- Homeschool World Forum. Visit the Homeschooling Overseas/Military Homeschoolers thread at www.home-school.com/forums/.
- VegSource Message Board. Get tips, resources, and information from other homeschooling military families at www.vegsource.com/homeschool/military/.
- The Military Homeschooler. An online compendium of information, links, and connections to military support groups at www.militaryhomeschoolers.com.
- Home School Legal Defense Association offers a discount on membership for military families. Call them to find out how to apply: (540) 338-5600.
- Blog and E-letter for military families: www.homeschoolblogger.com/military.
- Military Homefront. The official Department of Defense web site for reliable information designed to help troops and their families, leaders, and service providers, www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil.
- Sarah Smiley's Blog. A nationally known military wife, columnist, and author provokes laughs and tears on her encouraging blog. www.smiley-sarah.blogspot.com.
- Military Community Youth Ministries. A connection point for young people whose parents are in the military, at www.mcym.org.
- Military Homeschool Mamas. An online email support group for Christian military mothers: www.groups.yahoo.com/group/christian_military_hs_mamas.
- Christina Kublik's blog. The delightful online journal of a homeschooling mother whose husband is in the Marine Corps. hskubes.blogspot.com.
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