Schools near military base offer welcoming vibe for new students
On Board Online • July 3, 2017
By Cathy Woodruff
"Hello" and "Goodbye." These are two words that Indian River and Carthage students learn to say early and often.
Both rural Jefferson County school districts border Fort Drum, home of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, where more than 15,000 soldiers are posted for a few months or years at a time before picking up for their next assignment, often with families in tow.
"Growing up in a military family, you move around a lot," said Aubrey Jimenez, an Indian River High School junior who has moved five times, attending eight schools in three states over the course of her father's military service.
The frequent comings and goings have inspired both Indian River and Carthage to develop programs and strategies to help new students quickly become part of the educational community. Superintendent Peter Turner of Carthage said he believes many of the approaches and attitudes adopted in the Fort Drum area schools could work in any district.
"I think kids are kids, and they all have similar needs when they come to a new district," said Turner. "They want to feel safe. They want to feel secure. They want to feel like someone appreciates them."
Those needs are especially significant near military bases. The number of school-age children with parents stationed at Fort Drum has ranged from about 6,300 to more than 8,500 in recent years, according to government counts.
About two-thirds of Indian River students are from military families, and in Carthage it's about half. That means high turnover as parents move in and out of the region with changing station assignments. Sometimes a student leaves because one parent is deployed overseas and the other parent moves with the children to be closer to family connections.
"We've had classes that completely turned over in the space of one year," said Mollie Jenne-Phalen, a social worker at Evans Mills Primary School in the Indian River district. "They started with one group in the fall, but it was a completely different group by spring because so many kids had moved in and out."
The formal supports include beefed-up counseling and social work staffs, regular collaboration with "MFLCs" (military family life counselors) connected to Fort Drum, and student clubs that strive to help newcomers feel at home.
A friendly school culture plays a big role, too. Hospitality seems to be second-nature for most students.
"I kinda feel 'invited' anywhere, even if it's my first day of showing up somewhere," said junior Bruce Mitchell. He participated in a group interview with five other juniors, all of whom came to Indian River as members of military families and said they've moved several times. All have attended at least three schools.
"Much of what we do is not super-obvious or overt," said Indian River High School Principal Troy Decker. "It's the subtle safety net . Our military students are a part of our fabric here."
For students first arriving in the Fort Drum area, some adjustments can be daunting, even if they've moved often. For some, it's the frigid, snowy winters. For others, it's meeting the academic challenges and technical requirements of New York's public education system.
Since military transfers often do not coincide with school calendars, both districts make options available for students to catch up on coursework, complete final exams and projects early, and transfer credits necessary for graduation, whether the diploma is from New York or from another state. Most of the options require careful planning and attention to detail.
High school junior Adaeze Ucheagwu, a New Jersey native who aspires to a career in medicine, praised the academic opportunities she has found at Indian River, including access to college-level courses and higher-level chemistry and calculus. And she said the district's emphasis on welcoming new students made a sharp contrast with her previous experience, too.
"Our first move was to Columbus, Ga, and it was difficult," Ucheagwu said. "I cried multiple times. I just wasn't used to the idea of leaving everything I'd known behind."
Arriving at Indian River was different. Ucheagwu immediately felt a welcoming vibe. "When I came here, within my second-period class, I made a friend," she said.
She quickly met a member of "Warrior to Warrior," which is Indian River's version of the Student 2 Student program developed by the non-profit Military Child Education Coalition. The local name incorporates the district's sports team moniker, the warrior.
"I met a member of Warrior to Warrior who brought me to one of their events, the pizza parties for new students at the end of every month," said Ucheagwu, who now is active in the club. "I met other people who were in the same position as I was. From there, I started socializing more with other people. I joined other clubs, as well."
School officials believe the stream of newcomers is good for students who have grown up in the North Country. Thanks to the regular influx of students from Fort Drum, the student bodies at Carthage and Indian River are far-more culturally and racially diverse than other districts in the rural region. It's not unusual for new students to speak any of a dozen-or-so languages other than English, noted Indian River Superintendent James Kettrick.
More than 11 percent of Indian River students and 6 percent of Carthage students are African-American or black, according to State Education Department data. That compares with less than 2 percent for other rural districts in the region that don't receive students from Fort Drum.
More than 14 percent of Indian River students and nearly 10 percent at Carthage are Latino or Hispanic, compared with fewer than 2 percent of students in a more typical North Country district.
Jack Kuba, a junior who grew up attending Indian River schools, said he now has friends all over the country. "I've had friends who I've grown up with move suddenly - to go to Georgia, Texas, Wyoming - and I still talk to them on a daily basis," he said.
Jiminez and Alexzha Garcia, a junior who previously attended schools in Germany and North Carolina, are hoping to stay through their senior year and graduate from Indian River, though it will mean special living arrangements and potential separations from family.
Garcia said she values the way the school community as a whole is so attuned to the needs of students from military families and sensitive to the challenges they face when their parents are deployed to distant places.
"For me, it's not a program or anything, but it's the friends here," Garcia said. "If your parents are deployed, you have friends to support you."