Originally created 03/09/06

Schools recognize need to help pupils from military families



Kim Earles said her family's move from Hawaii to North Augusta was a challenge.

"(Still,) we've been blessed," said Mrs. Earles, whose family relocated when her husband joined Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon. "North Augusta Elementary - they were awesome when we came in."

The Aiken County school district says it doesn't keep track of new pupils who are members of military families, but officials acknowledge a steady flow of families relocate to Aiken County each year and their children enroll in district schools.

While such families have access to a number of relocation services provided by the military, pupils also can get assistance with the transition from their school's parent-teacher association, other organizations and school guidance counselors.

That assistance is important during relocation, said Larry Moehnke, a former educator and chief of staff for the Military Child Education Coalition, an international nonprofit organization that works on behalf of military children.

The Coalition's Transition Counselor Institutes have trained more than 4,000 guidance professionals - from private-sector principals to commanding officers in the military - to improve their effectiveness in counseling military children.

"They (pupils) may actually come to a campus that is much larger (and) certainly different," Dr. Moehnke said. "It may not be strictly military-connected children at that campus if it's a public school system."

Lisa Shull, the president of the North Augusta High School Parent-Teacher Student Association, said teachers and guidance counselors have approached the group about obtaining grants to purchase relocation packets and other materials for students that enroll in the high school after the first day of class.

"There is a need out there, obviously, that has been recognized by different teachers and administrators of the school," Ms. Shull said.

Jane Katlenski, a guidance counselor at North Augusta High, said the school receives new students each year from military families that move to Aiken County, many with a parent that has been assigned to Fort Gordon.

Sometimes it's not parents or guidance counselors working with new students, but other students who make the transition easier, Ms. Katlenski said.

Ms. Katlenski said she introduces newcomers to pupils who provide tours of the school, including where classes are located, how to find the lunch room and where buses arrive and depart.

"That gives them somebody that they can talk to and ask questions to," Ms. Katlenski said.

Wesley Steisslinger, a senior at North Augusta High whose family moved to the area when his father, an Army chaplain, was assigned to Fort Gordon, said he had a great experience when enrolling at the school in 2004.

"They even hooked me up with the band guys so that I could do marching band that summer, because I moved in the summer and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to do band," Wesley said.

Robyn Steisslinger, Wesley's mother, said the family is preparing to move to Mannheim, Germany, because of her husband's new assignment.

"With most military, it happens every three years, so you learn how to move from place to place," Mrs. Steisslinger said.

After their arrival in Mannheim, the Steisslingers might join the European PTA, which provides many services to pupils and their families.

Lois Dent, the vice president of the organization in Europe and a preschool teacher at Mannheim Elementary School, a Department of Defense Dependents School, said via e-mail that three PTA members will give a presentation at a conference in Washington, D.C., this month detailing the PTA's mission overseas.

"We usually learn about large units of soldiers, sailors or airmen returning to the states when it is announced in the Stars and Stripes, the American overseas home newspaper," Ms. Dent said.

Chris Caldwell, the president of the South Carolina PTA's district 14, which includes Aiken County, said the organization assists and educates parents in other ways.

"When my children were smaller, it helped to have the training material for (topics) like bus safety," Ms. Caldwell said.

"You care about the whole child, not just the kid who's in school at the time, but you care about the child that's outside of school, too," she said. " (The PTA is) encouraging the parents to be in the schools, which is what we desperately need."

Reach Nathan Dickinson at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or nathan.dickinson@augustachronicle.com.