During my husband’s command of the 21st Operations Group (2017-19) at Peterson AFB, I spoke with many military members and spouses about the challenges they experienced enrolling their children in high-quality local schools. Although Colorado offered “school choice,” the timelines did not align with assignment cycles and districts required a local address.
When my husband assumed command of the 460th Space Wing (2019) at Buckley SFB, we agreed that creating a more equitable playing field for military children’s education would be a priority for our command. We also decided that any agreements we made needed to outlive our command and local superintendents’ tenure.
Early on, we arranged a meeting with leaders of the school districts that serve the Buckley community. As a result, I realized change was possible…and not just at the local level. I began to speak with everyone I could about the need for state legislation to ease the educational transition for military students. In fall 2019, State Representative Bockenfield offered his support and invited me to help write such a law.
For more than eighteen months, we consulted, negotiated, and collaborated with stakeholders. The result was House Bill 21-1217: Military Family Open Enrollment in Public Schools. It stated that military families coming to Colorado be allowed to register electronically based on orders and use the base School Liaison Office’s address if necessary. It also proposed automatic re-enrollment in future years and sibling preference.
In spring 2021, the State House and Senate passed the bill unanimously. Finally, on May 28, Governor Polis signed it into law, giving military families a more equitable playing field in Colorado’s public schools.
Mrs. Alicia K. Pepper, Spouse of the former 460th Space Wing Commander
In 2018, only four of the 15 schools serving Holloman AFB earned ‘A’ or ‘B’ grades from the New Mexico Public Education Department. However, visits from the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, along with the Support of Military Families initiative, highlighted the need for strong public schools if the base was to retain or expand its missions.
So, the 49th Wing Command Team made local schools a priority. In February 2020, the new Commander elevated the School Liaison Office from the Child and Youth Services Flight to the Wing Staff. He felt this would convey the importance of local schools, improve communications, and empower the School Liaison. He was right!
With the onset of COVID, the Commander and School Liaison began providing regular school updates on social media. Then they established an Education Advisory Council, providing military parents a forum to address their concerns with the Command Team. Relations were also strengthened with Alamogordo Public Schools through regular communication and collaborative initiatives like Project SEARCH for students with developmental disabilities.
When the district shifted to remote instruction, the Command stood-up an Education Task Force. Initially, members worked to support families and minimize the pandemic’s effect on the mission. With time, the group recognized the need to keep students on track academically and support children who were struggling with virtual classes. In early 2021, the Air Force Services Center provided funds to establish a Tutoring Center. Professional educators began providing in-person assistance to any military-connected child at the Youth Center. Over summer break, the command ran a STEM camp for middle school students.
During regular updates with the Commander, the School Liaison communicated that some of the public school challenges at Holloman AFB were issues statewide. The Commander asked the School Liaison to work with her counterparts at Kirtland AFB and Cannon AFB to coordinate the installations’ efforts. Together, they briefed the state’s Public Education Department, Office of Military Base Planning and Support, and Lieutenant Governor on education challenges for military families and the importance of quality public schools at military installations. These meetings contributed to the state legislature passing bills that provided for early enrollment for military-connected students and established a New Mexico Purple Star School Program.
Collectively, these efforts helped mitigate educational challenges related to the pandemic, strengthen relations with local school officials, and gain state support for military-connected students. It is little surprise that in the 2021 Support of Military Families report, Holloman AFB’s public education ranking improved significantly from 2019!
LaurieAnn Goodier, School Liaison, Holloman AFB
What began as a friendly discussion in 2013 became a reality in 2018, when the Roberto “Bobby” Barrera Elementary STEM Magnet School opened its doors for military-connected children at Laughlin AFB.
In 2013, during a town hall meeting at Laughlin AFB, San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District (CISD) Superintendent, Dr. Carlos Rios, heard from military families who wanted a STEM elementary school on base. In a 2014 follow-up study, Dr. Rios learned that only 40% of the children living on the installation attended schools in the district. The rest traveled 40 miles to neighboring districts, were homeschooled, or attended private schools. In a separate survey of families living in base housing, 86% indicated that if an on-base elementary school were available, they would enroll their children there. The respondents added that having a school on base would significantly reduce family separations, boost morale, and increase retention.
The San Felipe Del Rio CISD then drafted a White Paper for the Air Force, highlighting the benefits of establishing a school on base. The Air Force agreed and entered into a lease agreement with the District to construct a temporary school. This set into motion collaborative efforts to share resources and expenses to facilitate the school's construction. The Air Force contributed with the expenses for the environmental study of the proposed property, while the school district contributed with site preparation and development of the property.
On June 23, 2017, 47th Flight Training Wing Commander Colonel Thomas Shank joined Dr. Rios, members of the San Felipe Del Rio CISD Board of Trustees, and civic leaders in breaking ground for the future STEM elementary magnet school at Laughlin AFB. The District leased the land for five years, during which time both parties would monitor interest and enrollment. When the school opened its doors in August 2018, student enrollment nearly reached capacity. Interest is still high today, and 100% of the school’s student population are military-connected children residing on Laughlin AFB. In 2020, the campus was one of the first schools in Texas to receive a Purple Star Designation.
The partnership between Laughlin AFB and San Felipe Del Rio CISD has always been strong and forward thinking. Through the sustained efforts of their leadership and the support of the Del Rio community, the vision to build a STEM elementary magnet school on Laughlin AFB became a reality.
Sandra T. Hernandez, Administrative Director, San Felipe Del Rio CISD
For years, MacDill AFB and Hillsborough County Public Schools held periodic town halls to address military parents’ concerns, as is done at many installations. However, these meetings were not scheduled or structured to provide timely solutions, so they often left all parties frustrated. In 2014, the installation vice commander suggested establishing a formal body with select leaders from the base and school district. He recommended they meet regularly and follow a standing agenda to foster greater predictability and collaboration.
From this idea, the MacDill Council for Educational Excellence was born. It is chaired by the installation Vice Commander and includes key military leaders, representatives from the Hillsborough County Public Schools Central Office, community members, school principals, and parents. The body meets quarterly, first in closed session to address administrative and policy issues, then in open session, when parents or other interested parties present their concerns.
In 2015, installation and district leadership signed the MacDill AFB Education Strategy, institutionalizing the council and establishing shared objectives. The strategy also empowers the council to recommend solutions directly to military and educational decision makers.
The results have been impressive, including: modifying the district’s school choice policy to better accommodate military-connected students, extending application and acceptance to the International Baccalaureate program for transferring students, establishing an expedited review process for new students with Individual Education Programs, accepting gifted designation from other states to ensure continuity of education, and revising the grade point average policy to avoid penalizing military-connected students.
After seven years, stakeholders still see the benefits of recurrent council meetings to resolve new concerns, foster open communication, deepen relationships, and ensure continuity.
Ms. Kim Sukach, Military Liaison, Hillsborough County Public Schools
In 2018, Montgomery Public Schools’ accrediting body found the District lacking in 19 of 31 standards. Soon, the Air University commander began speaking candidly with community leaders about how public education was hindering his ability to attract the best faculty and students. That fall, he formed an installation-wide working group to “identify, recommend, and implement ways to improve educational options.”
In January 2019, the working group held a summit for local districts’ superintendents, military commanders, and community leaders. In April, they organized workshops to start planning how to address the most pressing issues identified at the summit. Over the summer, the working group achieved ‘Quick Wins,’ including flexible enrollment policies, expanded varsity athletic eligibility, and reopening the magnet application process. Starting that fall, they trained hundreds of teachers and counselors on the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children.
In 2020, the new commander directed a comprehensive survey to identify personnel’s concerns and priorities. The results were codified in a one-year plan with four goals: 1. Expand eligibility for the on-base school. 2. Improve communication. 3. Strengthen relations with key stakeholders. 4. Increase quality off-base educational options. The community also worked to address issues: In March, Montgomery Public Schools regained full accreditation and that fall, residents voted to increase funding for public education.
In 2021, the Office of the Secretary of Defense chose Maxwell AFB as the first site of a congressionally authorized pilot program. This will permit active duty personnel living off base to enroll their children in the on-base Department of Defense school. The commander has also worked with Lieutenant Governor Ainsworth and the Military Stability Commission to identify how the Alabama legislature can help. Finally, the working group published a five-year strategic plan to ensure unity of purpose and continuity of effort for years to come.
Dr. Brian R. Selmeski, Chair of the Public K-12 Education Working Group
VIDEO | 01:35
Maxwell-River Region Partnership for Educational Excellence
“Innovate…Partner…Reduce Costs…Move Fast…Solve Problems!” The Global Strike Command commander issued these directions to all his wing commanders in 2018. So, when a safety issue was identified with the B-2 Bomber, the commander of the 509th Bomb Wing called a team of unlikely heroes: the Stealth Panther Robotics students of Knob Noster High School.
Seventy-two hours after receiving the mission from the wing commander, this team of supersmart, creative teenagers delivered a 3-D printed switch cover that eliminated the safety issue. The part is now installed on the entire B-2 fleet, protecting $50 billion in Air Force assets…for $1.25 each. Just as important, this partnership inspired an entire team of students who will serve as tomorrow’s STEM innovators and leaders.
This extraordinary story illustrates the power of relationships, particularly for military students. Knob Noster Public Schools have emerged as a national model for school-installation partnership. Since 2015, district and base leaders have built strong relationships that contributed to rapid improvements in educational programing and student outcomes. The comprehensive improvement strategy landed Whiteman AFB as #1 for public education in the Air Force’s Support of Military Families 2019 report.
District leaders use the B-2 switch cover and other success stories to sustain support for providing high-quality education to military-connected children. Installation leaders highlight how this sort of partnership can produce innovation, reduce costs, accelerate change, and solve problems. In other words, accomplish the mission!
Public education is both a quality of life and a readiness issue that touches all of our service members and their families. That responsibility remains front of mind every day for the Knob Noster Public Schools team.
Dr. Jerrod H. Wheeler, Superintendent Knob Noster Public Schools