The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 9 - Dr. Brian Selmeski on "A+ Toolkit for Public K-12 education"

  • Published

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Brian Selmeski and Lt. Col. Christina Karvwnaris celebrate the launch of the A+ Toolkit with CMSgt JoAnne Bass. 
 Dr. Brian Selmeski and Lt. Col. Christina Karvwnaris celebrate the launch of the A+ Toolkit with CMSgt JoAnne Bass

Dr. Margaret Sankey: Welcome to Wild Blue Yonder on the Air, Air University Press's podcast. Joining us today is Dr. Brian Selmeski, who is the lead on the Public K through 12 Education Working Group. They've just produced a toolkit to help commanders, their spouses, and base communities improve local education. So thank you for joining us.


Dr.  Brian Selmeski: Thank you for having me, Margaret.

Sankey: I guess the first question is, why should a command team care about what's going on in their local schools?

Selmeski: It's a fair question, and I want to emphasize it's not because I say they should care, and it's certainly not because a publication that I co-authored says they should care. We look to our senior leaders and whether that has been the last several secretaries of the Air Force, the current or former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, his spouse, the Chief of Space Operations, and his spouse, they've all been saying the same thing, and that is that public education is of great concern to airmen and guardians who have school-aged children, that if our airmen and guardians are worried about their kids, are they getting a good education, are they safe, are they going to be college or career ready, then they're not worrying about the mission.

So that's the readiness side of K-12 education's impact on the military. But there's another side to this as well, and that is that we recruit Airmen and Guardians, but their children are drafted, and if our children aren't happy, if our spouses aren't happy, then generally we are not happy. So quality of life is critical, not necessarily to getting people into the Air Force, the Space Force, and the other armed services, but certainly to keeping them there. So we may recruit Airmen and Guardians, but we retain families. So I think from what our senior leaders are saying, it is extremely important. Right now within the Department of Defence, the number one issue for quality of life and for readiness is ensuring that those airmen and guardians with school-aged children have access to quality schools.

Sankey: What kind of expectations do Airmen and Guardians bring about what they expect from their children's education? What do they want?

Selmeski: Well, I've been in my role for about three years now, and I've had the opportunity to speak with many parents, commanders, senior enlisted leaders, and command team spouses, and I've learned that, "If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one," are long, long gone. This is not our parents or grandparent's Air Force, so I think what we're looking at today is, particularly within the Department of the Air Force, the most educated professionals that we have ever seen, we have senior enlisted leaders with advanced degrees, with masters and doctorates. This is not an officer-centric point I'm making. This is across the entire Total Force. And so of course, they have higher expectations for their children. While oftentimes managing those expectations is left to the spouse, unless it is a dual military couple, in which case, I suppose they sort of have to arm wrestle over who takes care of these things, it's a family concern.

So we have service members and spouses who have higher expectations, and because it's 2021, they're not just dealing with COVID and all of the other challenges that our public schools are dealing with across the country, they also have social media, and they have a platform that is near real-time communication with broad audiences, and this is a very emotional issue. So if a service member or a spouse is frustrated, they now have a way to make that frustration known, and that's adding pressure not just to the Department of the Air Force, the Air Force, the Space Force, and the individual installation commander, but it's also adding pressure to the families. And so we're trying to provide a way for command teams who want or need to respond to the situation to not have to make many of the same mistakes that we made here at Maxwell when we were getting started.

Sankey: I know this is a point of great frustration. I've listened to colleagues talk about how they've been surprised, not just how decentralized the US education system is, sort of school district to school district, but how many other cascading decisions this involved, whether or not somebody is going to turn down a school assignment or be a geo-bachelor for a year, where they want to buy or rent property, so this ends up being hugely more tangled than just what school, right?

Selmeski: You're absolutely correct. It has to do with whether the family unit stays intact, whether the family is happy, whether assignments are accepted, even up to the point of leaving service. So it is not important, again, because I'm saying it's important, it's important because when viewed from the Pentagon, they see this as an area that is necessary for leader attention. If command teams focus on this problem, the problem will usually get better. It's not going to be quick and it's not going to be easy, but if command teams don't have this on their top list of priorities, then they're not going to get to some of the root issues. However, it's much more complex when you step back and look at it from the perspective of the entire Department of the Air Force, because you're absolutely correct, there is not a centralized curriculum in the United States for K-12 schools. Most of the oversight for public education comes from states, however, it is managed through what are called local education activities, so a school board, for example. Those school boards are elected, so you can't even go to the mayor or the governor or whomever you might want to take your case to and say, "This is a problem, it must be fixed." The governance of public education is intentionally decentralized. There are many, many different ways that LEAs operate.

And so it has not only those implications for the families of, do I take the assignment? Do I buy a house? It also has huge implications for the Command. Are we able to meet our manning? Are we able to get the right people here? General Goldfein talking about how he had no problem finding Airmen to go to Afghanistan, but he had a hard time finding Airmen to go to certain bases in CONUS. So that's what it looks like from the top, and while we started at one installation, the more people we talked to, the more we heard across the entire Department of Defense that this is not a problem that is unique to one installation or a handful of installations. It may look different, manifest itself differently in different places, but it is a common problem. Unfortunately, we don't have a single reporting system. We don't have a single curriculum. Maybe that's fortunate. It was by design in the United States. We didn't do that by accident, but the United States Air Force, the United States Space Force, are across all the states, and that's where it really becomes tremendously complex.

Sankey: That's great to understand on a macro level. I know that one of my Air War College students was definitely not happy at home, because his kids weren't able to take part in some of the activities that they had done in the places where they'd PCS'd from. What are some of the micro-level barriers that military kids encounter when they arrive at a new base?

Selmeski: We hear about this a lot, unfortunately. And before I start to answer your question with some specifics, let me provide a general point, and that is almost every installation has a School Liaison Office, and the School Liaison is there... There may be several School Liaisons at an installation. The School Liaisons are there to help members and their families sort through these sorts of issues that you were referencing. It doesn't matter if you are National Guard, reserve, active duty, civilian. You can go to the School Liaison Office and get assistance in dealing with whatever obstacle, challenge your child might be facing in their school. So, in short, the bumper sticker, call the SLO before you go. You really, really should take advantage of that resource if you're encountering some of these problems. There have been efforts across the country to try to minimize the disruption, because remember that your average child of an active duty member will change schools six to nine times during their K-12 experience. I changed schools twice, and it was traumatic for me, so I can only imagine the challenges. On the flip side, and we have to recognize there is always an upside, this can, doesn't have to, but can produce tremendous resilience in children.

So it's not all bad, but the challenges are very real, and if you're changing schools nine times, I can almost guarantee you, one of those times it's gonna be challenging for the child. One of the ways that the United States has tried to address this is through what's called an Interstate Compact. This is a legal mechanism. It's basically an agreement between states that, once agreed to by all 50 states, has the power of federal law. And there is a Military Interstate Children's Compact on educational opportunities. Oftentimes you'll just hear referred to it as Interstate Compact. That covers a lot of the issues that used to be problems. Sometimes they still are. For example, kindergarten age. When you can start kindergarten changes from LEA to LEA, from state to state. So if you're eligible in one state and you're PCS'ing to another state, there's something that exists that can help you overcome that. Likewise, if you miss tryouts for... Whether it's football, basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, there is a requirement that you'll be given the opportunity to try out if you are arriving late on military orders.

There is not a guarantee that you make the team. That's maybe where things begin to get really sticky because again, you're the new kid, you're the new family. And we understand that there are always gonna be challenges, but you certainly have the right to a tryout. Immunization requirements, there are a number of different issues that are addressed in this Interstate Compact, but I don't want to pretend that it fixes everything.

Sankey: I was a military kid, so these things did not exist when I was bouncing around, and it's good to know that things have improved pretty significantly from where I was. [laughter] But it is a problem, and that's why your team and the folks at Maxwell decided to address it. And you went about it in kind of an innovative way rather than a report, what did you decide to do and how did that make for a very different product?

Selmeski: It was an unusual experience. We hear a lot about design thinking and the design process. This was a case of design process, but it didn't start out that way. We were asked to make a presentation to Command spouses on what we had done at Maxwell Air Force Base, which we did, and Mrs. Brown was very happy with it. But not surprisingly, many of the Command spouses... I say not surprisingly in hindsight. I was merely doing what I was told. They weren't particularly happy with it in the audience because they weren't coming to Maxwell. They were going to Fort Better Than Here, and they wanted to know what are things like there.

Well, we took that feedback and of course it's very easy to say, "Well, they just don't understand." And push back on whether it is participant feedback or student feedback. We took their feedback to heart and said, "They raised a very good point." We were asked to do something that really doesn't meet their needs. What would meet their needs? So we developed something new, different, and we sat down with a graphic designer and we said, "How would you approach this?" Because, of course, PowerPoint is the coin of the realm and we wanted to have beautiful PowerPoints, and what he came back with was so radically different than how we had envisioned this, that it caused us to rethink our entire effort.

We created a brand new presentation that tried to get at broader issues, that were more transferable. A different group of command spouses provide us more feedback and said, "We still want more of this. We still want less of that." We took that feedback and by this point, it was clear that we were on to something. One can choose how to react to that feedback, and we said, "This is fabulous. We hear that there's an appetite. We're trying to figure out what you're hungry for," and eventually it became clear that what they were looking for were three things. Number one, people wanted to have some sort of a model, "Help me think through this large, complex, long-term ambiguous problem set. Tell me how do I do that?" Second, "Give me some resources. Who can I call? Who can I turn to? What's already out there that I can use?" And third, "Give me examples. Give me examples of success." So from that, we went back and redesigned a third time, and eventually, I think we've gone through about six iterations of this, until we finally came up with something that is a booklet. It has an approach, it has three phases within the approach, and then it has recommended actions, it has resources you can use, it has examples of success. That was the origin of the A plus Toolkit for command teams and spouses.

Sankey: We have a link to it, that we'll have here in the transcript, and you also have a website which will be updated, have more case studies, more updates of things as they develop, right?  (Link:

Selmeski: Indeed, and I'm glad you mentioned case studies because that was the last iteration. We try to provide lots and lots of actions with resources that could help command teams implement those actions and examples, sort of bite-sized examples, one long sentence, or two short sentences. Again, space is very tight in a publication, but we wanted to be able to walk people through, "This action may not be applicable in your instance, but this one may be. Here are things you can do, people you can call, resources you can access," and a bite-sized example of what it might look like. But we were surprised, and again, maybe we shouldn't have been, but we listened to the feedback that short examples were useful, but people wanted something to sink their teeth into, and that's where we developed case studies. So we selected four installations and worked out with different authors, more extensive explanations of what occurred at those installations. Last week, we had the privilege of presenting the toolkit to all the school liaisons across the Department of the Air Force, and we're profoundly appreciative for the school liaison program director for giving us that opportunity.

And lo and behold, we identified more case studies. So we are currently working on two new case studies. I won't ruin the surprise, but if you check the website today and check it again in a couple of weeks, I think you'll see that the list is growing and growing. In fact, the introduction, right after General Brown and Mrs. Brown provided they are charged to command teams, General Hecker as the President of Air University, and this came out through Air University Press, intentionally asked commanders, "Please provide that feedback." This is a first step. This is a first attempt to capture some of those examples of success, and when we get more examples of success, what we've learned is that we identify more resources and we have to go back and flesh out the approach even more. So I see a wonderful design process that has reached, will say, an initial deliverable, but we're certainly not done in terms of the feedback loops and enrichment and variations on this. And thanks to the internet, of course, we can do that almost real-time as we get the feedback.

Sankey: And it seems like this is really a signal of commitment and support, because reading the toolkit and thinking about some of these case studies, this is the long haul, this is sometimes an 18-month process or a multi-year process. So does this kind of help keep traction and keep people invested in the process?

Selmeski: Time will tell if it keeps people invested in the process. Is it long-term? Absolutely. Let me go back to 2018, when the Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Air Force, and the Secretary of the Navy sent a letter to the National Governors Association, and it said, "Moving forward, we will take into consideration the quality of public schools and spouse employment opportunities as we allocate mission." Sometimes people confuse this with BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure process, that is a congressional process, however, where missions are allocated is within service secretary's prerogative. At the very bottom of that letter, it caveated all this by saying, "We understand this is a long-term process. We are merely pointing you, telling you what the priorities are for the Department of Defense."

When we started at Maxwell, we understood this was going to be a multi-year initiative, but again, just like the design process that led to the A+ Toolkit, we didn't start with a concrete vision in mind, we had some broad ideas. That vision of an alternative future has changed, it has probably gotten more realistic. We understand what we can influence versus what we can control, we've built the relationships, we have enhanced our communication. We've done that, not because I thought it was a good idea, we did it first because General Cotton thought it was a good idea, and then we did it because General Hecker thought it was a good idea, and they weren't operating in a vacuum. They were speaking with the Chief of Staff and the Secretary.

So again, it reinforces that you can start something with command intent, now the question is, will we continue it? And I see no indication, at least here at Maxwell, that we're going to change nor across the Department of the Air Force, because that memo from 2018 eventually took the form of the support of military families report, and we are waiting with bated breath for the second edition of that to be issued.

Sankey: Outside of your base's school liaisons, school districts might seem like an opaque system. How should a command team go about building those relationships if they already don't exist?

Selmeski: First of all they may exist, but the command team may not be aware of them. So the first stop should always be the school liaison. I've learned so much over the course of these years about public education and many of the complexities that you and I keep coming back to, but also about the Department of the Air Force. A school liaison may be assigned all the way down at the Child and Youth Program flight or may be a direct report to the installation commander, both of those are permissible. If there is a problem, I would recommend elevating the position of the school liaison. That's not to give them a promotion, it is to ensure the command teams have a direct channel and that the messages are going back and forth. And I say that because if you have a school liaison, there should be some relationship with your school district or districts, your LEAs in K-12 parlance. If in some unusual case there is not, well, you have a couple of options. First, when an individual asks for a meeting with a school superintendent, there are usually plenty of gatekeepers to ensure that somebody at a lower level who was closer to the problem the parent is experiencing, be that a principal or an assistant superintendent, that they are the ones who have that meeting.

When the installation commander asks for a meeting, if a base commander asks for a meeting with a superintendent, the meeting usually happens, and it usually happens quickly. Now, I would recommend just like we would in key leader engagements, whether we are in sub-Saharan Africa or in the Middle East, that if you're trying to build rapport, you play an away game first before you invite them on to base. We don't think about our military installations as particularly scary places, but you'd be surprised at how many people who live outside the gate see it as a forbidding place. So when the commander goes for an office visit, that goes a long way, every installation should have a designated school official, maybe the Mission Support Group Commander, that officer should be going in uniform to school board meetings, again, these are the executive boards that oversee the school district, a commander could do that as well, a spouse could do that.

Again, spouses, as Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Raymond point out all the time, have tremendous influence, but commanders have authority, that's why we wrote this for command teams and spouses. It could be the senior enlisted leader, it could be the Mission Support Group Commander, it really doesn't matter who so much as somebody with authority is making themselves visible, talking, getting to know people, we emphasize two lines of effort throughout this entire toolkit. One is relationships, nothing is gonna change without relationships, and the second is communication, and that is not just communicating with the schools, it's also communicating with our people, ensuring they know what the options are, ensuring that they know what things are really like on the ground, not what things were like when their buddies were here 10 years ago, and that may have very little bearing on what it looks like today.

Sankey: I found the really graphic visual aspect of the toolkit really interesting. It showed, it gave you literally a road map, it looked almost like a board game to me of how to take quick wins and use the feedback loops to build and sustain enthusiasm and momentum, could you speak to that?

Selmeski: I'd be happy to. First, let me give a shout out to our graphic designer because if this had been left up to me as a traditional academic, it would have been a publication, like all of the other publications I've done, it would have been text-heavy, and it probably would have been deathly boring for most people, and I don't think most people... Certainly not busy commanders would have read it. So thank you for the feedback. I will tell Tim, he is really the one who we have to thank for that board game-like feeling of the graphics. I just want to say that it is a road map, but just like any road map, you can take a bunch of different routes, there is no single way that you can proceed through, this is not IKEA where you must follow the lines on the floor of the store, this is instead a very flexible approach.

So you mentioned quick wins, and I always tell the command spouses when I'm presenting to them and they're a wonderful group and are not shy at all, and ask lots of questions, so I say I'm presenting, but really they're interrogating me with all these questions, especially the teachers in the audience. General Cotton was under pressure at that time because our local school system was experiencing such problems and this was such a priority at the most senior levels of the Air Force. So he started with quick wins, and if I had been in his shoes, I can't say I would have done any differently, he did exactly what a good leader would do, which is to get a tangible success story that would lead to another tangible success story that you could begin to change the narrative, build the relationship, again, coming back to communications and relationships. When General Hecker assumed command, we presented him with what we had done, and we had some recommendations for him.

One of the things that he insisted on was to take a knee and to really assess what do our people want. Again, we had achieved the quick wins, we had begun to change the narrative slowly, we had improved the communication and relationships, he directed a survey of all personnel. And again, I think it was the perfect command decision at the perfect time, so we went back and really asked our installation community, "If you can choose between A and B, which do you prefer? If you could rank order one, two, three, and four, which comes first?" That helped us transition from three-month initiatives that resulted in quick wins to a year-long initiative to really understand what the... We'll call it the operational environment, looked like, what was within the realm of the possible?

And then that was a springboard to a five-year plan, because while a commander may only be in the seat for two years, school districts change very slowly, and they're looking at issues in a five to 10-year plan, they're looking at, can they get the bond, can they get the contractor? And this is just to address their deferred maintenance. Curricular issues take even longer, can we get more AP classes? Okay, first we have to get more teachers, to get more teachers, we have to recruit, we have to have the budget for that. These are incredibly complex problems, and K-12 leaders are trying to address them, but they are operating on a Crockpot timeline. We cannot expect to come in with our microwave recipes and achieve success. Every commander we've worked with has understood that the same thing in the actual operational environment that they have deployed to, we just have to take some of those lessons and employ them here at home, and we've seen great success when we do.

Sankey: So far, we've talked about the base and the schools, but the toolkit also highlights that there are some extremely valuable and useful connections with some NGOs, some non-profits that can support military children.

Selmeski: You're correct. These are some of the resources that we didn't know about when we began this journey, we met some of them very early on, we met others of them more recently. So we put out the call to those who were working on similar issues at different installations, who do you call on when you need... You're gonna dial a friend, who is that person? And some of them really transcend all of the installations that we talked with, organizations like the Military Child Education Coalition, a wonderful group, they have been incredibly supportive to us. Others are actually in-house, quite possibly, Department of Defense's best kept secret is the Defense State Liaison Office. Every region in the country has a regional liaison officer, they have state profiles of where different legislative efforts are, they have lists of priorities that they will work with different installations to ensure our issues are included in that, and then unlike most federal employees who because of the Hatch Act, can't go and lobby for State legislation, because that's not the role of the federal government, they can work with State legislators to ensure that they have best practices, because a different state did this very well, this is the model legislation, here are the highest priority issues.

Somewhere in between there, we've also found, and I'm not sure we always remember this, that there are brother and sister installations out there that are facing very similar issues. So we have seen connections to Naval Air Stations who are proposing things that might be useful here. We have seen initiatives at army installations that I wish we could copy. Right now with COVID, it's a little complex. We can't do everything. We've seen so many good ideas. I said that we are adding to the number of case studies on the website because unlike a publication, it has almost limitless space, but we're also trying to find more of those nugget-sized examples of success. We're trying to find more of those resources. Lastly, I would say that some of those resources don't pertain to either non-profits, the federal government, some of them are State resources.

Almost every state that has military installations has some sort of a body that is charged with ensuring the continuation of military presence, because from a State perspective, this is a lot of money, there are direct expenditures, obviously contracting and etcetera, there're also a lot of well-salaried people who reside in that State's communities. So working with States, almost every State now has an annual report card for every school district down to individual schools. Alabama is the one I know the best, although I looked at many of them, it's incredibly user-friendly, and I can compare three elementary schools across three different school districts, we don't have to provide that resource, we just have to direct our people to the right resources in that case.

Sankey: I also really enjoy the examples in the toolkit of how some direct engagement with the Air Force and the Space Force gets kids really excited. This is the STEM heavy application of what they're learning. I love the B2 switch cover, but what are some of the other engagements that you've seen?

Selmeski: Well, you talked about the B2 switch cover, which is a very popular case, we're very lucky to have built a great relationship with the superintendent of Knob Noster Public Schools, which supports the mission at Whiteman Air Force Base, and his story is fantastic because he will tell you that there was not a lot of STEM when he took over Knob Noster public schools. He began to initiate programs that were student-focused, not just curricular, but that really captured some of the students' interests, particularly through robotics. And he created a group or he helped a group be created called the Stealth Panthers Robotic team. And the Stealth Panthers were just a bunch of kids who liked the idea of STEM, they liked the robotics, they liked to build stuff.

When I was a kid, they were erector sets. Apparently, we've come a long way. The story about the B2 switch cover is that when the wing commander was alerted to a safety concern where a switch could be accidentally engaged in flight that could have catastrophic consequences, he didn't turn to the University of Missouri, he didn't turn to a defense contractor, he turned to Knob Noster Public Schools and the Stealth Panthers. And these kids sat down with a team of pilots and figured out what the problem was, brainstormed solutions, came up with one, again, design thinking, and they sat with their technology teacher and 3D-printed a switch cover. Dr. Wheeler, the superintendent is very, very proud of that and rightfully so, he also highlights that that wouldn't have happened without the relationship between the installation and the schools. He isn't just excited as all airmen should be, and everybody interested in our national defense that the B2 is again safe and air-worthy.

He also points out how excited these kids were, how they are the STEM leaders of the future. Now, STEM is not the only area where installations can engage, but it's one of a handful that we hear about all the time. Sometimes we hear about STEAM, which includes the arts or humanities, STEAM-H. Sometimes we hear this other acronym, and I want to really highlight it, it's called SEL, Social Emotional Learning, this is a huge initiative across K-12 schools, and it looks at not just the whole student, but the whole student environment. It is as concerned with the lunch lady and custodian and whether they are smiling and positive influences on the student, as it is on the teachers, it brings families and the rest of the community into the picture, and we've seen great things done on SEL. The third area that you hear about a lot is special education or SPED, because changing schools six to nine times is tough, it's tough on the family, it's tough on the student. Doing so when there are special education needs can be incredibly difficult.

So we have some good programs across the Air Force. Again, I learn every day. Two weeks ago, I learned that you do not have to be in the exceptional family members program, EFMP to access EFMP resources. So for those who have children who have special education needs, you don't have to sign up for EFMP, you can talk to your EFMP coordinator and get help. If I don't know that, and I've been working on these issues now for three years, I'm sure there are families out there who don't know that. If your child has special education needs and is attending a public school, there may be the opportunity to work not only with EFMP, but also with the school liaison, because they're also accustomed to dealing with these issues. Now, the Air Force is aware that this is a challenge, and I just want to give kudos to the Department of the Air Force, who is now centralizing support, not only for the medical side of EFMP, but also for the educational side, bringing an attorney into the discussion.

A special education attorney can change the dynamic of a conversation with a school district like nothing else. So there are more resources than used to be available, not as many as there will be six months from now I hope, I cross my fingers that this trend continues. And if you're operating off of old knowledge, I just ask every parent, just stop and to think, "How sure am I of this?" Let me get a second opinion. Exactly what you would do with your healthcare. Before you make a life-altering decision, call the SLO, call EFMP, call the school district, get multiple perspectives. And that is not a macro recommendation, that is a very micro recommendation, but I want to make sure everybody listening to your podcast who is in those circumstances knows that they have resources they may not even be aware of.

Sankey: One of our previous guests, my colleague Dr Frank Blazich is a historian and maybe full-time promoter of all the good work that the Civil Air Patrol does, especially highlighting their commitment as kind of citizenship development and as promoters of diversity in aviation, and I know they do great work on base adjacent school districts, promoting all of these things, did you have occasion to cross paths with him?

Selmeski: Indeed, we make a very special mention of citizenship and youth programs, things like Junior ROTC and Civil Air Patrol, they are of course different programs, but with limited space, we recommend them together. There are challenges to standing up new programs, of course, because there are limitations, but if a program exists, this can be a critical, not just form of engagement with the community and students, but also one of those inspirations. And I've talked with many an Air Force officer during my 14 years at Air University, who tell me their origin story began with the Civil Air Patrol, all they wanted to do was fly. I was in the army; I did not want to fly. I'm not afraid of heights, I just prefer to jump out of airplanes, but the neat thing about Junior ROTC, to come back to my army roots, is that there is an Army ROTC, there's an Air Force ROTC, there's a Navy ROTC, there's even a Marine Corps Junior ROTC. These are all JROTC programs, and I don't think they're right for every community, I don't think they're right for every set of problems, but these are great resources in certain circumstances, just like I don't think we can only talk about STEM, in some places SEL is more relevant.

In some places, junior ROTC and CAP are perfect. I know much closer to home my nephew was a junior ROTC cadet, and from there he received an appointment to the Air Force Academy, and he is now a lieutenant in the Air Force, and his uncle is very proud of him, looks forward to him coming through Air University hopefully sooner rather than later. I saw what an incredible role that was in his high school. We just need to emphasize here, Margaret, that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many, many grants out there. Now we're getting into some REACH goals, right? Establishing a Junior ROTC detachment takes years. Likewise, getting a large grant takes years. Increasing your STEM programs to the point that they reached the Stealth Panthers Robotics team sort of level takes years, but that journey of 1000 miles needs to begin with the first step.

So we are not in this toolkit recommending that any installation follow a certain path, certainly not Maxwell's path. This is not a reflection of what we've done, this is a reflection of best practices across the Department of Defense at the installation level, so that command teams and spouses and other interested parties can have that approach. They don't have to figure out everything all on their own. Where do you want to start in that board game, as you called it? They can figure out which step to begin with, they can figure out which resources are most appropriate, and they can call the installations that we cite as examples of success or as case studies and say, "Can you recommend how we get started? Can you recommend how we sustain success?" Sometimes we hear from commanders or command spouses who are headed to installations where the education is excellent. Included on that list now is Whiteman Air Force Base, which wasn't always that way. Maybe you start at that installation on sustained momentum, because if we know anything, it is that if we take our eye off of a complex process, that over time, just normal friction and bureaucracy can slow things down. How do you take a good school system and make it great? How do you keep a great school system great? Those are questions that we were as concerned about as how do you take an installation where schools are really problematic and begin to turn their vector from negative to positive?

Sankey: Well, I can't think of any better way to wrap up than to put this kind of in the broader context that your working group and the toolkit established, and that is that public K-12 education is a national security issue, and it's something that should be on the radar of base command teams. What would you like to leave listeners with in terms of what they should be thinking about on these issues?

Selmeski: It's a great point to finish up on, and thank you, Margaret. I'd like to make two points. First is that the military installation has been there longer than the population of that installation has been. The community members have been there for even longer. So if we want to be part of the community, we have to be good citizens, and that the military from the installation level in particular, can be a force for good, but we must remember that those schools don't just exist for us, our children, they exist for the entire community's needs. So we have to approach this with both the military can-do and get 'er done sort of attitude, and the patience to understand that the situation looks different possibly from the community's perspective, and we have to figure out a way to work together. That's not always easy to do, and it's rarely quick, but if you take time to build those relationships, to improve the communication, the successes will come. The second point is not mine, I'm just gonna quote from General and Mrs. Brown here, and in their charge to command teams, they say, "Our country was built and prospered on the foundational pillars of education and defense. We need to ensure both are strong to overcome the challenges of the 21st century."

Selmeski: We are not going to succeed in Great Power competition solely based on how much we focus on those great powers in our PME curriculum, for example. We have to make sure that we are doing exactly what Knob Noster Public Schools did, to grow the next generation of STEM leaders. To make sure that students who are graduating from all of our high schools are career or college ready, and if you put those two things, one, that we are part of our communities, and two, we can't just lean on the defense pillar, that we need to focus on education and defense, I think you have an awful lot of intersections and compelling reasons why not just command teams but the entire installation community should be concerned with improving or sustaining the quality of public education.

Sankey: Well, that's a great wrap-up. I'd like to thank Dr. Brian Selmeski from the public K-12 education working group for joining us on Wild Blue Yonder on the Air. I'm Dr. Margaret Sankey, thank you for joining us.

Selmeski: Thank you so much, Margaret, this has been a pleasure.


Wild Blue Yonder Home