by Linda Jackson

The Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools project at the USC School of Social Work is a “perfect example” of changing how Americans view and understand military families and their lifestyle, said Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, on Jan. 19 during a roundtable discussion at the Davidson Continuing Education Center.

Biden – who along with first lady Michelle Obama is leading the national Joining Forces initiative to support military families – heard from educators, parents and military students who have benefited from Building Capacity. The project is a four-year, $7.6 million effort funded by the Department of Defense Education Activity.

Ron Astor, professor at the USC School of Social Work and the USC Rossier School of Education, is the principal investigator on the project. The co-principal investigators are Marleen Wong, clinical professor and assistant dean of field education at the School of Social Work, and Rami Benbenishty, professor of social work at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

In partnership with eight school districts near Camp Pendleton, the project focuses on improving the climate of civilian schools so they are more welcoming of military children and parents and supportive during the frequent transitions these families face. The project trains Master of Social Work students to serve as interns in military-connected schools and is working to raise awareness among educators about the needs of military children.

“One of the goals of Joining Forces is really to change the culture all across America,” Biden said. “The work of this consortium is so important.”

Biden was welcomed by USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs Elizabeth Garrett and Anthony Hassan, director of the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families.

California, Hassan said, “absorbs more returning servicemen and women than any other state,” underscoring the need for efforts like Building Capacity and USC’s military social work program.

The event highlighted some of the best practices that schools in the program are using to become more military-friendly and more responsive to the needs and concerns of military families.

When she was completing her internship at Jefferson Middle School in Oceanside, School of Social Work graduate student Kim Becker wanted both military and nonmilitary students to be part of a traditional Marine Corps ceremony. So she worked with the Junior ROTC at Oceanside High School to perform a Marine Corps birthday celebration in which the cake was passed from the oldest military child at the school to the youngest.

“It showed me that everyone can participate – you don’t have to be military,” said Victoria Downs, the student who received the cake.

Becker said she wanted the military students at the school to feel a sense of pride and honor.

“My message to the administration and educators was to help them understand that the military student is an asset to their school,” she said.

Gena Truitt, who did her internship at Wolf Canyon Elementary School in Chula Vista, said she wanted to do something that would give military students “positive role models and social support.”

Truitt created a Pride Club for military students where they had a chance to play games, talk with other military students and collaborate on projects such as a large “pride board” made up of photos and handmade posters honoring their family members in the military.

The Pride Club was a source of support for military student Kayla Felizardo, who entered Wolf Canyon Elementary after an abrupt transfer with her family from Japan to San Diego. The club allowed her to form friendships and handle the difficult transition period.

“It was like my life had been turned upside down,” said her mother Monique Felizardo about the move. “The Pride Club had a really big impact on me – knowing that she was OK.”

One of the primary goals of Building Capacity is “bridging the military and civilian divide” in schools, Astor told Biden.
 School administrators play a vital role in creating those connections.

“It’s important for schools to use their websites to reach out to military families so they are able to find the information and resources they need even before they move,” said Larry Perondi, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District.

His district, he said, has moved “well beyond acceptance” of military families to a sense of responsibility. It’s important, he said, “for a warrior not to worry about where their children go to school.”

The Building Capacity team is creating guidebooks for educators to inform them of the issues facing military children and to suggest teaching practices and policies that can ease some of the burdens on families during school transfers, deployments or other stressful times.

“Me being a civilian, I needed to learn a lot,” said Tanya Beth Belsan, principal of Dewey Elementary School in San Diego. “And it was definitely my goal to do so.”

Dewey is the site of one of the San Diego Unified School District’s transition rooms for schools with high military student enrollments. Called the Connections Corner, Dewey’s room serves as a welcome center for new military children and parents.

Janelle Larson O’Hara, a mother of three who credited the Connections Corner with helping her through an illness and who now volunteers there, said the program serves a dual purpose.

“It’s not just for the parents,” she said. “It’s also for the teachers.”

Now that the school has a more military-friendly environment, O’Hara said, staff members understand that children who are moving on are facing another transition. The teachers, she added, “make a big deal out of it,” so the students know they will be missed.

Herself the mother of an Army National Guardsman, Biden recounted a story of how her granddaughter’s teacher put a photo of the Bidens’ son outside the classroom door when he was deployed so the little girl could see his face every morning.

“School can be a supportive environment for military children,” Biden said. “This work, as you can probably tell, is personal to me.”

PHOTO: Professor Ron Astor; Dr. Jill Biden; Provost Elizabeth Garrett; and Anthony Hassan, director of USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families.

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