Educators meet at White House to discuss military-connected children

USC’s Ron Avi Astor is among 200 professors united by Jill Biden to support a nationwide initiative

April 27, 2016 Eddie North-Hager

In 2011, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden announced Joining Forces, an initiative to better support members of the U.S. military and their families. Answering their call for support, the Military Child Education Coalition and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education jointly developed Operation Educate the Educators, an effort to better prepare school personnel to meet the needs of military-connected children.

On April 13, a network of university professors and K-12 teachers met at the White House to continue the conversation on best practices to serve these students. And USC’s leadership role in the discussion took center stage.

An eight-year research project overseen at USC by Professor Ron Avi Astor was among the first to identify this once-invisible population in public schools whose parents served their country in Iraq or Afghanistan.

His studies, featured in national publications, found growing up in a military family during times of war put children at greater risk for a range of negative outcomes — drug use, being bullied or carrying a weapon to school — compared to their non-military peers.

“We would not be here without you, Ron,” Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, told the nearly 200 educators in the audience.

Fulfilling a commitment

The national Joining Forces initiative mirrors USC’s commitment to veterans. The university’s research, education and outreach serves the warrior in the field, the student in the classroom and the service member’s transition to civilian life.

The USC Institute for Creative Technologies combines artificial intelligence and virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The USC School of Social Work has trained more than 500 students to provide special care for service members, veterans and their families as part of the nation’s first large-scale military social work program.

And USC enrolls nearly 1,000 service members, veterans or military dependents — one of the largest student-veteran populations of any private research university.

That’s in addition to Astor’s Building Capacity and Welcoming Practices in Military-Connected Schools initiative with the Department of Defense Education Activity and eight school districts. Welcoming Practices, the follow-up initiative, documents and shares evidence-based actions to make students in transition feel support, which led to a mobile app that outlines available help for those working with military connected students.

The work Ron [Astor] has done has really brought this issue to the forefront.

Eric Flake

“The work Ron has done has really brought this issue to the forefront,” said Eric Flake, a pediatrician and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

Changing the culture

While there are multiple initiatives to support the person in uniform, few recognize their children.

That may be changing. So far more than 15 states have moved ahead with efforts to identify military students and soon federal legislation in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act will require all schools to identify those young people.

“They may not be in a combat zone, but the military child serves, too,” said Col. Nichole Malachowski, executive director of Joining Forces.

Biden, the mother of a National Guardsman, visited USC in 2012 to attend a USC School of Social Work forum on military connected students in public schools.

California alone has more than 67,000 military dependents in its schools, behind only Virginia and Texas. The work by Astor and his colleagues, including longtime collaborator Rami Benbenishty of Bar Ilan University, highlights the impact of the conflict in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history.

“Many people still do not appreciate we are at war,” said Astor, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. “There is an amazing group of academics from many universities and organizations who are working to help these children. But it is just a start. We’re talking about changing American culture.”