kids, often uprooted, thrive at on-base schools
by Carol Morello, Miami.com/Washington
Post, August 4, 2002
rolls around at Ashurst Elementary School, baritones tumble above
children's peals in the cafeteria, where burly, hardened Marines in
green camouflage scrunch into small chairs at low tables. In the
middle of a workday, they are eating with their kids.
Two of Lt. Col. Eric Peterson's four
children attend class in this red brick schoolhouse on a wooded corner
of the Quantico Marine Corps Base. On the wall of his first-grader's
classroom, a poster lists the names of the 23 classmates and the
cities and bases where they had lived before Quantico. All of the
children had three or four places below their names.
If not for the schools, the Petersons
would have no interest in living on base, squeezing six people into a
1,280-square-foot duplex with three bedrooms and two tiny bathrooms.
Peterson and his wife, Michelle, 38,
believe that at a public school their children would be eternal
newcomers among cliques of lifelong friends. At Quantico, one-third or
more of the pupils are new every year.
''These schools celebrate the fact the
children come from military families,'' says Eric Peterson, 41, a
strategic planner who is the liaison between Quantico's school board
and the base command. ``They are a part of us. It's not that we should
be apart from society. But our children benefit from being in an
environment where people understand them.''
The four schools at Quantico are part of
one of the Department of Defense's more successful, if little-known,
ventures. The Pentagon runs 69 schools in seven states, Guam and
Puerto Rico. They are not strictly military schools, but exist because
of the unique strains of military life.
With small, personalized classes and a
record of high academic achievement -- students consistently score
above the national average on standardized tests -- the schools are so
popular that there are long waiting lists to live in military
quarters. Quantico, where mid-career Marines and Navy personnel take
specialized training for a year or two, sprawls over 60,000 acres in
Prince William, Fauquier and Stafford counties in Virginia.
The schools at Quantico and in other
southern states are vestiges of segregation, opened so the racially
integrated armed forces could send their children to good schools.
Some believe the schools have outlived
their purpose. The Defense Department has ordered a study after
several influential members of Congress questioned this spring whether
it would be cheaper to send the children to public schools. With a
$352 million budget, the domestic schools spend about $8,800 per
pupil. The national average is $7,500.
But any attempt to close the schools meets
stiff opposition from parents. ''We put up with separations, working
conditions that are at times primitive, and do things every day in
which we risk our lives,'' Peterson says. ``I love our country. I'm
[living on base] because if anything can be done to make it a little
safer for my family, it should be done.''
In a military environment, the schools are
among the few institutions where class or rank does not matter.
Fathers who call each other ''sir'' on the
job are on a first-name basis while coaching their children's athletic
teams or Scout troops. To the kids, there are no officers, just moms
and dads. Teenagers look in disbelief when asked whether any of their
peers act superior because of a parent's rank.
There is little overtly military about the
Quantico schools. Teenagers wear the same baggy pants and tank tops as
their public school peers, though virtually no one sports neon-dyed
hair or body-piercing jewelry. The few military touches are mostly
peripheral to class work. Marines drive the school buses. A quarter of
the high school students have joined Reserve Officers' Training Corps
A sense of belonging propelled Suzette
Taylor to enroll her daughter at Quantico's combined middle and high
school when her husband, Col. Stephen Taylor, was reassigned from the
Pentagon to assume command of the presidential helicopter fleet at the
Initially, she had misgivings. Quantico
High looked as quaintly out-of-date as the fallout shelter sign still
attached to one wall. The 300-student high school has no orchestra,
but some years can pull together a string quartet. The school offers
some Advanced Placement tests but lacks specialized science classes
such as astronomy. Student linguists choose between French and
But the school's attributes compensate:
Classes are as small as five students. Teachers routinely arrive early
and stay an hour after the school day ends to tutor students.
Administrators say there are few serious discipline problems.
`WARM, FUZZY FEELING'
''The building's old, and you don't get a
beautiful campus,'' allows Suzette Taylor. ``But the minute you go to
the office or talk to the teachers, the facade disappears and you get
this warm, fuzzy feeling when you come inside.''
A Vanderbilt University study last fall
concluded that if all Department of Defense schools were lumped
together as a state, the system would rank first or second nationally.
As in many large urban districts, 40 percent of the students are
minorities, and half are poor enough to qualify for the federal lunch
On tests such as the National Assessment
of Educational Progress, the students are among the highest scorers.
The gap between the scores of blacks and Hispanics and those of whites
and Asians is one of the nation's smallest.
Some factors responsible for the success
cannot be readily duplicated elsewhere. Every student has at least one
parent with a high school degree or more and a job.
But most parents and school officials say
the biggest reason is the involvement expected, even demanded, of