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Last Updated: 03/12/2018

 Article of Interest - General Education Reform logoGIs' kids, often uprooted, thrive at on-base schools
by Carol Morello, Post, August 4, 2002

When lunchtime 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 (ROTC).

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 base.

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 Spanish.

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.


''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 program.

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 parents.


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