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Military Deployment Impacts Kids’ Studies

Students with deployed parents score lower on tests.

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With military deployments keeping soldiers away for between 12 and 15 months at a time, it's no wonder their children are negatively impacted at school. But a new study by the RAND Corp. has confirmed what many already expected.

RAND studied 44,000 students in North Carolina and Washington State who had at least one parent deployed or on active duty between 2002 and 2008. Elementary and middle-school students were affected the most, with children in Washington scoring 1.18 points lower on a reading test for each month a parent was deployed.

High schoolers' grades did not fall enough to be considered statistically significant, but researchers suggested that the number of high schoolers included in the study was too low to get a clear reading.

All teens react differently to having a parent being deployed. Experts say that although high school students may have become used to a parent being away, it still affects the approximately 220,000 who have parents on active duty.

"High school students are probably under as much stress as a younger child, but they probably have more experience dealing with that stress," says former Assistant Secretary of Education Tom Luce, now CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, which President Barack Obama tasked with improving military children's math and science achievement.

At the high school level, Luce says, military families want students to be challenged by their classes. "The military has a great appetite for their kids to take courses with more rigor and courses with more math and science," he says.

His organization launched a program that added more Advanced Placement science and math courses in four Texas high schools with large military populations. AP enrollment rose from 600 to 984 in those schools, a 64 percent jump, since it was put into place at the beginning of this school year.

"Oftentimes, [AP classes] can help students deal with what's going on," he says. Math and science classes are especially popular with military families. "Their lives depend on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. They want their kids enrolled in these courses."

[Read more about the surge in AP science and math enrollment.]

Officials at the Military Child Education Coalition, a nonprofit focused on improving education for military children, agree. "I grew up as an army kid," says Ed Veiga, the organization's communications director. "One of the things they see is that their parents are continually learning, continually training. They see that rigor in their parents, and I think it has a really positive effect on them."

But taking more AP courses or studying hard doesn't change the fact that students with parents in the military face emotional hardships. Many of them are forced to move often, and many fear their parents are in danger. Mary Keller, president of the Military Child Education Coalition, says the remaining parent must be in constant communication with teachers.

"It isn't easy for parents to go and talk to educators about their 14- or 16-year-old kid," she says. "But one thing we see is teachers wonder why a child is struggling. They don't notice a parent was deployed until a child's grades dropped."

Her organization has formed a peer-counseling group called Student 2 Student that allows children who are relocated to new schools to get to know one another. Free tutoring, funded by the Department of Defense, is available for military families through tutor.com.

"A high school is a community of young people," Keller says. "Make sure your children are engaged and doesn't isolate themselves. It's important to keep them busy in ways that will help them deal with this."

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An earlier version incorrectly stated that free tutoring on tutor.com was provided courtesy of the Military Child Education Coalition. The tutoring is funded by the Department of Defense.