By Mike Nesper
Chugiak-Eagle River Star
6:48 PM AKDT, May 1, 2012
EAGLE RIVER, Alaska
Being the new kid in school is hard. But Eagle River High School tries to do all it can to make that transition a little easier. And it’s working. Just ask Meagan Loveland.
As someone who’s lived in the Netherlands, New Mexico and most recently Texas, Loveland said adjusting to life at ERHS has been aided by the school’s plethora of services for students of military families.
After relocating to Elmendorf Air Force Base in late December 2011, Loveland’s longtime friend and nearby Birchwood Christian School junior Chris Manning recommend she attend Eagle River. Loveland, also a junior, is glad she took his advice.
Loveland’s main resource at school is counselor Gayle Morrison.
“I come to (Morrison) every fourth period,” Loveland said.
Morrison, whose entire caseload is made up of military students, helps Loveland choose classes, ensures she’s meeting graduation requirements and, is available to discuss any other issues that might come up.
Morrison and Bartlett High counselor Chris Cullings’ positions are funded through a United States Department of Defense “Project Connect” grant. The three-year grant targets academic, social and emotional needs of students from active-duty military families.
In Anchorage, the project focuses on Central and Gruening middle schools and Eagle River and Bartlett high schools — the four schools in the Anchorage School District with the highest population of military students.
About one in eight ERHS students will have a parent deployed overseas throughout the year, said Principal Marty Lang.
With such a high concentration of military students, having multiple services for them is essential, Morrison said.
“Having these supports are critical for students and parents,” she said. “These are super important.”
A multitude of programs is needed, Lang said, because no one service works for every student.
“The more services and safety nets we can provide … the more we can help them down the line,” he said.
Substance abuse counseling
Nancy Nolin is the clinical supervisor for the Adolescent Substance Abuse Counseling Services (ASACS) for the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) area.
The main objective of ASACS is to prevent teenagers from becoming involved with drugs or alcohol. Nolin educates students about peer pressure, decision-making, problem solving and stress management via in-classroom presentations and guest speakers, Lang said.
Another focus of the ASACS program is to educate teens who have experimented with drugs or alcohol about the effects of substance abuse. ASACS also provides a safe environment for adolescents who have been affected by someone else’s drug or alcohol use to express their feelings.
Nolin, who has an office at ERHS, has been invaluable, Lang said.
“She can provide so many clinical services,” he said.
Multiple stressors on a student can lead to poor choices, Lang said — and military students have plenty of stress in their lives. At ERHS, a teen could be dealing with moving to a new state, starting a new school and having a parent deployed all at the same time. Therefore, ASACS is an essential service, Lang said.
“The more early interventions we can put into place — especially for our military kids who may have more stressors in their life — the better chance we have to produce a better and healthy kid,” he said.
Military and Family Life Consultants
Military and Family Life Consultants (MFLC) assist students with a variety of issues, such as coping with stress, anger and deployment. The Anchorage School District has 17 MFLCs and the Mat-Su Valley has four assigned to specific schools, according to Adele Daniels, JBER school liaison officer. The consultant changes every semester, Morrison said.
Each MFLC holds a master’s or a doctorate degree, is licensed and has experience working with children, according to a press release.
Schools with higher populations of military students receive MFLCs.
The MFLCs, ASACS program, school liaisons and the military counselor all play vital roles in assisting students from military families, Lang said.
“All of those things cumulatively create a safety net for all of our kids who are facing challenges,” he said.
Four JBER school liaisons provide military personnel and their families information and resources to ease their children’s transition to a new location. School liaisons offer their services for all students, elementary through high school, said Daniels, who’s responsible for Chugiak-Eagle River schools on the Fort Richardson side of the base.
“We are that link between the military and the schools,” she said.
The liaisons focus on the schools with more military kids, Daniels said, but any school can contact any of the four liaisons to address a problem.
All the various entities providing the many services to ASD military students work together, Daniels said.
“You can’t ask for a better situation,” she said. “We’re lucky.”
Making students feel they are part of their school community benefits everyone, especially military transfers, Morrison said.
“Students are more successful at school if they’re more connected to the community,” she said. “When a kid is absent, they want kids texting them, ‘Where are you?’”
That fact is true at all ages, said Nicole Sommerville, principal of Eagle River Elementary.
In honor of their military students — which make up about one-third of the school’s population — Eagle River Elementary held an assembly April 19 celebrating its military children.
“We work really hard to make sure everyone is involved,” Sommerville told the students. “We are a community for you.”
The same goes for adjusting to life on a new base.
Daniels said the military wants new residents to tie their school life in with their life on base and encourages students to bring their non-military friends onto the joint base.
“We try to keep the communities together,” Daniels said. “That’s important to the command.”
Part of Morrison’s job entails ensuring incoming and outgoing students are on track to graduate.
“That’s been a big focus of the district the last few years,” she said.
Preparing students for their new school district helps reduce the stress that comes with moving, Daniels said.
“It just lessons the chance of getting behind,” she said.
If a student is behind on their classes, ASD offers a credit recovery program and online courses through its MyHigh program.
The money Eagle River High received via Project Connect helps fund Morrison’s full-time position and part of teacher Melissa Casey’s salary.
Casey, Morrison and physical education teacher Kirby Senden run the Adventure Program at ERHS, which eases the transition into the building for new students — many of whom come from a military background. The pilot program also promotes academic success via weekly checkups on grades.
When a transfer student enters Eagle River High for the first time, a current student eats lunch with him or her, and gives the new student a tour of the school, walking them through their schedule.
And it’s all thanks to the school’s Adventure Program.
Seven “model facilitators” who have taken an introductory peer leadership class assist Casey teaching other students. Eagle River also has one “peer ambassador,” senior Kelsey Reeves, who spends an hour each day in Morrison’s office, providing support for students.
Reeves helps with everything from homework to listening to students’ concerns outside of school.
Morrison described Reeves’ role as “peer mediation.”
Morrison said she sees a major difference in the new students who choose to take part in the Adventure Program compared to those who don’t.
Should the recent Department of Defense proposal to move a F-16 fighter jet squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to JBER become reality, ERHS would have no problem accommodating additional students, Morrison said.
Part of that is due to the beneficial programs that have resulted from Project Connect, Lang said, which is why ASD is seeking to extend the program.
“Our district is going to apply for another three-year grant,” he said.
Lang said having a military counselor is essential at his school, which is located just a five-minute drive from the nearest base entrance.
“The position has been perfectly attuned to what we need,” he said.
And ERHS couldn’t have a more fitting person than Morrison — whose husband is active duty military — fill that role, Lang said.
“She really connects with the students,” he said. “Gayle won’t toot her own horn, but she is amazing.”
Eagle River High hosts a family lunch once a quarter for all new students, Morrison said. The school also has been holding a “deployment lunch” for kids with a parent who is overseas since 3,500 troops in the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division left JBER for a yearlong tour in Afghanistan late last year.
“They didn’t want a touchy-feely emotional lunch,” she said. “They just wanted to see who was in the same boat.”
And it’s Eagle River’s high military population that makes transfer students more at ease, Loveland said.
“It’s nice to meet new people that are also new,” she said. “Even though they don’t know you, they know what you’re going through.”
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