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Rules of Engagement

From North Carolina to Nagasaki, Japan, U.S. military bases are home to public schools with a unique role—to serve the children of those who serve our country.


By John Rosales

Theresa Hardesty removes a towel-sized American flag from a desk drawer and unfolds it in front of her prekindergarten students.

“What do we do now?” she asks rhetorically. “We stand.”

Some of the children spring up and hit a brace—heels together, shoulders back, chest out, right hand on heart. One youngster is saluting. Another with long flyaway hair begins tip-toeing in place, head clicked way back, mouth agape, arms flapping like a bird.

“And we stand still, don’t we,” Hardesty adds, “just like our mommies and daddies.”

Those moms and dads happen to be combat soldiers who live at Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps base near Jacksonville, North Carolina. Some work and train at Lejeune; others are deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other assignments tied to national defense.

Whether at home or overseas, the Marine parent’s presence is strongly felt at Tarawa Terrace 1 Primary Public School, named after the base housing area where it is located. Some of the children mimic soldier attire with desert camouflage pants and bright red T-shirts carrying the Marine emblem. One student proudly points to his red-and-blue “sergeant’s shirt.” “He calls it that because his dad just got promoted,” Hardesty says.

The 36-year-old teacher understands her students and their family’s military lifestyle. She was a “military brat” herself, the daughter of a Marine captain, and educated at similar on-base schools. Like many of her fellow teachers, administrators, and support staff, she is now the spouse of a Marine. Her sense of duty is unwavering.

“Flag etiquette is part of their culture,” says Hardesty, who has taught on and off at one of Lejeune’s eight public schools since the summer before finishing college in 1991. “I want them to know what to do when they’re with their parents at military functions. It’s expected.”

MUCH IS EXPECTED  and much is provided to the sons and daughters of active duty military. Hardesty’s students are part of the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), a civilian agency that manages public schools on U.S. military bases around the world. The system serves an estimated 25,500 students in 63 schools located in seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico; another 65,500 attend 154 schools in 13 countries, including Germany, Japan, and even Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Students from DoDEA’s on-base public schools routinely outscore, outperform, and outpace students from other schools. Some 95 percent of the system’s high school seniors graduate, and 76 percent go on to some form of higher education, according to 2005 figures.

“Some people live on base so their kids can go to a base school,” says Hardesty, who lives outside of Lejeune and must drive through its security checkpoint each morning.

A system that places a high value on safety and education, a well-trained teaching staff, and “great kids” are three elements that make DoDEA schools some of the best around, according to Joseph Tafoya, the system’s director. “We have more people who want to join our system than there are slots available,” says Tafoya, a former teacher and administrator from California. “More than two-thirds [of our educators] have master’s degrees.” Pay is comparable to many urban districts, with salaries starting at just under $36,000.

NEA’s 51st State Turns 51

Association members working on military bases belong to the Federal Education Association (FEA), sometimes known as “NEA’s 51st state.” The FEA represents faculty and staff working within the Department of Defense school system. Headquartered at NEA in Washington, D.C., FEA is a global organization serving more than 6,000 educators in Europe, Asia, the United States, and its territories. FEA is a state affiliate of NEA that was started in 1956 when a group of educators in Germany became upset over a Pentagon plan to shut schools down early in order to save money. They organized to form the Overseas Education Association (OEA). In 1994, the name was changed to FEA. It is the recognized labor organization for DoDEA employees, having nine board members who represent Europe, Pacific, and “Stateside” districts.

DoDEA spends an average of $13,500 per student—above both the national average of $8,287 in 2004 (the most current data available) and the highest-spending state (New Jersey, which spent $12,981 per student that year). But that figure is deceiving, Tafoya notes, pointing out that it covers everything from housing and living allowances for staff working overseas to student activities. “When the football team at our Naples base has to play the team in Aviano [Italy], I have to fly them to the game,” he says. “Our charter says we must provide our students with a comprehensive American education. That includes sports.”   

One quirk is that DoDEA’s funding comes via the Department of Defense, not the Department of Education. Consequently, its schools are exempt from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), though they follow the standards and curriculum set by the law.

In the primary grades at Lejeune, the student-teacher ratio is 18 to 1; throughout DoDEA, the ratio is 20 to 1 on average. Lejeune High School offers advanced classes in math and science, as well as honors English and world history. Advanced Placement classes are offered in 11 subjects. Two years of the same foreign language is a graduation requirement throughout DoDEA. “We want to ensure that our kids can meet the standards of learning in [any] state,” Tafoya says. That’s important, given that the normal military tour of duty is three years, and many dependents will move a staggering half-dozen times before they graduate from high school.

 DURING RECESS , Hardesty watches her students as they burn energy on the monkey bars, swings, slide, and basketball court, seemingly oblivious to the attack helicopters hovering above the nearby pine trees as soldiers shimmy up and down ropes. “See it all the time,” Hardesty shrugs. Some base schools have soundproof glass to help buffer the noise from aircraft engines on nearby runways. 

Such is life at Lejeune, where 139,000 Marines, sailors, retirees, family members, and civilian employees work. But remove the camouflage vehicles from the road, and the base resembles a mixed-use, albeit gated, suburban community. It even has a slight rush hour. But its Domino’s Pizza and Burger King coexist with 77 live-fire ranges, 43 miles of railroad tracks, and 10 fire stations.

Military families don’t earn high salaries. Most of the students at Lejeune qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. But paychecks are steady and can be stretched far beyond the limits of civilians in the same income bracket. For example, military families enjoy reduced prices at the base department and grocery stores, hair salons, and dry cleaners. Families also have access to decent housing and high-quality health and dental care, as well as fully equipped gymnasiums, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

Alicia Mauro lives three blocks from Tarawa Terrace. While carrying her infant daughter, Mauro walks her oldest son, Anthony, 4, and his 3-year-old brother, Patrick, to school each day. “We have a strong sense of community here,” says Mauro, whose husband is in Iraq. “My husband can do his job better knowing we are safe. Everything we need is on base.”

Base living can be a comfortable and fulfilling life for military families, of which many are ethnic minorities. On-base schools reflect the same ethnic diversity as most urban schools. “DoDEA is color-blind,” Tafoya says. “A lot of our success has to do with teacher expectations.”

Parental expectations are also high. Along with e-mailing assignments to parents serving overseas—“so when they talk to their kid, they can ask about homework,” Tayofa says—DoDEA also broadcasts graduation ceremonies and other school events live via satellite around the world.

DoDEA’s global reach has produced a worldwide alumni network. Graduates scattered across the globe stay in touch through a variety of Web sites, including Military Brats Registry, overseas Brats, and Military Brats Meetup.    

CAMP LEJEUNE has six elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. Admission is limited to the 3,300 dependent children of military parents living in permanent housing at Camp Lejeune. Dependents who live with their families off base attend local public schools.

Like Hardesty, many of the 630 teachers, teacher’s aides, education support professionals, and substitutes at Lejeune are military spouses. “We know how to relate to what students are going through when their dad or mom is deployed,” Hardesty says. “We’ve all been there.”

Hardesty has been there more than most. She was born at Lejeune while her Marine father was stationed there in the 1970s. Hardesty has a civilian brother, but her two sisters married military men; a nephew is also in the service. When her father, Capt. Jack Renegar, retired in 1976, her family had amassed 140 years of military service—more than any family in U.S. history, according to news accounts. Her husband, Master Sgt. Daniel Hardesty, is currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Before his transfer, the couple purchased a house in Jacksonville where they hope to retire alongside Hardesty’s parents. “We decided to be apart for now, with my teaching job and our house here,” she says.

Dealing with separation is part of military life. Marines like to say that “home is where the Corps sends you.” When it’s one of the world’s hot spots where warriors die, flag etiquette takes on a more sober meaning. Hardesty, like all Lejeune teachers, is prepared to discuss with students the significance of a flag-draped coffin. “They learn what that means,” she says.

While the fear of losing a parent is always present, “the day-to-day issues involve young families who are away from their hometowns,” says Marty Pitcarin, one of three full-time school psychologists serving Lejeune schools. Programs like Club USA help children learn to cope with being separated from parents.

Alicia Mauro recalls how hard her husband’s deployment was on her 4-year-old son, Anthony. “Nighttime was a hard time, because his dad would put him to bed,” she says. A school program encouraged Anthony to write down his feelings and then talk with a counselor, who took notes. “He’d come home from school with paperwork describing his emotions and thoughts,” she says. “It helped me know how to talk with him.”

Staffers also work hard to provide their own support. “You only have each other,” says Laura Hastings, president of the 200-member Lejeune Education Association (LEA), which, along with the Lejeune Education Support Association (LESA) is part of the NEA-affiliated Federal Education Association (see “NEA’s 51st State Turns 51”). “When there’s a major deployment, you can see the change in behavior among students,” says Hastings, who like Hardesty is a teacher and military spouse. “It’s very emotional to watch their dad or mom go to war.”

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