When Sheila Johnson learned her Army husband was being transferred from Washington, D.C., to Fort Jackson, she had one month to decide where to enroll her children in school.
Like any military mom, she surfed the internet and noticed South Carolina’s public schools got low marks in national rankings. Education Week, for example, gave the state’s public schools a “C-minus” and ranked them 43rd in the country.
Her children had always attended public schools, but she didn’t have time to visit any schools in Richland District 2, which most Fort Jackson children attend. So she enrolled her children in private Hammond School. She could afford it; her husband is Maj. Gen. “Pete” Johnson, Fort Jackson’s commander.
“This was our most difficult move,” said Johnson, who has relocated her family four times in the past five years. Her kids “were settled in and happy. And they were dreading going into the big pool of kids” in the South Carolina public school system.
That story illustrates one of the major challenges South Carolina faces as it tries to solidify its reputation as a top-tier military friendly state.
The military pumps $19 billion in annual economic impact into the state. But this is a time of deep cuts to the nation’s military after 15 years of war in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
When the Pentagon looks to close bases and consolidate missions to save money, a host community’s support of the military is a major factor in those decisions, said Bill Dukes, a Columbia restaurateur who serves as South Carolina’s Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army.
“There are fundamental things you have to get right” as a state to stay in the highest regard of military leaders, Dukes said. “And their first concern is support of families: jobs for spouses; health care; and, education.”
‘Going to take a chance’
But South Carolina has a history of low public school rankings, and has developed throughout the military what many say is an unjustified reputation of having substandard schools.
Steven Creech is a former Sumter mayor who represents that city, home to Shaw Air Force Base, on the S.C Military Base Task Force. The task force is appointed by the governor, the state’s four military communities and the S.C. National Guard to ramrod military issues and protect and expand missions at South Carolina’s six main military installations.
“Worldwide, if a soldier or airman gets transferred to anywhere in South Carolina, somebody’s going to say something about the schools being bad,” Creech said. “But we have an awful lot of military schoolchildren who enter our public schools and do really well. I don’t think you can paint a whole system with one brush.”
When retired Sgt. Maj. Chris Fletcher, for instance, moved in 2010 to Sumter from Atlanta with U.S. Army Central, also known as Third Army, he had his doubts about the Sumter school system. But being enlisted, rather than a higher paid officer, private schools would have been a financial strain.
So they visited the Sumter schools about a month before they moved to see which they liked the best. They went back to the schools after they purchased their house to introduce their children and work with the administration and faculty to ensure their transcripts were properly transferable.
They also met with school administrators to get waivers for both of their kids to get in the honors program: Karli in middle school and Taylor at Lakewood High School. The result: Taylor, now 21, was valedictorian of her graduating class and is now attending Francis Marion University. Karli, 18, is attending the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics.
“We said we were going to take a chance,” said Fletcher, now retired and working as a civilian at Fort Jackson. “It worked out well.”
That doesn’t surprise incoming Richland District 2 superintendent Barron Davis, who disputes claims his public schools are somehow inferior to private schools.
“The ratings are skewed,” said Davis, who will succeed current superintendent Debbie Hamm after this school year. “It’s not fair to compare a school that has 30 percent of its students in poverty to a private school that has no poverty. You’re not comparing apples to apples.
“We have great schools,” he added. “But it’s going to be hard for (military parents) to know that when they have to make such quick decisions.”
State Superintendent Molly Spearman agrees.
“I think the reputation is undeserved,” she said. “Do we have challenges? Yes. But people need to go one step further (than just looking at online rankings). Talk to parents (with children in public schools). Visit the school.
“And,” she added, “We need to do a better job of telling people about our successes.”
National Guard children also face issues. Often they are in rural districts far from large military installations, where teachers and administrators have little or no experience with military. Often, the most difficult problem for National Guard children is having a parent who is deployed for long periods of time.
Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the state’s Adjutant General, said there are about 3,000 National Guard children whose parents are deployed at any given time.
“And I don’t see any back down in that pace,” he said. “While we are not displacing families from their communities like the active duty military, there is the loss of parents during deployment. They are used to a certain routine, and that is interrupted tremendously. And there is the uncertainty that their parent may not come back.”
Walk the walk
To get the word out about the quality of public schools and to help military children better adjust to their transition into South Carolina schools, a coalition of educators, military officials and military base boosters are planning to ask the General Assembly to provide $300,000 to extend a pilot program in Beaufort and Sumter counties – home to the state’s active duty combat bases, Shaw and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
The alliance includes the S.C. Department of Education, the S.C. Military Base Task Force and the S.C. Military Department, as well as influential individuals such as Army civilian aide Dukes and Mrs. Johnson of Fort Jackson.
The program would be modeled after a $100,000 pilot program conducted in Beaufort and Sumter this school year. The program brings in trainers from the nonprofit Military Child Education Coalition to conduct seminars and training regimens for educators, counselors, social workers, parents and even military student peer groups.
Retired Brig. Gen. Keith Martin of Pawley’s Island, a former program manager with the coalition, is voluntarily coordinating the South Carolina effort. He said similar programs are conducted in heavily military states like Texas and Florida, and noted that an estimated 40,000 military children attend South Carolina schools.
He said the $300,000 would allow the program to continue in Beaufort and Sumter, and expand to Columbia and Charleston – the state’s other two communities with large military installations. It would also allow outreach seminars in other parts of the state.
“This is a really big step ... to make it a truly statewide program, “ he said. “And we hope next year to expand on that success.”
Bill Bethea, chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, said supporters had initially contemplated a $1 million request that would have provided permanent liaisons between the schools and the installations in those four counties and a wider reach statewide. But he said the strain on the state budget from such pressing needs as road repairs and flood and hurricane recovery caused the group to lower the figure.
“We need to crawl before we walk and walk before we run,” he said.
The money will be requested in the S.C. Department of Education budget.
“If this will help military families and show the powers-that-be we are serious about it, then it will be money well spent,” Spearman, the state superintendent, said.
For Johnson, Fort Jackson’s first lady, the program will not only serve military kids and educators, but also help mitigate the image of South Carolina schools among military families.
“All this will help change the view of South Carolina,” she said. “It says South Carolina walks the walk.”