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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 | Della Elzie and her three children have bounced between five states in five years, following her military husband, and each time the Elzies grappled with new schools with new rules.

Scores that earn them an A in California were A-minuses in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and were weighted like Bs for a grade point average. Different subjects are taught at different grades, sometimes forcing the Elzies to take the same classes with the same textbooks year after year in Florida, South Carolina and later California.

And Elzie said one school even barred seniors who transferred from other schools from getting a class ranking and becoming valedictorian, denying the honor to her oldest son Kevin.

“We do move an awful lot,” said Della Elzie, now living in Rancho Bernardo and planning a move back to Florida. Her husband is currently in Iraq. “But if we chose not to move with my husband, we literally would never see him.”

Stories like hers are common on the military bases across San Diego and nationwide. Different states instituted a patchwork of different rules that frustrate kids who transfer from state to state for schooling, and some are fiercely protective of their rules. Navigating new bureaucracies with new requirements is especially stressful for military families, who are highly mobile and strained by long absences of parents abroad, sometimes in peril.

But California, which educates one of the largest groups of military children in the country, has not joined a national effort touted by a San Diego legislator to snip the red tape when military kids transfer schools.

The interstate agreement loosens school regulations for military children switching states. It insists that students who are enrolled in honors or Advanced Placement classes in one state will continue in those classes after they move; it ensures that children who move midyear will continue in the same grade, even if their new school dictates that they should be in a different grade based on their age. Kids who are disabled will receive comparable services as in their previous state. And high school seniors who struggle to meet a new batch of graduation requirements can actually get a diploma from their old school while graduating with their new classmates.

Other rules smooth the complications of course requirements, immunizations, being labeled as gifted or as an English learner, getting into sports and other extracurriculars, and other issues.

Eleven states are now part of the agreement, first hatched two years ago by the Council of State Governments at the urging of the Department of Defense. They have formed an interstate group that will collect data on military children, settle disputes between member states, and issue opinions on how to interpret its new rules, many of which lack specifics. One rule, for example, says simply that school officials “shall have flexibility in waiving course/program requisites.” Members will be asked to pay into a common pool that funds its operations at an estimated cost of $1 per military student.

Yet California, one of the largest educators of military students nationwide, has shied away from joining the effort thus far. A state bill to join the agreement died in committee this spring, but its author, Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, successfully proposed a task force to review the interstate agreement and give its recommendations on whether California should join by January. If the Golden State keeps sitting out on the agreement, proponents fear it could weaken the pact nationwide.

“A number of states will be looking to see which way California goes on this,” said Keith A. Scott, director of the National Center for Interstate Compacts at the Council of State Governments.

San Diego Unified School District has thrown its support behind the agreement, which could be a big deal for local schools where military students predominate.

There are an estimated 105,000 men and women in uniform in San Diego, according to the San Diego Military Advisory Council, and more than 8,200 of their children attend San Diego Unified schools. Military transfer students are so common at Farb Middle School that it trains its students as “ambassadors” to show new kids the ropes at the Tierrasanta school, which estimates that only 50 percent of its students remain from year to year, and nearby Hancock Elementary is almost entirely populated by military children.

“It is easy to get the legislatures to pay lip service to the needs of military children,” said Arun Ramanathan, chief student services officer at San Diego Unified, who formerly served as its executive director of government relations. “But when it actually comes to passing a bill it is really, really hard. Typically the question is, ‘Why are we just doing it for military children?’”

Scholars from the U.S. Military Academy recently found that children suffer lingering academic shortfalls when a parent is deployed, and the longer the parent is deployed, the worse the effect. In addition, the average military child changes school systems at least six times.

Behavior problems can also be more pronounced in military children, and may even worsen when a military parent returns and the family dynamic shifts, said Bonnie Remington, principal of Hancock Elementary. Neighboring school districts such as Oceanside, Poway and Ramona are also affected by the turbulence of military life, and school liaisons from the Marines base in Miramar are clamoring for the interstate pact to cut down on school stresses.

“It says, ‘We’re not going to punish you any further. You’ve already had to move. You’ve already had to give up all your friends. We’re not also going to make you take P.E. at the community college” to make up credits, said Janine Koffel, one of two Miramar school liaisons who address family concerns about switching school systems.

But “every state has designed their education program,” said Liz Barnes, another liaison. “And they feel like they have the best program.”

Advocates say nobody has openly crusaded against the agreement, but its costs could hinder its chances in the state budget crunch. Legislative analysts estimated that joining the agreement could cost California between $360,000 and $425,000 annually in fees and administrative costs — an estimate that is disputed by its proponents and now being reassessed by the California task force.

Scott of the Council of State Governments said states would be directly charged $1 per military child to help fund the interstate group, a sum that would total roughly $61,000 in California. He called that a bargain: It is a fraction of what San Diego Unified alone recently spent on computer software that designs bus routes.

Another stumbling block for joining the interstate pact is the California high school exit exam. An El Cajon military spouse, Teri Stuyvesant, called the test “a nightmare” for her daughter Amy, who had excelled in classes in Italy but was tagged as a struggling student because she had not yet taken and passed the exam. Computer errors kept Amy out of the tests, saying she was ineligible when she tried to schedule the exam.

The interstate agreement could require California to accept exit exams or alternative assessments from other states, clearing the way for students such as Amy. But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell is reluctant to let students waive that test, which is required for California high schoolers to graduate, said John Burns, a military liaison with the California Department of Education.

“National security is obviously an important consideration for all of us,” Burns said, “but at the same time, it is important that California maintain the standards we have.”

Stuyvesant said anything that cuts back on the trauma for military families is welcome. Sometimes the snafus verge on the comical: Stuyvesant had to repeatedly explain that she and her daughter spoke English, not Italian, when school computer systems flagged her as coming from a military base in Italy. Others aren’t as funny. Amy was also barred from varsity gymnastics because of state rules designed to keep high school students from hopping schools for athletic reasons, forcing her father, Capt. Joe Stuyvesant, to plead with a state athletics organization from Iraq to let his daughter compete.

“The issues it addresses have been so longstanding and so pervasive that it’s really surprising it hasn’t been addressed up to now,” Scott said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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