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Jill Biden Visits USC For Roundtable On Military Students Needs

Agnus Dei Farrant |
January 20, 2012 | 4:28 a.m. PST

Senior News Editor

Jill Biden at a roundtable discussion about military families and students (photo by Agnus Dei Farrant).
Jill Biden at a roundtable discussion about military families and students (photo by Agnus Dei Farrant).
Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited the University of Southern California Thursday night to learn about a program designed to help public schools address the needs of military families and their children.

A panel of 12 parents, educators and military children told Biden about their experiences with Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools - a four-year project based at the USC School of Social Work. The Department of Defense Education Activity funded the $7.6 million project.

“The major goal of this project in general is to create military-friendly environments from a perspective that we believe schools are healing environments, not just places for resources but places that can change people’s lives,” said Dr. Ron Astor, a founder of the program.

Another goal is to train educators, principals, school social workers and psychologists, before they enter the field, how to work with military families in culturally sensitive ways.

In partnership, Building Capacity connected 90 USC social work and education graduate students with eight military-connected school districts.

The districts are: Fallbrook Union Elementary School District; Fallbrook Union High School District; Chula Vista Elementary School District; Temecula Valley Unified School District; Bonsall Union School District; Escondido Union High School District; Escondido Union Elementary School District and Oceanside Unified School District.

Biden’s visit was a part of her work with Michelle Obama and their Joining Forces initiative, aimed to support veterans and military families.

“The work of this consortium is so important,” she continued. “You’re building bridges that connect military and civilian children, educate teachers and principals, and provide the support our military children deserve.”


Panel members talked about ways schools could create supportive environments, like teachers learning to help transfer students adjust and celebrating military traditions like the Marine Corps’ birthday to demonstrate pride.

Creating networks for military parents was also a major component of the program. Some panel members expressed gratitude for such networks they utilized while their military spouse was away.

The educators in the panel described outreach programs created to help military children and families, while military parents and children talked about how the outreach had helped them adjust to civilian communities and schools.

One young panel member, Kayla Felizardo, described how she had a hard time adjusting to a new school, and a military program helped her make friends.

Oceanside Superintendent Larry Perondi said his district, that absorbs students from Camp Pendleton, has created a sense of responsibility rather than acceptance.

“I’m charged with fostering an atmosphere of responsibility for our military families,” Perondi said. “The greatest thing I can do for a warrior is for them not to have to think about where their children go to school.”

Thirteen-year-old Victoria Downs of San Diego was on the panel with her mother, Alicia, a veteran.

“[Building Capacity] really did reach out to people and it would help a lot of families,” Victoria Downs said. “It’ll show other families that don’t have military relatives that we’re just the same as you, we’re just fighting for your cause.”


Alicia Downs was invited to speak at the roundtable for her unique connection to the topic. She is a Marine veteran, wife of a Marine, social work graduate student at USC’s San Diego campus and works at Building Capacity.

She said she loves being a part of the program. And though she wants to help military children, she most of all wants to help children and families.

“One of the things I got to do last year was to go into another military home,” she said. “I lived on Camp Pendleton at the time, so I walked to do my home visits. These aren’t just people I’m never going to see again, these are my neighbors. As a Marine, these are my brothers, these are my sisters. As a spouse, these are still a part of my community.”

Her family moved to San Diego and she saw her children adjust to a civilian school.

“It’s so different,” she said. “There, nobody knows what it’s like to have your mom or dad be a Marine.”

Oceanside High School Principal Kenneth Hurst Sr. was a Marine for a decade and served in Desert Storm. His military experience, along with seeing his father go to war twice, pushed him to reach out and create a space just for military students.

“I remember my father went away to Vietnam and to the Korean War,” Hurst said. “Me and my brothers and sisters were questioning, ‘Where’s Dad? He’s gone a lot.’ I can remember my mom crying, and not really knowing what was going on. And I didn’t have an outlet to share.”

Hurst organized a Marine Corps. birthday ball to teach military students about the history of the Marines and the organization their parents are a part of.

“Having a group, a network, where military students can go and hear stories, or just talk, share their feelings, just to cry or to eat lunch, that’s the way we wanted to build connections with those military students,” Hurst said. “Because I believe when they feel the school is really taking the time to care about them, develop relationships and do activities, then regardless of what they’re going through, they know they have a support system in place.”

Biden related to panel members, being a military mother herself. Not only did she experience her son Beau’s deployment to Iraq from the eyes of a mother, but as the grandmother of his two children.

“I know firsthand just how important it is for a child to have the support of a community and school when mom or dad is at war,” Biden said.

Hurst and Alicia Downs said some military parents don’t recognize when they need help for physical or mental health issues. Not only does that affect the individual, but their family as well.

“We pride ourselves on being warriors, on being physically fit,” Alicia Downs said. “‘Pain is weakness leaving our body’ - that’s on our T-shirts, that’s a mantra we live by. So for us to say ‘I’m hurt,’ some would rather go on with the pain than admit that. That’s like saying I have a flaw in my armor and I’m not a whole person.”

Hurst said some parents don’t want to talk about their experiences and don’t speak about it at all.

“I would like to think that families are more open and they talk with kids on a regular basis but that may not be the case,” he said. “The kids need an outlet to share their feelings.”


Biden left at the end of the 30-minute roundtable, moved particularly by the children’s stories.

“The stories that the children told about when they went to school and how they were then accepted into the classrooms, and what each school did to bring these children in and make them feel a part of the school community, that’s so important and that’s what we want for military families. That’s what Joining Forces is all about.”





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