Information flows at Fort Bliss Education Summit

MGN-Online
Monday, May 19, 2014 - 10:05pm

The Fort Bliss Education Summit at the Centennial Banquet and Conference Center May 6 featured information about the past, present and future of education in El Paso.

In the past, Army and school officials worked together to find a way for Fort Bliss children without a fully fixed address to enroll in a school where their family would likely move, keeping many children from having to attend two schools in one semester.

In the present – the same day as the education summit – the El Paso Independent School District Board of Managers approved open enrollment and made it easier for Fort Bliss employees to register their children at schools on or close to the base.

In terms of the future, presenters and attendees said they hope to increase the number of high school graduates, the number of high school graduates who go on to college and the number of dual-credit classes available to high school students, as well as create partnerships with the new El Paso Community College campus planned on Fort Bliss.

Approximately 50 educators, Soldiers and community leaders attended the four-hour summit, and Deborah Trexler, director of Youth Education Support Services, Child, Youth and School Services Fort Bliss, encouraged the Soldiers present to share the information they gained with their units.

Attendees included Maj. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss commander, and his wife Lynda; Command Sgt. Maj. Lance P. Lehr, 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss command sergeant major, and his wife Heidi, Col. Brant V. Dayley, Fort Bliss Garrison commander; and Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Mendoza Sr., Fort Bliss Garrison command sergeant major.

Speakers included the superintendents of the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro school districts; representatives from El Paso Community College, New Mexico State University and the University of Texas at El Paso; as well as Kathleen Facon, chief of educational partnerships at Department ofDefense Education Activity, who traveled from Washington, D.C. to attend.

MacFarland opened the summit by noting there are more than 10,500 military-connected students in El Paso area schools, and more than 16 percent of Soldiers take advantage of tuition assistance to take college classes – the most of any installation in the Army.

The area’s two largest school districts, El Paso and Socorro, have a military-connected student body of 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively, MacFarland said.
In addition, education is a critical component to national security, MacFarland said.
“The U.S. Army is challenged every year to bring in quality to its ranks,” MacFarland said. “By some estimates, somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of American youth are even eligible to serve in the armed forces.”

A criminal background, medical problems, obesity and tattoos can disqualify youths from being able to join the military, he said, and a lack of a high school education keeps youths out as well.
“We’re looking for recruits that have a high school education, and many of our young people don’t have that, and therefore are not qualified for service,” MacFarland said. “It is a very complex and difficult job to be a Soldier in today’s world. We can’t just bring cannon fodder into our ranks. We need critical thinkers in uniform.”

Post secondary education is also an important priority on Fort Bliss, and a new El Paso Community College campus on post will increase access to classes.
Ernst Roberts, vice president of administration and financial operations at El Paso Community College, said the college has six campuses in El Paso, and plans to build a seventh on Fort Bliss.

“The Fort Bliss initiative is probably one of the most exciting things that we are involved with right now,” he said.

The college has hired Smith Group JJR, headquartered in Detroit, which retained local architectural firm Mijares Mora, and discussions have begun about the timeline and campus concept, Roberts said.

The building will be the college’s first LEED-certified building, Roberts said. LEED Certification assures buildings have met environmental and energy standards, depending on the level of certification.

The 70-acre campus will be located to the north of the William Beaumont Army Medical Center replacement hospital, and Roberts said he expects students in medical programs at the college’s Rio Grande campus would be able to do clinical training at the hospital.

“We probably are not going to be shutting down Rio Grande, but I think what we’ve got is a real opportunity to perhaps create a satellite center out at the Fort Bliss campus that would allow us to grow our allied health programs,” Roberts said. “We would welcome that, because those programs currently have, in many cases, a two-year waiting list of students to get into them.”

Roberts said college officials hope to see the campus grow to 200 acres, because after seven to 10 years, it will likely become the largest EPCC campus.

Another of the event’s key speakers was Facon, who informed attendees about DoDEA grants.
Facon said Department of Defense Education Activity is one of two federal school systems in the nation, the other being the Bureau of Indian Education, and although DoDEA has schools worldwide and a few in the United States, the majority of military-connected children attend public schools in the United States.
“We recognized there was an opportunity for DoDEA as a school system to share our resources, not only just funding, but also professional development and other support mechanisms with public school districts,” Facon said.

DoDEA officials determined the best way to do that was to create a grant program, and the organization has distributed more than $270 million in grant money to 134 school districts, including El Paso and Socorro school districts, Facon said.

El Paso has received $6.8 million in grants, and Socorro received a grant for $2.5 million last year, Facon said.

Amy Canales, EPISD assistant director for curriculum and instruction for elementary science, talked about how district officials have used the money to pay for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs and a greenhouse.

Schools must comply with specific criteria in order to qualify for the grant money, and the first is that the district as a whole must have at least a 5 percent military population, Canales said.
The second is that the school must have a 15 percent military population, Canales said, and the determination is based on impact aid data.

MacFarland encouraged everyone to tell parents to make sure they fill out the form that identifies students as military connected students so schools can remain eligible for grant money or become eligible.

“These thresholds are important,” he said, and more schools might become eligible for grant money if more military parents filled out impact aid forms. 

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