VIRGINIA BEACH, VA (NNS) -- More than 250 new Virginia Beach City Public School (VBCPS) secondary teachers (those who teach children between the ages of 11 and 18) and school counselors participated in scenario-based training at Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach, Aug. 22- 23, which afforded them a unique opportunity to learn about and experience firsthand some of the challenges military families face during a permanent change of station (PCS) move.
The training, titled “The PCS Challenge – Building Empathy for Transitioning Students,” engaged the participants by simulating a military PCS move in an effort to help them better understand the lives of military families and helped to generate empathy toward transitioning military-affiliated students. Local Hampton Roads installation school liaison officers (SLOs) provided intrinsic value and credibility to the training by ensuring the information presented was both timely and relevant with regard to military policies, culture and trends. Throughout the scenarios, the SLOs donned the hats of detailers, Fleet and Family representatives, and various school staff members to test the mettle of the participants. They also provided feedback and expertise in their respective areas to assist the participants when questions or issues came up.
Each participant was given a family assignment and an initial duty station to start. Some were given the role of the service member, others played the role of a spouse, a child, or multiple children if applicable. Of the family units that had multiple children, a least one of those children had special needs and were enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), which is a mandatory enrollment program that works with other military and civilian agencies to provide comprehensive and coordinated community support, housing, educational, medical and personnel services to families with special needs.
The training scenarios included military acronyms and jargon, emotional stages of the PCS cycle, a duty station wish list or “dream sheet,” receiving orders for the service member and/or connecting with the Fleet & Family Support Center for the spouse, doing a pack out and deciding what items could be taken with the family to the new duty station based on rate/rank and the weight of household goods allotted, choosing specific housing to meet the needs of the family, and deregistering and registering a child/children in a new school. Like a real PCS move, each choice made along the way by the participants caused a potential impact on the service member, the family unit as a whole, and ultimately the child(ren).
One of the biggest obstacles military families face during a PCS move is not having enough time to prepare, especially when faced with the various items required by the school districts for student enrollment. The training scenarios amplified the stress levels by giving the participants a very short period of time to make major family life decisions.
“Because this training was interactive and simulated, each participant actually became a member of a military family,” explained Debbie Patch, the Regional School Liaison Officer who assisted VBCPS with the training. “Each participant was given characteristics with their new military family role and each participant played their role accordingly. The groups made ‘family’ decisions based on their unique situation. It is my hope that this training provided the participants with an experience that will give them a greater awareness of the unique challenges military students face as a result of their parent’s service to our country. I believe that once someone has experienced this training, there can be no doubt that all military children ‘serve too.’”
Although many of the participants did not have a background of working with military families, some were military spouses new to the area and were able to offer some hands-on experience to help their peers.
“Their life experiences make it real for the people in their group,” said Karen Phillips, the SLO for Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek who was one of four SLOs in attendance to assist VBCPS and the teachers during the training. “They are not just hearing from us [SLOs], they are hearing it from people with experience who are sitting right there at the table with them.”
The training was originally developed by Army SLOs that work for Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia. The collaborative team of SLOs and VBCPS personnel were fortunate to see the training delivered to Northern Virginia school personnel last year and were eager to bring the PCS Challenge to Virginia Beach Schools.
“The ‘PCS Challenge’ was a collaboration that began between Virginia Beach City Public Schools, the Navy Regional Mid-Atlantic School Liaison Officer, and the VBCPS SLOs,” said Natalie Meiggs, the Coordinator of Military Support Programs for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. “An area of support for transitioning military students was identified through a needs assessment that was conducted from a Department of Defense Education Activity [DoDEA] grant called ‘Project GRIT.’”
The basic session of the PCS Challenge took approximately 80 hours to develop and the content in each session is tailored to meet the audience. The sessions range from one to two hours depending on the complexity of the scenarios and the number and type of participants in attendance. Overall, more than 300 hours have been devoted to developing and crafting the program.
Meiggs explained that approximately 25 percent of the school division’s student population is comprised of active duty, military-dependent youth, and noted that VBCPS is committed to providing support, resources and enrichment programs to enhance the educational experiences of those children and their families.
“Our military-connected students transition about every three years,” she explained “So they could possibly attend six to nine schools in their K-12 educational career.”
“The goal of the PCS Challenge training for teachers is to help them understand more about military life and build empathy about the moving process,” said Phillips. “After participating in this interactive session, teachers will better understand the challenges military families face when having to PCS and be inspired to assist in making the transition smoother for their students.”
VBCPS has further demonstrated their commitment to military families by collaborating with SLOs on various other projects, including “Art of Being a Military Child,” military volunteer opportunities and Navy birthday school outreach, the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story oyster restoration project, and the 5th Grade STEM LAB Learning Day field trip at NAS Oceana, among others.
Meiggs said she always looks for new ways to improve the training and values the feedback she receives during each session, but emphasizes that military families should contact their respective SLOs prior to PCSing to help navigate the nuisances of school districts and ease the school enrollment process.
“I want to continuously learn from the participants each time the PCS Challenge is completed,” she said. “I am always learning how the training can be improved to increase understanding of the military culture and how I can improve my own practice of supporting our military families. The PCS Challenge is adapted to meet the needs of the audience each time it is delivered.”
Patch said the training is also beneficial for SLOs, who work directly with military families and schools across the Hampton Roads area during the school year, as well as during summer and winter breaks.
“The SLOs work daily with families who face real educational challenges as they move from state to state, and city to city,” she said. “Each state and city have different educational policies and procedures that must be navigated by military families. SLOs have been able to ensure that this training emphasizes to educators that military families’ frame of reference is the previous school’s policies and experiences. Enabling local teachers to understand this mindset helps them to better understand military families and how to support them.”
In addition to the recent training, VBCPS and SLOs have offered similar training to military family life counselors; as well as coordinators, directors, administrators, school counselors, teachers and leadership teams throughout VBCPS since its inception. Similar training is scheduled to be offered to Chesapeake Public School's elementary school counselors this September, with secondary school counselors training scheduled later in the year.