FORT POLK — What makes an Army post a “station of choice?”

FORT POLK — What makes an Army post a “station of choice?” High-end shopping and dining? Big attractions and amusements? Breathtaking views of the local scenery? The short answer is good quality of life, and that starts with having an effective education system — but why?

In the Army, many Soldiers have school-age children. When the kids aren’t happy, the parents suffer. If a school district has run-down buildings, outdated textbooks, an understaffed faculty and no advanced placement classes, the students — especially those who have attended school in other places — will be unhappy. When the family goes to the next duty station, they carry memories of the last school with them and have no problem telling everyone what a horrible school it was and how no one with children should ever get stationed at that post.

But what if a combination of modern facilities, quality educators and ample opportunities for advanced education was found at a remote post like Fort Polk? What if the students were tested and found to be among the best in the state — or even the country? Those students may not remember that there was no big shopping mall, or only one movie theater in town. They may not recall the stifling humidity or the prevalence of fire ants in the yard. They will remember their school though, the teachers and students they interacted with, the subjects they learned, the pride they felt in passing a test or crossing a graduation stage.

Achieving that kind of acclaim from kids, and subsequently their parents, takes an enormous effort from numerous people. At Fort Polk, that effort is called the “Education Initiative,” and it involves many civilian and military entities.

When Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, commander, Installation Management Command, visited Fort Polk Jan. 10-11, he was given an overview of the initiative and what it has done for students, both military and non-military, over the last few years.

Dahl and his command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Melissa Judkins, toured the newest Vernon Parish school, Parkway Elementary School, located just outside the post on University Parkway. There he had a chance to speak with some Vernon Parish School Board members and other community representatives as well as Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk leadership.

VPSB Superintendent James Williams explained the greatest challenge for the school board has been in transitioning students.

“Transition is important not only for when a family comes here, but also when they leave, because when they leave they like to tell people what they’ve experienced,” said Williams. “Even if you do not like the weather, or the rural location, the school system is top notch. That is the message we are trying to get out.”

Dahl said he understands the value of such a message. “I think you’ve hit on something terribly important,” said Dahl.  “There were years when my wife and I cared more about the school system than anything else, because of our kids. We didn’t care about training, or quality of life. For us, it was all about the kids going to school.

Anne Smith, VPSB curriculum director, explained how a couple of grants played a key role in improving the educational experience offered by Vernon Parish schools. “We had a (Department of Defense Education Activity) grant in 2009… to (place) high-quality personnel in every classroom. While that was successful, we did not see the academic increase in student achievement, especially in math, with our military students,” said Smith. “I noticed that our military children had a high success rate after 50 hours of remediation (summer school), which triggered our question, how could this be?”

It turns out military children, who come from other school systems from all over the world, were experiencing some “curriculum gaps” that could be filled in as little as six weeks. This inspired the idea for a grant that would affect the largest percentage of military-affiliated students — grades three through eight — in the five parish schools with the largest military student populations: Parkway and Pickering elementary schools, Pickering grades seven and eight, Vernon Middle School and Leesville Junior High seventh and eighth grade.

“That grant offers students two things: An academic focus which centers on math, and a social/emotional focus by way of a military transition coordinator,” said Smith. “The second grant had a focus on advanced placement classes. That one involves both military dependent students and military-connected students so it allows us to branch into smaller schools and we are excited about that.”

No one knew if the school board would be awarded either of these grants, according to Smith, but since both were approved, there has been an unforeseen benefit in that the two programs tend to complement each other. “Part of that (second) grant involves teachers self-evaluating to improve their instructional methods as well.”

Because of these grants, the VPSB has increased the number of AP classes it offers at Pickering, Rosepine and Leesville high schools from 14 to 17 and from 208 students to 301. Saturday AP classes are also well attended, according to Smith.

“The success rate for students that take AP is great,” said Col. David Athey, JRTC and Fort Polk garrison commander. “Not only do they do well in college, but the percent that graduate goes up exponentially as well.”

Mike Reese, president of Fort Polk Progress, a regional community organization that supports and promotes the installation, said the Education Initiative is a “unique model” in the Army-community partnership spectrum. “Other Army bases come to us and say they don’t have everybody at the table, they can’t get their school system to talk to their local governments and military families and welcome any input,’ said Reese. “We have become accustomed to that (cooperation) here, but apparently that’s not the way things are done everywhere.”

Dahl said it was exciting for him to see the new school firsthand, but brick and mortar improvements don’t tell the real story of improved education.

“It’s motivating for the staff, faculty and students to have a nice facility, but the walls don’t make the education,” said Dahl. “It’s the program, the legacy, that matters.”