Furloughs add to military's dim view of Island schools
By AUDREY McAVOY
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — The third- to fifth-graders ran up to their instructor clutching a list of words using the letters B, D and E.
Split into boys and girls teams, the students offered the teacher "bed" and "bead." The boys spelled more words, beating the girls 18-15.
It's a Friday, but these students aren't in school. They're at a youth center where the U.S. Army is keeping soldiers' children engaged and learning on the 17 Fridays this school year the state of Hawai'i has closed public schools to narrow a budget deficit.
The state's decision in October to shrink the school year by 10 percent, giving it the fewest number of instructional days in the nation at 163, is adding to the already dismal reputation Hawai'i's public schools have among servicemen and women.
Col. Mike Davino, the director of manpower, personnel and administration for U.S. Pacific Command, said the truncated school year is yet another concern for officials who have long heard about servicemen and wo- men avoiding Hawai'i assignments because of the state's public education system.
"We've gotten a lot of anecdotal information. For example, one of my neighbors just this week said she wasn't going to extend in Hawai'i because of the education," Davino said.
Commanders are so concerned about the overall health of Isle schools that the military is paying researchers from Johns Hopkins University $1.5 million to study military attitudes toward Hawai'i public education over a three-year period to see if there's any concrete data to support the unhappy anecdotes.
The study, now in its first year, will track families who have received assignments to Hawai'i, those who are currently here and those who have left the Islands. It will examine whether the education their children received in Hawai'i put them at a disadvantage or prepared them well for their next school.
"Hawai'i doesn't have the strongest education system as it is. So then to compromise by taking more hours away?" said Master Sgt. Tamatha R. Perkins, whose 6-year-old son, John, is in first grade at an O'ahu school. "If they're in the bottom tier, they don't need to be cutting out days of education. They're going the wrong way."
The study will also document how many troops choose Hawai'i's public schools and how many choose alternatives such as homeschooling, private schools or even leaving their children with family on the Mainland.
Military statistics indicate there should currently be about 23,000 school-age dependents in the Islands, which are home to several major installations including Pearl Harbor. But there are only 13,000 to 14,000 military dependents now enrolled in Hawai'i public schools, indicating thousands of parents are choosing to educate their children elsewhere.
Hawai'i's school system was struggling even before the state shrunk the school year.
Last year, a record number of schools, almost two-thirds, failed to meet progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Heather Miles, a graduate student in education at the University of Hawai'i whose soldier-husband is deployed to Iraq for a year, had been a defender of Hawai'i schools. She noted some were better than others, just like in other states, and parents needed to be selective about where they enrolled their children.
But the Friday furloughs have darkened her view.
"I was not displeased with it — until now," Miles said. "I'm quite displeased now."
She said one of her two sons started acting out after the furlough days began in late October.
"Going to school every day is something that he needs," Miles said. "With his dad deployed and everything else, he needs that constant."
The military is doing what it can to make up for the shortfall in instructional time.
More than 300 children are enrolled in Army child youth services programs that focus on learning each furlough Friday. Children work in the computer lab, do homework and have been on excursions.
Other services have similar programs.