Soldiers report to Anchorage schools

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A new partnership between the Anchorage School District and U.S. Army Alaska will add a military presence to local schools.

But rather than keeping the peace, these warriors will be serving as math or reading tutors, helping out in the computer lab, or maybe firing a few dodge balls.

When classes start Wednesday, soldiers from 12 Army battalions stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will work with students at 13 district schools including five in Chugiak and Eagle River.

Roughly 180 active-duty soldiers will visit classrooms in schools. Some will volunteer at Alpenglow, Homestead and Ravenwood elementary schools as well as Gruening Middle School and Eagle River High School.

School and military officials said the program will help students academically. But having uniformed military in schools will also lend support to children of military members on deployment, they said, and give non-military kids an understanding of what soldiers do for the country.

"I think it's a great benefit," said district spokeswoman Heidi Embley. "The district is always looking for people to come in the classroom and help out."

The program began earlier this year as a "pre-pilot" held during the last academic quarter, said Mary Rall, community relations chief for U.S. Army Alaska.

Some soldiers volunteered daily to mentor Chester Valley Elementary School students in April and May, the district said.

Fourteen soldiers from the 6th Engineer Battalion worked in the school as mentors, tutors, club sponsors or anything else the school needed. They participated in chess and drama clubs, interacted with students during recess, worked on academics during class and chaperoned field trips.

"They have been terrific and we really appreciate their presence in our school," said principal Heather Mildon.

All told, Rall said, 44 soldiers put in 1700 volunteer hours at three elementary schools over a period of six weeks.

"That should tell you how interested they were and how much fun they were having," she said. "A lot of soldiers opted to come back for the pilot because they really did get a lot out of it."

The Army-School Partnership program has four tiers, organizers say. The overarching partnership pairs a principal with a battalion commander. The mentor program puts soldiers in schools. A parental involvement component gives Army parents time to volunteer at their child's school. And a leadership aspect encourages soldiers to seek out and work with students who stand out.

But school and military officials said that doesn't mean the soldiers are trying to expand their ranks.

"When we say leadership, we're not talking about recruiting," Rall said. "We're not looking anywhere down the line to get anybody's name."

The Army initiated the partnership last year under the leadership of then U.S. Army Alaska commander Maj. Gen. William J. Troy, whose wife is an educator.

The partnership became official with a ceremony Monday in Anchorage. School district superintendent Carol Comeau and Brig. Gen. Raymond Palumbo, the new USARAK commanding general, signed off on the program.

To participate, soldiers must pass a criminal background check, an Army substance-abuse check, and a medical check, Rall said. They must also undergo at least three hours of training, though some schools may individually require more.

Members of the 3rd Battalion 509th Parachute Infantry helped with registration at Gruening Middle School earlier this month, said principal Bobby Jefts. The school is partnering with the 3-509 through the year.

"It was an honor to have these soldiers in our building," Jefts said in an e-mail.

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