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Due for more military kids, local school districts again play a waiting game

Thousands of soldiers arriving at Fort Carson this summer will be sure to bring one thing with them: their children. But just how many kids will come and where they'll go to school is another question one that has local school district officials scratching their heads.

It's almost universally accepted that the post will welcome approximately 5,200 new soldiers, starting in late spring.

Dave Roudebush, assistant superintendent of academic support services at Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, says he's heard that each soldier will bring 1.8 dependents, which would mean an additional 9,360 people or 14,560 in total. Karen Connelly, Fort Carson spokesperson, offers an estimate of 1.52 family members per soldier. But the post's top officer, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, says it's probably closer to the truth that, this year, there'll be closer to one dependent for each soldier meaning perhaps a little more than 10,000 arrivals.

If it's this difficult to determine the overall numbers, then it's impossible to figure out how many among them will be children or, for that matter, what their specific needs will be. And that's why officials at Fountain-Fort Carson, Widefield School District 3 and Harrison School District 2 have been reluctant to expend resources in preparing for the influx.

'Wait-and-see mode'

Roudebush explains the kind of situation the districts are up against.

"One component is the family dynamic, or how a family responds to troop movement," he says. "For example, let's say there is a soldier who is going to be assigned to Fort Carson but immediately deployed. Let's say the soldier has a wife and two children. We can't predict what the family is going to do.

"Will the family come to Fort Carson? Will the family go to live with Grandma and Grandpa somewhere? So, on paper it may look like we have four people at Fort Carson when there is really zero.

"I don't want to give the impression that we are not in communication with the Army," Roudebush adds. "We very much are. But they don't have a clean model of predictability for those deployments."

At about 6,500 students, School District 8 is nearing capacity. Roudebush says the district is designing an additional on-post elementary school, and has modular classrooms to accommodate more students. But when it comes to serving special-needs kids, the district can't do much yet.

"We don't know the conditions those children have and the services they need," he says. "Until we get an idea, it is hard to predict what to do."

Mike Miles, District 2 superintendent, expects to take in about 10 percent of the incoming military students. But at 11,000 students, D-2 is currently under capacity and won't add classroom space or new teachers.

"The last four years, we have been told they were going to come," Miles says. "If we had hired new staff, they would be sitting around doing nothing."

James Drew, Widefield District 3 spokesman, says he looks forward to bringing more students to the district, which currently counts around 8,500. But he's not holding his breath.

"Depending on how the wars go, depending on what President Obama decides to do, the military is in some ways guessing at this thing," Drew says. "It's not like they don't know what they're talking about, but we have heard all kinds of numbers, and that is why we are conservative. We are in wait-and-see mode right now."

Emotional element

In 2007, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law a bill that authorized military-heavy schools to adjust their student counts on Feb. 1, to secure funding for military kids who have enrolled in school midway through the academic year.

But with the economy in shambles, it's likely the state will do away with the second count date. If that happens, Fountain-Fort Carson would lose around $1 million from a budget of $50 million.

In addition to financial stress, military-heavy school districts deal with unique emotional challenges.

According to Lynn Zupans, principal at Fountain-Fort Carson's Mountainside Elementary, many students need extra attention to cope with the anxiety of having a parent at war. Nearly all the students at her school have had a parent deployed overseas, she says. A second-grader may have a parent who's been deployed three times.

"The relationship may be fragile between that parent and that child, with the parent gone for a year and home for a year," she says. "The kid might have anxiety about the parent coming home. Sometimes when the family gets back together, they have to transition back to a normal life."

Zupans says some students come to school withdrawn or teary-eyed, while others act out by pushing or provoking their fellow students. School staff, she says, including a full-time counselor and full-time psychologist, must be extra vigilant to ensure their students' well-being.

Zupans estimates her 600 students will likely welcome another 100 from Fort Hood. And though she doesn't know exactly when that will happen, she's sure the school will help students deal with the emotional difficulties of moving just as it helps them deal with the worries of having a parent in combat.

"It will be a transition from Texas to Colorado," she says. "Families will have to relearn some things."

newsroom@csindy.com

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