Since 2009 I have had the privilege of being immersed in the installation, operations and facilities in the MacDill Air Force Base community through educational and outreach programs offered by the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the host command at MacDill. It has many times been an up-close and personal experience for me with some of the 10,000 airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines, and their families, stationed at MacDill.
I would have to say the most rewarding experience over the past four years has been the friendships I’ve established with military members and their families. I have found there is a commonality among them that should make us very proud to have these fine men and women as a part of our community. They are all very competent, well-trained and focused on their mission. They get up early, put on their boots and do their jobs well for our benefit. They never complain, and they appreciate even the smallest kindness offered. Additionally, the military lifestyle promotes very tight-knit family units. Too, we are the beneficiaries of almost $5 billion in economic impact each year spun off by the base.
It is not often that we as a community have an opportunity to assist our military friends at MacDill, as they are very much self-sufficient. That said, an opportunity has recently arisen that would allow the community to promote a very positive impact on the lives of MacDill’s military families: the creation of a K-8 charter school on the base. The entire focus of the school would be to create a unique environment and educational experience geared towards addressing the challenges faced by military families.
To help put these challenges in perspective, consider at the outset that military children move every two to three years, or six to nine times during their K-12 years. The military family is often given very short notice of a move, which means their children are whisked away from friends at one school and placed into an unfamiliar environment at a new school in a new location. As you can imagine, this constant mobility creates a variety of social and educational challenges for children during their very tender and formative years. To compound these issues, consider that at any given time at MacDill, there are more than 400 deployed military members — 400 families without a parent — serving us in very dangerous parts of the globe.
Today, 60 percent of our military families live off-base, with a heavy concentration in the Brandon area. Their children are scattered among a dozen schools, which in many instances means long commutes for parents and less time to spend with their kids.
Creating a K-8 charter school at MacDill would enhance the lives of our military families. Military children would have the opportunity to immediately bond and develop with children who have grown up with similar life experiences. It would bring military children closer to their parents’ workplace, thereby improving family quality of life through increased daily contact and better parental involvement in the classroom.
By attending school on base, these children can have immediate access to base medical facilities, before- and after-school care programs, youth centers, sports programs, child development centers, support programs and counselors. Charter schools on a base can establish both curriculum and a social environment that address the special needs and demands of military children. And charter schools have the flexibility to more quickly modify existing programs to keep up with the changing needs of military children.
On Aug. 1 of this year the Florida Charter Education Foundation submitted a charter school application with the Hillsborough County school district that would build the MacDill Charter Academy, which could increase on-base capacity of up to 875 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students. The application was filed after months of consultation and study with the MacDill Advisory Education Council, a group of talented civilian volunteers supporting the effort.
MacDill’s privatized housing company, AMC-East, has enlisted Charter School USA, a nationally recognized charter company, as the provider for establishing the MacDill Charter Academy on base.
It is important to note that the charter school format on military bases is not a new concept. Over the past five years, charter schools have been created on eight U.S. military bases, five of which are Air Force. These schools have had significant positive impacts on military families.
On Tuesday, the Hillsborough County School Board will take up the application for the MacDill Charter Academy and render its final decision on whether to approve it. I sincerely hope the board will give its very thoughtful consideration to this well-vetted concept that will lift a good deal of stress off the shoulders of our military families and serve the best interests of their children and the MacDill community.
George Howell is a partner at the Holland & Knight law firm in Tampa.