Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, had his ears fine-tuned and a pen and notebook in hand as he visited Falcon High School near Colorado Springs on Friday afternoon.
During a panel discussion on "The Military-Connected Child," Duncan heard 11th grader Maddie Brewerton and 10th grader Leah Petrie talk about how they help new kids from military families adjust to the school.
He later posed for "selfies" with the girls.
Duncan listened as Shonteau Travis, a mother of four who recently retired from the Air Force, stood up during a question-and-answer period and told how her children have had a hard time fitting in since they've repeatedly changed schools due to her reassignments.
"How can you better identify that military child to know what their needs are? My family has never experienced it," she said. "In many ways, the child seems to be penalized."
Duncan said he wants to create a system to help schools pinpoint new students who come from military families and provide support.
"Some parents want an identifier on military students to track school data better, so there's less getting lost in the transitions," he said.
As he worked the crowd after the presentation, Duncan high-fived fifth grader Annika Sederburg for making the honor roll at the fourth school she's attended in her short academic career, Rocky Mountain Classical Academy.
Duncan also offered kind words to a student brought to tears as she told him her father got deployed but no one had known, and she felt alone and scared.
"We have to break through these barriers," he said during a meeting with media. "We owe every child in this country a great education, but we really owe these children everything."
Duncan praised the Student 2 Student leadership program at Falcon High School, a national program founded by the Military Child Education Coalition, a network for peer-based groups.
"The peer leadership program here is fantastic. Students are doing a really good job - you hear it in their words and feel their passion," he said.
Like other area school districts, Falcon School District 49 has many students — 3,206 this school year, or about 22 percent of pupils enrolled — whose families are connected to the military.
Monty Lammers, innovation leader for the Falcon Zone of D-49, which includes the high school, said schools often don't hear from parents or the military base when a family member is being deployed.
"They don't think to notify the school, and until we see behavior spikes or discipline issues, we don't realize what the problem is." he said. "We deal with grief and loss and the reunification process, which everybody expects is going to be joyous and happy, and it's often not.
"We'd like to be a support system and be more proactive so students get the attention they need and can be successful."
Duncan applauded Colorado for being one of 45 states to adopt Common Core State Academic Standards and new achievement tests that go along with the standardized curriculum.
Because, as he heard from students, as well as Air Force Col. Charles F. Arnold Jr., commander of the 21st Mission Support Group at Peterson Air Force Base's 21st Space Wing, a lack of uniform curriculum is one of the hardest things students from military families face.
"Usually when you move, you're either too far ahead or too far behind," Maddie said during the panel discussion. "My problem was I was too far ahead in math, and I had to deal with kids saying, 'Oh, Maddie, you're such a nerd. How do you know all of this?"
Arnold said programs such as Student 2 Student can give parents peace of mind, to know their children are being welcomed and have a buddy from the start.
"It does ease the stress of the parents, and mental health is so important for our military members," he said. "My daughter went to 11 schools by the time she graduated, and the lack of consistency and academic standards across the board is an issue."
Duncan, who had led the U.S. Department of Education since January 2009, when the Senate confirmed his appointment, said he will take several ideas back to the Capitol in an effort to "share best practices" of schools he's visited across the nation.
"This is a good, thoughtful group. It's inspiring to be here," he said.
Duncan said he wants to improve restrictions schools place on athletes and Honor Roll students. Students often are required to have been at the school for a certain period of time, up to a year, before they can be on the Honor roll or receive seniority, in terms of sports. He also agreed that more communication between schools and military installations would be beneficial.
"We've got to make it better for kids like you. That's why I'm here — we have some work to do," Duncan said to the girl who became emotional as she talked to him.
As Duncan moved on to others in the crowd, several Student 2 Student members circled around and hugged her.