High school students who transfer to stateside schools might find it a little tougher to graduate because of each state has different graduation requirements.

High school students who transfer to stateside schools might find it a little tougher to graduate because of each state has different graduation requirements. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

When Kate Brilakis found out her family would be moving from Germany to Virginia next year, she began to prepare for daughter Zoe’s enrollment into the Virginia school system.

Brilakis said she was surprised to discover the hoops that students must jump through in order to satisfy a state’s graduation requirements.

“For instance, high school students returning to the Virginia school system as seniors must complete two years of Virginia history. The history courses offered through DODEA do not have the Virginia component,” Brilakis said. “Why would they?”

Unlike their civilian peers, Department of Defense Education Activity students face many challenges on what can be a circuitous path to high school graduation.

On average, military students transfer between six and nine times between kindergarten and 12th grade, with about two of those transfers occurring during high school, according to the Council of State Governments.

There are more than 180,000 high-school aged children of active-duty servicemembers, and there are more than 13,000 students in DODDS high schools overseas. It’s these kids who are most at risk of coming up short on graduation requirements when their family transfers back to the States.

Fortunately for Zoe, who’s a junior at Patch High School in Stuttgart, DODDS students who complete 11th grade are eligible for a DODEA diploma once they transfer regardless of individual state graduation requirements. The regulations governing DODEA allow students to receive a DODEA diploma if “through no fault of their own, they cannot meet the requirements of the receiving school.”

Students still have to attend 12th grade in their new school to earn the required graduation credits. But if the state will not grant a diploma, the student can receive the DODEA diploma.

However, students only completing the 10th grade before transferring to the U.S. don’t have this safety net.

“States determine graduation requirements, not the federal government,” explained Jo Ann Webb, a spokesperson with the Department of Education. “Staff members who have visited local education agencies … near Army bases with a DOD team, have heard about this at every site.”

To help students, DODEA has been working with some outside organizations to craft an interstate compact, Webb said, asking states to agree to some provisions that will help children who have military parents. Last month, 11 states enacted the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children.

The agreement drafted by the Council of State Governments in 2006 contains input from 18 agencies including various state, federal and nonprofit groups that focus on educational issues, along with advocates for military children. The purpose of the compact was to “identify stumbling blocks military children face in their education as a highly mobile population, and come up with potential solutions that could be addressed through an interstate compact,” said Kyle Zinth, who works for the Education Commission of the States (ECS), one of the nonprofit agencies providing input for the compact.

The compact may be a helpful tool for military students who transfer from one state to another, but it has no specific provisions for those transferring from DODDS schools overseas.

“Interstate compacts are compacts between states; therefore, neither DODEA (nor the DOD) is a signatory member,” explained Lt. Col. Les’ Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman. “From a strictly legal standpoint, the states signing the compact are only obligated to meet these guidelines for military children transitioning in from other signatory states.”

Though limited, the compact may be a first step toward standardization on transfer requirements.

According to Melnyk, “several (states) are saying they should meet these standards for all transitioning students, military or not, regardless of which state they come from, or indeed, if they came from DOD schools overseas.”

Since there is no singular piece of legislation that covers overseas students at the moment, having DODEA act as an advocate for a transitioning student is advisable, officials say.

“In every case when a parent has contacted DODEA in reference to a need for their child who is transferring between DOD and non-DOD schools, we have found that the schools are willing to work with us to find a solution,” said Mary Patton, DODEA’s coordinator for pupil personnel services. “We are more than willing to assist when we are asked.”

A major problem transferring students can face is with history and social studies requirements.

According to information compiled by the ECS, at least 10 states have state history requirements including studies of the state constitution. Some states also have testing requirements unique to that state’s curriculum. These tests may determine class placement in advance or subject-unique courses that students might need to bolster their college applications.

Understanding state education requirements may be a factor when families negotiate for their next set of orders.

“I imagine most parents, not familiar with the system, may not think to address this concern before it is too late to do anything about it,” Brilakis said.

“Also consider that most military members do not know where they are going from year to year,” she said. “There are lots of kids out there who will be ‘left behind’ if this system isn’t addressed, evaluated and adjusted.”

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