Families in Transition: Lessons from the Military

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Episode 52│Families in Transition: Lessons from the Military

Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022

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Keith Mispagel

Whether your child is transitioning to a new school or a new country, change can be hard. We can learn a lot from military families who experience these types of transitions more frequently than most. Dr. Keith Mispagel, superintendent of Fort Leavenworth Unified School District, talks with our hosts about helping children adjust to new environments.


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LaWanda Toney: Welcome to today's episode. I'm LaWanda Toney.

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your co-hosts. I am very excited for today's topic. We are talking about transitions. Something I know a lot of families, including my own, have struggled with whether you or your family recently moved, your child is starting middle or high school or entering a new grade, transitions can be tough.

LaWanda Toney: That's right, Helen. Transitions can be hard for all of us, especially for those of us who've had multiple stops and starts to school because of COVID. Today, we're turning to the experiences of military families who move frequently, often all over the world. So today we are exploring what we can learn from these families and their schools to help us navigate life changes a little more smoothly.

Helen Westmoreland: Absolutely LaWanda, and that's why we are so grateful to have with us today, Dr. Keith Mispagel, superintendent of schools for Fort Leavenworth school district. Keith has spent 26 years in education, starting his career as a teacher. He is the President of the Military Impacted Schools Association and vice-president of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. He's also received two awards from the department of the army, the commanders award for public service twice, and the public service commendation medal, twice. He is married to his college sweetheart, and they have five boys ranging in age from 16 to 23. Welcome to the show, Keith.

Keith Mispagel: Thank you. Very excited to be here.

Helen Westmoreland: We're very excited to have you. So tell us a little bit just about yourself and how you approach your work as a superintendent on a military base.

Keith Mispagel: So I feel like I've got the best job in the world as superintendent for Leavenworth School District in Kansas, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. My school district is a preschool through ninth grade school district. We have about 1600, almost 1700 students and about a 50% turnover of our families every year and in a three-year period, over 95% turnover.

Helen Westmoreland: Wow.

Keith Mispagel: So it's been my professional career and my life's mission, if you will, to provide the best education that my district and I can for the students of those that are serving our country and protecting my freedom.

Helen Westmoreland: Absolutely.

LaWanda Toney: So Keith, tell us a little bit about what's going on for families when they first arrive, what are families experiencing behind the scenes, when they start a new school.

Keith Mispagel: So when they first arrive, it's all things in motion. And what I mean by that is, typically the families that arrive here at Fort Leavenworth and, and many of them across the country will make moves over the summer months in June and July. When they get to their new duty station, they have to accept quarters. They have to accept their new house that they're offered. They have to coordinate the movement of household goods. The soldier has to report to the command. Families have to familiarize themselves with the neighborhoods in the area and they haven't even started unpacking essentials or critical information documents yet.

Many families tell their kids, okay, we're going on a new adventure, pat, pack your bag, pack your backpack. Cause, it's got to fit in the suburban or mini van or a car as, as we drive across the country. And in that backpack are your essentials that you want to have with you. It could be a favorite book. It could be a cell phone. It could be a handheld video game. It could be paper, a journal or something, but what are the essentials as they move? Because, they're working through an overall sense of feelings with excitement, fear, happiness, nervousness, anxiousness and just exhaustion, because there's a lot to think about.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Could you talk a little bit more about that? We've talked on this show a few times about socio emotional development and what's really going on for kids with all those factors you just talked about. Could you talk a little bit about what you're thinking of as a school system leader?

Keith Mispagel: It's a challenge when a student may hear, we're moving and the soldiers and the spouses that I've talked to. It's a common theme where yes, there's a soldier, an active duty soldier that serves, but the spouse and kids serve too. They are also serving, because they're a part of every transition and every process. And so when a student hears from their parents we're going to Kansas they might be, stationed in Hawaii or Virginia or California. And now the students have a process that many families have explained to me of, what they do to prepare. So as, as you mentioned in the beginning, I have five boys. The oldest is 23, youngest is 16 and they have grown up in the same household, same school system, their entire career.

Helen Westmoreland: Wow.

Keith Mispagel: They have not moved cause we're not military. I often think about my own boys, what would they do if we moved and they had to go to a new school? I think they would have a big challenge and because they've never had to do it, but, in many of our military families, whether I was a teacher, principal, and even in my roles now, if, if I'm out at recess or talking with a new kid, The concept of the new kid isn't as what my boys would see the new kid being. I've watched the new students enroll in October. So the school year's already started and they go out to recess and they literally don't know anybody, but they'll walk up to a group of kids and introduce themselves. Hi, my name is Keith, I just got here from, from Florida. What's your guys' name? And I think, wow, that's a resiliency and an opportunity to be able to say, I've been through this. I need to meet some new people.

And so I think it's a discussion, when we talk about social, emotional development, social, emotional learning, and growth as a maturity for kids at all ages, whether they're preschool through high school, the maturity to have the resiliency and the understanding of it's a new adventure.

Here's what I do I'm gonna meet my teacher. I'm going to share as much as I want to share. But I don't have to share everything just to try and jump in right away. And so there's a process that I've had families share with me that they talk about ahead of time. They have a moving party, not necessarily a going away party, but a moving party in their last duty station, because they've made friends, maybe they only were in those classes for a year and now they have to move away. But it's, not goodbye as much as it might be, see you later, because a lot of times in the military, they might end up back together in another duty station, as students.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. What can civilian families learn from military families about resiliency and transition? What things can we take away to say, you know what? We should start doing this, it would help our kids transition, even if they're going from elementary to middle school.

Keith Mispagel: That's a great question. It's a big question, but a great question. And, and some of the successful strategies, if you will, that the military families have shared with me that, that other families have used and can use when we're talking about transition, from an elementary school to a middle school, or from one school in a district to one across town, or even across states or, or, or across country.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah

Keith Mispagel: Is gathering information ahead of time asking the questions that will allow parents to get as much information as possible prior to that move. In some cases that a parent may make have to make a move in a week or less time for whatever the situation may be. There still is time within that to jump on the website of the school district that they're going to be going to, or the school, find out what supplies are needed, find out requirements. Is there activities that the kids can sign up for? What was the mascot of the school? You'd be surprised to think that a kid that is going from a one school in let's say Kentucky that has a Wildcat as a mascot then comes to Kansas and goes to a different school, oh, it's a wild cat.

I was a wild cat last year. And so it's really the smallest things to help bring some interest excitement or and newness to the adventure, on a lot of websites, including ours, we have 360 degree virtual tours, where a family can click on the school and do a virtual tour of clicking through and they can see most of the school and oh, okay that's, that's the entrance. This is where you're going to have to go for lunch. This is, wow. Look at that school. I've never seen a school that has that much natural light or look at the colors and just kind of a buildup ahead of time of the new adventure. Because, also I've had families talk to me about just the overwhelming , feeling of wow, we gotta move. We gotta move again. Look at all the changes. Look at all the challenges that are gonna come with it.

I will never try take away from the long list of challenges and issues that come with a transition for a family, because they're real. And as a school district and school staff, that's our responsibility to help as much as possible with families where the most successful moves have been is, yes they accept and understand that there will be challenges. But how do we not focus on those solely? Because, they're still going to be a part of it, but now we make it a positive moving forward and that can help with resiliency of the student. Here's how you can make some friends.

You know, maybe you see a kid out at recess, that's kicking a soccer ball, you like soccer. You know, if it were one of my boys, Hey, Tanner, you like soccer, you see a kid playing soccer, go ask him, you kick the ball with him. You don't have to tell him your life story. You just got to say hi. And it's really just, just creating some of those opportunities to help our kids  get in the mix and know that the school is there to help.

Helen Westmoreland: So I want to pick up on that thread, because I think the flip side to LaWanda's question is like, what can school leaders and what can schools do to be better partners to their families while transitioning? Because, I do think over the past two years, like, right, Keith you've been doing this for years, right? And, and your families have that resilience. You have those structures in place, but I think the past couple of years have really shone a light that there are a lot of schools, that aren't quite there in terms of really welcoming families and helping them through these transitions, whether that's a parent that's choosing a new school or was quarantine and schools were closed, and then we had to go back. What can school leaders learn from you about some best practices to really support your families and students through transitioning?

Keith Mispagel: One of the aha moments that I find myself every year looking at is not to assume that parents automatically know what they're supposed to know. Exactly. And I've been guilty of it myself, while I think we, we work really hard in, in Fort Leavenworth school district to do what we can for all families. We're not perfect, and we make mistakes. But as I talk with my administrators and staff, we have to be prepared to adjust on the fly. I've been guilty of saying, well, look, we're, we're a good school district. How do parents not just trust that? Well, they've never been here, we've got to earn that trust. We've got to show that we care about their kids and we've got to have transition support in place. And so there are no dumb questions.

There are questions that every family has, because their experiences in transition, whether it's from their last location or duty station or one, two or three years ago that impressed some very challenging memories for them. That's what they're bringing in every move. I've had families that I've met with in the summer, they come in and they're ready for a battle. Here's what I need for my kid, this is what I expect, and this is what's going to happen. And I talked to them about it. I don't feel uncomfortable with those conversations. I don't fault the parents for that. I actually tell the parents, you need to advocate for your kids and we're going to do it together. Your frustration that I, that I hear in some of your comments or demands or requests are likely due to some challenges that you've experienced in past years. Let me hear about those and let me see if I can help understand what we can do differently as part of that. And so for transitioning families and what the schools should be able to help with is, here's what we can share with you in regards to our curriculum or our curriculum resources.

For example, if, if a student that is moving from one school to another one state to another, one of the questions that many parents have is what is your math series? What math do you use? Well we use go math in Fort Leavenworth. Not everybody uses that. And that's okay. Sometimes when a kid who might already be nervous hears, Oh, you use that, I used that last year and now I'm familiar with it. Or if a family says all my kids never use that, or what do they use? Oh, they use Eureka math. Okay. Well, here's how we can support, that because here's the way the curriculum is going to align.

And so it's really a conversation and collaboration to help do everything we can as a school district to alleviate some of those initial concerns that might be historical or might be student driven, need-driven. When we talk about students that have IEP or 504 plans, there, there's a lot of information that school districts need, and parents need to make sure that we have a successful and appropriate education for our students with disabilities, whether that's academic, emotional, social emotional, behavioral. It could be medical needs. The more information upfront, the more schools can prepare. So I've already been contacted by a couple of families for next August.

When  families are transitioning, we need to be able to answer their questions. I don't have a transition coordinator hired in the district, but I have all my administrators that can support with transition questions. And if we don't know the answer, we need to find it to help our families.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. Can we talk a little bit more about students challenges. Say that you have a family who is transitioning and their kids just not doing well with the transition, what can they do?

Keith Mispagel: So we have counselors in our schools. I don't know that every school has counselors, but there's, usually supports and transition, can take many different forms with all kids. And I think about my five boys, a transition would be different for all five of them in one way or another. And so looking at it as, okay, how do we help with this transition? Well, it's a conversation that could be with, who is the trusted adult for that student.

It might be that student's teacher. It might be the school counselor. It could be the school nurse. It could be the principal, but how do we help that student, know that, yes, there's some challenges, but, but what were those challenges? Let's say it was in English language arts - may have a hard time reading. Doesn't like to read. I didn't love to read. But I knew I had to do it. And so as a former average student, I got by. But I wish I would have had some people help me understand why reading was important at certain levels. And it wouldn’t have been so hard. And so really it's a conversation of, we're not going to make kids love to read in this example. But how do we help them understand that here's what we can help them with, so it's not as hard. And COVID has, has shown us so many things that we can't just assume that things are going back to normal or we can't assume that normal was exactly right before COVID. And so we've had to make some adjustments.

We've made adjustments this year from last year. I've talked with my staff and my families last year. If you'd have asked me, if it was the hardest year of my career, I would have said yes. If you asked me this year, this year has been the hardest, because it's changed. There's already been changes that have come forward in the way schools operate. Whether it's potential learning loss or understanding of, of classroom management and how kids just have to act in class. And if they're wearing masks or not wearing masks. I'm hyperactive. Three of my five boys are also hyperactive. So put me in a room, tell me to sit in a desk and not move and wear a mask and be engaged, what am I going to do? Probably not make the right choice. So how do we approach it as a school system or as a country when it comes to what are the top priorities as we look at, what do kids need?

And, so in our schedules this year we've made adjustments, we've added time that, that we call WIN time, what I need time. And so at the elementary is we've blocked off a block of time at each grade level for intervention, and now that can be enrichment support for students that are right on track and need to be challenged, or it could be a remedial support for students that may  have had a different learning style or, not caught on to all the, the grade level objectives in the previous year. So it's a balance of what do kids need.

Helen Westmoreland: I want to ask you, because I think some of what you're talking about Keith is how you actually, as a superintendent, create an environment for your staff to also be somewhat resilient in the face of change. That is what the moment is calling upon all of us to do right now. How do you take care of yourself? How do you practice that resilience? How do you help your staff practice that resilience? Because if they can't navigate the change, they're not going to be able to help other people navigate the change. How do you approach that?

Keith Mispagel: That is probably one of the more difficult aspects of the changes that we're dealing with. Because the last two years has affected everybody individually different and in many different ways. And so I I've had a lot of emotional and long conversations with individual staff members with schools at staff meetings to where I pull up a chair and say, okay, let's talk. What are the biggest challenges right now? And I've left a very emotional myself, and, but knowing that God, I wish I could just wave a wand and make all their troubles go away.

Like all school districts. And like all staffs and like all, all families there has been loss, whether it's a loss of job loss, loss of life, loss of family member.

 Helen Westmoreland: Loss of normalcy.

Keith Mispagel: Yes. That everybody is impacted. And yeah, we we've had to, to take a step back. I'm a very driven individual, I want nothing but the best for every one of our students and staff. And I don't think there's anything that should stop us in trying to achieve that. Well, that's all well and good. And then human life comes into it and then it becomes, okay, there's a way to lead when you're out front, but if you're way out front, no, one's behind you? You're not leading, you're on an island, and so I've really had to try and reflect myself of what, what can I help my staff with, what does the staff need? And again, everybody needs something different, because the way that our teachers have taught, and then like all districts is not the way they were trained in college unless they were in college in the last year or two and student taught during a time of Zoom class and at home learning.

Helen Westmoreland: Some would argue what you learn on how to be a teacher in college is still totally different than once you get there. Anyways, under the best of circumstances.

Keith Mispagel: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. On the job training has been new for everyone, whether they're a brand new teacher or a veteran staff member, it's all been brand new.

So it's really trying to connect with the staff and see what is needed. And it's still not perfect. I still haven't solved the, many challenges that are out there, but, how do we chip away at it? And how does staff know we care? We had a professional development afternoon, within the last month where we had, we had had a previous professional development plan of a national speaker coming in and we had all these things lined out that we would normally do.

And after talking with staff, my deputy and I scratched it and said, okay, we need to do a kind of a mental health afternoon. And, and so we did some cafeteria style breakout sessions that included yoga, included weightlifting, included pickleball it just, you know BYOB, bring your own book. Let me say that real quick after it bring your own book or an opportunity to professionally develop and collaborate. And so it was well received in that was the timing necessary, because I didn't want to say, okay, everybody let's be engaged for the next three hours, listening to this national speaker who would be good, but now is not the time for good. We need to help people get back to how do I help my kids and myself more?

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, I love that. I do.

Helen Westmoreland: I have a quick follow-up cause you talked about understanding needs at the staff level and sort of the ways you do that. What does your, intake and needs assessment process and welcoming process look like for your new families and students? Cause you've talked a lot about conversations, but I'm guessing you've got a couple very specific things in place, to make sure you're listening and responding to the needs of our military families and their kids.

Keith Mispagel: At the beginning of the school year, we do in each of the schools an expectation academy for all students. The first couple of days of school, the classrooms almost go through stations. Here’s the cafeteria. And ’here’s how you walk through the cafeteria. Here’s how you get to the gym for PE. Here's the library. Here's the restrooms for your grade level. And, and as part of that expectation academy, they'll have a time. for their class or a grade level to sit with the principal and the principal say, okay, here's what our expectations are for, our school. Here's what behavior expectations are. Here's what we want to do for fun. So kids have that within the first week of school, an opportunity to know what the expectations are, and ask questions about it. The first day of school is just a crazy day and a fun day, every year.

Knowing that there's a lot of energy on that first day of school, the day before the first day of school, we have a time where families and kids can come visit their classroom, bring their supplies. They get to see where their seat is they get to meet the teacher. They get to walk their parents around the school. So there's that little familiarity of here's where I'm going to be, this year. And that's the same for returning students or new students. Everybody's excited about it. Everybody has supplies they have to bring in. Everybody wants to see where they sit.

And so those are just a couple of things that we do that have helped, we, we do a needs assessments that the schools have sent out. So the teachers will do an interest survey. Hey, what do you like? What do you dislike? And, because it's not safe to assume that every kid likes the same thing. One student may like video games, another wants sports, another wants reading, who knows? But until we know, we're not able to differentiate and say, okay, here's a project we're going to do. You can base the project on your favorite theme. And so it's really trying to create that initial comfort level of here's what you can expect from this day forward.

LaWanda Toney: I love that. So good. Keith, you have shared so many great nuggets with us, so good. So many good resources and just ways to transition. The final question for you is out of everything that we've talked about, what is the one thing you hope families could walk away with?

Keith Mispagel: An understanding that it's a partnership between the school and the family and that parents should ask questions. Parents should seek out information and know that the school wants to be able to provide as much information as possible to help with those transitions. One of the frustrations that I know families have to face whether they're military or just moving from one school the next is, it's not like it was at the other school, whether good or bad, it's not like it was at the other school, understanding that and making sure that that doesn't drive all comments, determinations, statements, because that'll create more frustrations.

It's how do we work together to adapt? Because a transition is hard without a support. It can be easier when there's the opportunity for parents to feel comfortable to say, I have some questions and here they are in email. Can you please get these to me? Cause, I'm trying to work out my family transition and prepare. That's why I said earlier, there's no dumb questions. Schools don't always have the exact answer, at that exact time because things change. This last two years has been an example of that.

Helen Westmoreland: I feel like I am walking away with a lot of great advice and just deeper appreciation for the experience of our military families and those inside schools. If folks want to go learn more about you, military families, anything you want to suggest for resources that people could look at to follow up.

Keith Mispagel: I I'd welcome the ability for people to look at our website, which is www.usd207.org. Even if they're not attending here, it might give some ideas of what to ask for when transitioning. The Military Impacted Schools Association that I'm the president of, we represent almost 60 school districts across the country that serve high concentrations of military in over 25 states and all of which work on transitions every year.

So, our military impacted schools association organization is one where families can whether transitioning through military or just in transitioning, go and see what some of the resources are. So, we're continuing to build those opportunities. And if others have specific questions about transitions my contact information is on our website as well.

And I'd be happy to - if I'm flooded with thousands of emails. So, but, I'm open to collaborating because, you know, my, as I said earlier, you know, I, have a deep passion to, to provide the best education I can for those serving our country. But, I also have a deep need and want to make sure all kids have a good education.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you.

LaWanda Toney: Awesome. We'll definitely share the links that you talked about on our website, as well. I just want to thank you for your time and your expertise, and sharing all the things that you've learned throughout your career, it's really helpful. And I think that you'll definitely help a lot of our listeners, through transitions.

Keith Mispagel: Thank you. I'm thankful that you asked me to be a part of this.

LaWanda Toney: To our listeners, thanks for joining us. Please remember to visit Apple podcast page and leave a rating and a review.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the season so far, and as always for more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. Thanks for listening. Join us next time.