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CAFB commander touts advances in local education


Kristin Mamrack



Columbus Air Force Base officials expect a 2009 education survey, to be completed this summer, to reflect CAFB''s proactive approach to education. 


"We know education is important and we have the data to show it," Col. Roger Watkins, commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing, said Wednesday, noting "the education of airmen and their families" is one of his "top priorities." 


"We feel like we''re kind of on the leading edge of education reform," he said of CAFB efforts, which included conducting a wing-wide census to determine priorities, briefing the state superintendent of education on education concerns at CAFB, participating in a strategic forum and the formation of an education task force, including the employment of a full-time school liaison officer. 


CAFB currently utilizes a full-time liaison officer, but the position is not funded by the United States Air Force. 


"The Air Force ought to champion education," Watkins said, noting a goal of having a school liaison officer, fully funded by the USAF''s Air Education Training Command, at every military institution. 


Explaining the U.S. Army and Navy both have pushed for a school liaison officer at all institutions, Watkins added, "The Air Force has not made a strong effort toward getting an officer." 


Frequent location changes by members of the military lead to difficulties in educating their children, Watkins explained, referring to data, collected in 2007, demonstrating a wide gap between state education testing levels and national testing levels. 


"There is a wide disparity between what individual states think their education standard is and the national standard," he said, stressing "our children are products of our educational system." 


CAFB''s future plans include improving the quality of education by addressing the gap in state and national rankings and better curriculum development. 


Additionally, CAFB plans to address issues unique to a military lifestyle by holding a meeting of Mississippi school liaisons in June and the completion of a CAFB education survey in late summer. 


"(We want to) level out the difference between states and make it easier for military families to move from one state to another," Watkins said. "Anytime we can raise the quality of education overall, everybody wins." 


A 2007 survey, to which 90 percent of the wing, including military and civilian employees and contractors responded, showed 50 percent of Columbus parents opted out of public education. 


The 2007 study showed 30 percent of the school-aged children at CAFB attended private schools and 16 percent were home-schooled. 


Of school-aged children, 8 percent attended school out of the state. 


"We said, ''hey, we''ve got to do something,''" Watkins said of the data. "The bottom line is we want to improve the quality of education, because it''s our children''s future. If quality education is important in Lowndes and Columbus, our children are the benefactors." 




By the numbers 


According to the 2007 survey, 131 students lived on the base; of those, 92 were elementary school students. 


The survey indicated 30 percent of all students, living on base in 2007, attended public school in Caledonia, 29 percent attended Columbus city schools, 17 percent were home-schooled, 21 percent attended private school, and 2 percent attended public school in New Hope. 


Of the elementary school students living on base, 30 attended school in Caledonia, 17 attended private school, 16 were home-schooled, 14 attended Franklin Academy Elementary School, 12 attended Cook Elementary School, two attended other Columbus city schools and one student attended New Hope Elementary School. 


CAFB officials expect this year''s survey to show markedly different results, with more parents taking advantage of school choice programs and educating their children in public schools. 




School choice 


CAFB is the only base in the state to offer a school choice program. 


"We''re excited to see the progress," Watkins said. "We believe the changes that have begun to happen are going to have a positive impact. 


"Now, families can live on (the military) installation and have school choice," he continued, noting previously military families did not prefer to live on base, because they wanted to choose the school their child attended.




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