By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

Medical Lake district dedicates new room

Space a symbol of unity and support for military students and families

 

There’s a new room at Medical Lake High School that’s partially painted in various shades of Air Force blue. A scale model of a KC-135 tanker sits in one corner; the Fairchild Air Force Base logo adorns one wall.

It’s called the Fairchild Room.

A small contingent of Fairchild Air Force Base dignitaries and school district leaders came together at a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Medical Lake High School on Thursday, Feb. 20, to dedicate the room that serves as a physical representation of a five-year initiative between the school district and the base to make life easier for incoming military dependent kids and their families.

Both practical and symbolic, the room is a space the school district will use to connect with and start the process of intentionally integrating incoming military kids into their new school.

“This is a big day for us,” Medical Lake High School Principal Chris Spring, a leader in the effort, told the group.

Military life can be challenging for U.S. service members, and much is made of the sacrifices our military men and women make. Rightfully so.

But service members aren’t the only people making sacrifices. While servicemen and women are deployed across the globe, the task of dealing with life in their absence, including duty station reassignments, is left for their families to handle.


“Family members serve as much as servicemen do,” 141st Air Refueling Wing Commander Col. Kurt Tuininga, one of the attendees, said.

Kris Salmi, wife of base commander Col. Derek Salmi, underscored some of the many challenges kids face when they transfer to a different school.

For example, academic credits and grade point averages are often not fully honored by new schools, which can negatively affect college applications and admissions, and preclude a student from acceptance into national honor societies.

School registration is often a hurdle. Typically, current students enroll “on time” in the spring for fall classes. They receive their class schedule and sign up for fall sports. Those who don’t register in the spring are considered late registration and often must wait until fall to register.

“But for us, arriving in August is right on time,” Salmi said of military families.

Other issues, such as credit transcripts and grad point average transfers from previous schools, as well as class ranking, can be troublesome — new schools often don’t fully honor past academic work.

Salmi recalled one military student who’d enrolled in another local high school only to lose what Salmi called “an automatic admission” to the University of Texas because the school refused to give him a letter of rank.

Socially, military children leave their friends at one school behind, and are then left to form their own connections and relationships at their new, unfamiliar school, a tough prospect for many kids.

These and many other issues were what base officials brought to Medical Lake.

“As soon as we said the words ‘these are the issues affecting our community,’ (the school district) said, OK, how can we help,” Salmi said.

Medical Lake School District Superintendent Tim Ames gets it. He grew up a military kid; his family moved six times while following his dad between duty stations.

So it’s no surprise that one of the first questions Ames asked when he took the helm of the district five years ago was, “how is our relationship with the base?”

It’s a relevant question. The school district currently has over 800 active duty military kids in the school system — nearly half the district’s student body — Ames said.

Although the district had a relationship with Fairchild — Anderson Elementary, a MLSD school, is located on base — the relationship lacked design, according to Ames.

“Lets do it intentionally,” he said of the vision to connect with military families. “Lets embrace it, listen, and be compassionate about what takes place.”

So the district reached out to base officials. They received a lot of feedback.

After five years of outreach — meetings, military family surveys, discussions, and collaboration — the district started offering solutions.

They’ve since hired a military family advocate and base liaison, Ray Ornelas, himself retired military with his own kids enrolled in the school district. He serves as the bridge between the school district and base officials.

He educates teachers too.

“Teachers don’t see the military in their students,” Ornelas said. “They don’t walk around with a flag on their back.”

The room, he said, serves as reminder that many students are dealing with challenges teachers might not be familiar with, such as parental deployments, even as they work to maintain both peer relationships and their grades.

The district has launched an ambassador program called Cardinal Connections, where incoming kids meet with current MLHS students in the Fairchild Room who provide peer-to-peer support, show them around the school and introduce them to other students. Although the program is open to all new students, the concept was driven by conversations with Fairchild parents.


“We wanted to take it to another level,” Spring said.

Recognizing that any time is an on-time registration for military dependents, the district is developing a summer online registration portal to accommodate summer registrations. Spring said he’ll be offering tours and other support at various times throughout the summer to accommodate incoming families. The portal is scheduled to go live sometime in March.

And based on transcripts and other evidence from previous schools, the district now honors incoming military student’s class rank within the schools academic cohort. Letters of rank will be written upon request to be attached to college applications.

GPAs are honored as well, a policy that allowed Salmi’s own son to join an honor society.

“We didn’t have that before,” she said.

She praised the school administration for the support they’ve provided in working with military families. She called it the “gold standard” for schools.

“Everything that Medical Lake is doing here, they are setting the standard for how to support military families,” Salmi said.

Her husband, base commander Col. Derek Salmi, himself arriving last summer, shared his own experience when he stopped by the high school to pick up some paperwork for his son.

“Two hours later we had a tour, met teachers,” he said. “It was so welcoming. Let us show you what we have.”

Col. Salmi noted there are 59 Air Force installations in the United States, but Medical Lake School District is the first where the high school has a room signifying the partnership between a base and a local school district.

“That’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s a tangible symbol of the great relationship that we have.”

The outcomes of the five year initiative and the challenges of military students will be shared with other schools in the greater Spokane area, Salmi said. And if they ask how the base addresses these issues, she said her reply would be: ask Medical Lake.

“Our deal is we want to be the choice school,” Ames said. “We want to cater to military families.”

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com

 

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