The Historic Triangle is filled with military coming from all sides of the nation and in area schools, their families are being taken care of.
“When we’re there for these children in a consistent manner, I feel like that’s building blocks to ease them into the military lifestyle,” said Lisa Ruffieux, Grafton Bethel Elementary School principal.
Grafton Bethel is one of four schools given the Purple Star award from the Virginia Department of Education. Purple Star awards are earned from schools who have shown commitment to maintaining military-friendly learning environments, according to a news release from VDOE.
Other recipients in York County were Coventry Elementary, Tabb Middle School and Yorktown Middle School. In Williamsburg-James City County, J.Blaine Blayton Elementary also earned the award.
Building the welcome wagon
Ruffieux said she applied for the award over the summer when she realized her school fit most of the requirements which range from welcoming a student for arrival to preparing an academic plan for each student, according to VDOE’s website.
Grafton Bethel has about 182 military students at any given time of the year. Some of them come during fall enrollment but many of them trickle in throughout a semester, Ruffieux said.
“They have unique lifestyles, often going to and from different schools,” she said. “It’s important to make them feel connected and welcomed.”
One of the ways the school does this is by having peer mentoring program, which they hope to initiate in the end of November.
In the program, students in third to fifth grade are chosen as mentors for incoming students. As mentors, they show the new student around, introduce them to the school’s activities, and make them feel welcomed.
“It’s relationships first and instruction second,” Ruffieux said. “Because if you have the relationship, you’re able to have student success.”
Kristen Vlattas, school counselor at Grafton Bethel, said making students feel heard is a large factor in building a military-friendly school. As a counselor, she said she often deals with students who have family members that are deployed and she helps them to understand their situation and learn coping strategies.
“You can never start too young,” she said. “These kids are still developing and in a place where they’re still trying to understand what’s going on when mom or dad are deployed.”
Another aspect the school plays into is giving military parents plenty of opportunities to interact with the children.
The school participates in a program from the National Center for Fathering called “Watch DOGS,” that centers on “dads of great students.” In the program, fathers have the opportunity to come to their student’s school for a day and experience different aspects of their child’s education from physical education class to lunchtime.
“We have fathers come in immediately after coming home from deployment to interact with their kids,” Riffeux said. “Often they’ve just gotten off the plane, still tired, but they want to learn about their student’s education.”
In addition, the school also had a potluck for military families that helped students and their parents make connections with other families, Vlattas said.
It is a mixture of all these activities and programs that has earned the school, and others in the district, the Purple Star. The award carries over a 3-year period at the end of which the school needs to reapply.
But Riffeux said she’s ready to keep improving for the military families.
“It’s not just about the award, it’s about making a welcoming community for these students who need it,” she said.