Daddy, Why Is My School Falling Down?

Article excerpt

Byline: Kristen Lombardi - The Center for Public Integrity's IWatchNews

The troops returning from Afghanistan this year face a bleak homecoming: the nation's commitment to their families is flagging--particularly at the broken-down schools that serve soldiers' kids.

For nearly half her life, 11-year-old Catie Hunter has lived apart from her father, an Army platoon sergeant deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and twice to Korea. Such extended separation would stress any child. But Catie must endure additional hardship at her elementary school at Oklahoma's Fort Sill.

To get to class on stormy days, the fifth grader must dodge what she calls "Niagara Falls," the deluge of rainwater that flows from the school's rotten roof into large trash bins below. Pleasant days aren't much better at Geronimo Road Elementary. Catie passes by chipped floors, termite-infested walls, and cracks in bricks the size of the principal's finger. In the ceiling, tiles are bent and browned by leaks. Some dangle by threads of glue. A bucket, strapped by a bungee cord, hangs over the gymnasium door, another makeshift rain receptacle. Inside her classroom--built before Dwight D. Eisenhower became president--an archaic air-conditioning unit at times drowns out her teacher's voice.

"I'm really proud of the fact that the school is still standing," says Catie, a pixie of a girl who twitches her nose when she talks. "Sometimes I wonder if it's going to fall in."

School conditions that disgust many adults only add to the pressures on a child longing for a father deployed four times since her birth. "I wish he were here," she admits. "I miss him a lot."

Catie's circumstances are hardly unique. An investigation by NEWSWEEK and the Center for Public Integrity's iWatchNews found that tens of thousands of children of U.S. military personnel attend military-base schools that are falling apart from age and neglect, and have failed to meet the Defense Department's own standards. The conditions at schools on military installations have worsened in the last decade even as the average soldier-parent endures an average of three deployments, each lasting up to 18 months.

In Germany, for instance, the children of U.S. soldiers still go to class in World War II-era Nazi barracks that were cited for fire hazards just a few years ago. At Fort Riley in Kansas, students drink water tainted brown from corroding pipes, while at Fort Stewart in Georgia, mold that grew on walls and sprouted from floors was so serious at one school that the library had to be shuttered for emergency cleanup.

The military schools crisis is so little known that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently suggested the military's treatment of kids might perhaps be its "most impressive achievement," while first lady Michelle Obama boasted in April that the administration has made the education of soldiers' children a top priority.

But in nearly 200 interviews across the globe, educators, parents, and students at military-base schools painted a far bleaker story. They have used boiler rooms, trailers, hallways, or closets as makeshift classrooms or workspaces, and fretted as children sweltered on hot days when antiquated air-conditioning units stopped working.

Conditions are so bad that some educators at base schools envy the civilian public schools off base, which admittedly have their own set of challenges.

"Some of the new schools in town make our schools look like a prison," says David C. Primer, who uses a trailer as a classroom to teach students German at the vaunted Marine headquarters in Quantico, Va., just 30 miles south of the nation's capital, in one of the country's most affluent suburbs.

Safety also is an issue. In April, a fire traced to an aging gas line broke out in the cafeteria at an elementary school at Fort Stewart in Georgia. "The conditions are terrible," says Tina French, a mother of two autistic students at the school. …