S-A-C Spells "Passionate Parents"

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Despite beautiful landscapes and a welcoming community, acclimating to Mountain Home's harsh climate and small-town feel can be a challenge for newcomers. For some families with children, adjusting to Idaho's education system can present an even greater challenge.

"One of the primary reasons people may have hesitation ... about coming to Mountain Home is the school system," said Tech. Sgt. DeShawn Smith, School Advisory Committee president.

While different studies may conflict on exact numbers or figures, most point to one thing: Idaho ranks near the bottom out of all 50 states in funding for education, which in turn affects the quality of education Idaho students receive. For the past several years, the state has cut public school funding by approximately $250 million. Although the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that the Idaho 8th grade literacy rate is above the nation's average, the 77 percent high school graduation rate reported by Idaho Education News is lower than the national average of 81 percent. 

These numbers can be particularly concerning for military families, who have little control over the quality of education their children may receive as they move from state to state - a concern 366th Fighter Wing Commander Col. David Iverson doesn't take lightly. 

"We all want the best possible education for our children," Iverson said. "As we know, statistics only tell a part of the story- there are many talented and dedicated educators here in Mountain Home.  So we have offered to help our local school district however we are able." 

In the spring of 2015, the School Advisory Committee was created as part of Iverson's initiative to increase base support for both military and local children in the Mountain Home School District.  To achieve their mission of supporting, advocating, and communicating for students, the SAC's first order of business was to determine the needs of students, parents and educators.

"When we did our survey there was a lot of passion, a lot of anger," Smith said. 

While frustration is understandable, Smith said simply being angry wasn't doing anyone any favors.

"We want to be able to channel that passion in a direction that's positive and productive."

Survey results and an examination of the needs of the district illustrated that low-funding doesn't only contribute to less money spent on students. It also means reduced maintenance for playgrounds and infrastructure, less one-on-one time for students due to fewer teachers, and schools looking  to find new and creative ways to pull in much-needed funding - all potential factors that can contribute to lower morale in the schools.

"The military certainly knows the impact of morale," said Jen Heitmeyer, SAC awards program liaison.

To fill those gaps, the SAC decided they needed volunteers to help tutor, raise money, and even do some remodeling. Fortunately, volunteerism is a concept embraced by many service members. Over the past few months, a volunteer-fueled SAC has provided tutors to Mountain Home High School; supported a Halloween Carnival at West Elementary and a walk-a-thon fundraiser at Hacker Middle School; and re-painted a time-worn playground at East Elementary.

"[The playground] sounds like something that's not a big deal," said Master Sgt. Ann Mitchell, SAC volunteer coordinator liaison. "But the 400-something students that go there might feel a little better about their school ... try a little harder."

The SAC's efforts don't end at improving quality-of-life for students. They recently recognized a Stephensen Elementary School teacher as their first quarter "Outstanding Educator."

"Any educator or para-educator could be nominated," Heitmeyer said, leaving the door open to actively involve the community in recognizing who they felt demonstrated the best qualities in an educator.

The "Outstanding Educator" award is the first of the SAC's efforts to recognize peer, student and parent-nominated educators. The next award nominations take place mid-December, and it's offered to any educator, on- or off-base - an all-inclusive attitude that doesn't just pertain to awards.

"Anyone who's looking for assistance with something, we're willing to help," Mitchell said.

Smith said there's always room for improvement and the SAC can't do it alone; they need base, school and community support.

"Let the SAC know 'what do you like in the school district, what's working?' so we can highlight it, nurture it and let it grow - let it spread," Heitmeyer said.

They also need volunteers for the myriad of events going on.

"Maybe just pick one or two of them that they can do. A lot of them don't really take a lot of time," Mitchell said.

Smith said what they really need is people to get involved - that's what the SAC is: "a bunch of passionate parents making time for what matters."

Editor's Note: The SAC meets the second Wednesday of every month at noon at the Airman and Family Readiness Center. You can also find them on Facebook ("Mountain Home School Advisory Committee") for more information, or to nominate someone for the "Outstanding Educator" award.