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May 29, 2015

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Education:

At Nellis AFB, elementary school has its own challenges, opportunities

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Steve Marcus

Students walk through Lomie Heard Elementary School on Nellis Air Force Base Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. The school is the only Clark County school on a military base.

Lomie Heard Elementary School

Third grade teacher Ivy Bialorucki calls on a student during class at Lomie Heard Elementary School on Nellis Air Force Base Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. The school is the only Clark County school on a military base. Launch slideshow »

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When Principal Kori Deal stepped foot in Lomie Heard Elementary School for the first time this year, she quickly found out it was unlike any other school she had worked in during her 21-year career with the Clark County School District.

"Having to drive through the (armed security) gate, that was different," Deal said, laughing. "But other than that, we're a typical CCSD school. We just happen to be on a military base."

Built in 1951 on what is now called Nellis Air Force Base, Lomie Heard Elementary serves about 670 K-5 students, the vast majority of whom come from military families living on the northeast valley base.

As the only Clark County public school on a military base, Lomie Heard Elementary’s school days are a bit different.

Bright yellow school buses on their way to campus rumble by guards with assault rifles. Fighter jets flying overhead provide a supersonic soundtrack to classroom instruction. Longtime teachers don't bat an eye at parents in military fatigues walking down the hall.

This military backdrop poses unique challenges and opportunities for school leaders and teachers.

More than 90 percent of students have one or both parents in the military who can be called for deployment at a moment's notice. For children of active-duty airmen and women, long deployments can be a stressful and trying time.

Third-grader Audrey Zeller, 8, has a father who is currently in Afghanistan on a yearlong deployment. Zeller keeps a special calendar with her family, crossing off every passing day between now and when she'll see her father again. He is due back home next summer.

For Zeller, life has not been easy without her father. There's the constant heartache of missing him and the constant worry for his safety.

"I feel kind of sad that he's gone, but I'm kind of happy it's getting closer to summer every day," Zeller said. "I miss him a lot, but I'm proud of him. He's helping people."

The number of Lomie Heard students whose parents are deployed fluctuates. Some go on shorter, two-week-long deployments. Others are gone for much longer.

On occasion, both parents in the military may be deployed at the same time, leaving their children in the care of neighbors. Sometimes, though, students are pulled out of school and sent to a different state to live with grandparents and other relatives.

When there is so much uncertainty, making sure students' school environment remains stable is Lomie Heard's top concern, said Assistant Principal Pamela Goynes-Brown, also in her first year at the school.

"We have to let them know they're OK and in a safe environment," said Goynes-Brown, who also is a North Las Vegas city councilwoman.

As a result, Lomie Heard devotes a great deal of attention and resources to counseling students. Aside from group sessions to address grief, anger management, bullying and college awareness, Lomie Heard has a special session catered for students whose parents are deployed overseas.

Led by longtime counselor Terry Ann Coletto, these weekly half-hour "deployment group" sessions provide students with the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. That way, military children realize they're not alone, that other kids are going through the same experience they are, she said.

"I love it because it's a safe place," said third-grader MaKenna McGough, 8. "I'm surrounded by a whole bunch of other military kids whose dads are deployed."

"I give them lots of love and empathy," Coletto said. "It's especially hard on kids whose moms are deployed. We try to make school as positive as possible for them."

Students in the deployment group often write letters to their parents, Coletto said. Nellis provided the school with special letter-writing kits for military kids.

"A lot of them see their parents every single day through Skype (video conferencing)," Coletto said. "But (for military parents) there's nothing like sending something tangible, like a picture their kids drew."

Teachers and staff also try to be understanding of their students' particular needs. When airmen and women come home on leave, vacation requests usually are accepted to allow for more family time. The school also adopts a relaxed attitude toward enforcing some rules.

One time, Deal saw two students in the cafeteria eating their breakfast after the tardy bell rang. Asked why they were late to school, the children answered they were talking with their mothers serving in Iraq in the early morning because of the time difference.

"You need to be accommodating," Deal said. "You need to do what's best for the kids."

That extends to the classroom, where teachers have learned to identify children who are having trouble coping with their parents being deployed and find ways to help.

"Sometimes their grades slip or their homework isn't getting done," said third-grade teacher Ivy Bialorucki. "They space out, having a hard time concentrating.

"They worry about their parents. Sometimes, school is not the most important thing on their minds."

However, children from military families are quite tough and hide their emotions well, said third-grade teacher Allison Mesina, who has a husband serving in the Middle East.

"It's difficult, but they're resilient," she said. "They make good friends and connections. We make it work."

Lomie Heard students are among some of the most well-behaved children Goynes-Brown has worked with, she said. Perhaps it's because of their military upbringing, she said.

"That level of respect is different," she said. "They are so polite, they give you a warm fuzzy inside."

That could explain why many teachers drive long distances from Summerlin and Henderson to work at Lomie Heard, Deal said. Although building relationships in this close-knit community is rewarding, those relationships often are fleeting.

In November and December, Nellis typically reassigns some of its airmen and women, and their children leave, too. Lomie Heard could see a shift of 100 new students by January, Deal said.

While that has implications on Lomie Heard's staffing and resource allocations — which is set early in the school year — Goynes-Brown said the hardest part was letting her students go.

While Goynes-Brown was overseeing the playground at lunchtime one recent Tuesday, a girl in a pink sweatshirt came running to the assistant principal. "On Friday, I'm going far away," the student said, simply. Her destination? A base in Japan, or perhaps Germany.

"You want to go that extra mile for these kids, but we have them for such a short period of time," Goynes-Brown said. "I hate goodbyes. It's going to be hard."

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