Fort Polk Education Summit encourages communication, cooperation

Published 9:52 am Friday, November 26, 2021

By Angie Thorne

The Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk’s second annual Education Summit was recently held at the  Fort Polk’s Warrior Center. The event included participants from the Vernon Parish School Board, Fort Polk Garrison Command, Child and Youth Services, Fort Polk Progress, Vernon Parish teachers and more. The summit provides a venue for education stakeholders — such as teachers, students and parents — to communicate and get feedback that can benefit everyone. The summit focused on the importance of education to the quality of life for soldiers and their families.

“We are here to talk about our continued partnerships and how to address our education concerns with teachers, parents, the school board and the installation as we move forward,” said Fort Polk Garrison Commander Col. Samuel P. Smith Jr. said as he welcomed attendees. “Our main purpose is to improve communication between our stakeholders. We look forward to getting your feedback on how we can continue to improve.”

Smith said the summit addresses initiatives that have already been put into motion.

“It’s about how far we have come, where we are and where we are going,” he said.

Smith said the school systems at Fort Polk are ranked third and fifth in math and reading and third in preparing high school seniors for college based on test scores.

“That’s phenomenal. Could we be No. 1 or 2? Yes, and we are striving to get there, but these numbers constitute a quality education that we want Families to take advantage of during their tenure at Fort Polk,” he said.

Smith said there are only two Department of Defense school systems that rank higher than Fort Polk — Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and Fort Belvoir, Va.

“We rank third across all Army installations when it comes to our quality of education,” he said.

Initiatives discussed during the summit included funding, the STARBASE (Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration) program, expanded STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) opportunities in Vernon Parish schools, expanded course offerings, special education, gifted and talented classes and more.

Tiffany Koch, Fort Polk School liaison officer, said the Vernon Parish School Board is Fort Polk’s top partner in education.

“Every day our service members living on Fort Polk entrust the Vernon Parish School Board to educate their children,” she said. “The summit provides a transparent forum for stakeholders to work together as we share the challenges and successes that are essential to continue enhancing the quality of education that the Vernon Parish School Board offers, not only our military children, but all students who are vital assets to our nation’s future.

Vernon Parish School Board Superintendent James Williams reiterated that communication is the key to working together and making education the best it can be.

“It’s a challenge, not just in Louisiana or Fort Polk, but nationwide. The summit allows us to get the word out about the opportunities we have available for children in our school system,” he said.

The Vernon Parish School District has 28 schools and more than 8,000 students, 20 percent of which are military dependents.

Williams said he was proud of the quality education Vernon Parish schools offer military families moving to Fort Polk.

“We have high standards and take pride in the work we do as we communicate and cooperate with our military community. We all have a bright future as we continue to work toward our educational goals,” he said.

Koch said thanks to quality of life initiatives at Fort Polk, there has been an opportunity to enhance the quality of education offered here.

“Today we celebrate that by signing a memorandum of understanding for partnership that includes school-based behavioral health. This was a quality of life initiative that started more than two years ago and we are excited to see it come to fruition,” she said.

Koch discussed big wins for enhanced education on the installation and local school system:

• School-based behavioral health — provided by Fort Polk


• Expanded STEAM opportunities in Vernon Parish Schools

• Department of Defense Education Activity expanded virtual high school access

• Special education working group and expanded partnership workshops

• Louisiana Department of Education Regional STEM Center participation

• Early HeadStart program established at North Polk Elementary

• Use of education technology platform with 1-to-1 technology devices

• Out-of-state teacher certification legislation

• Purple Star legislation (This approved Senate Concurrent Resolution requests the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to create a Purple Star School Award Program, administered through the state Department of Education using designated criteria in the SCR to recognize schools that evidence a major commitment to serving students and families connected to the United States Armed Forces).

• Fort Polk youth college tour series

• Central Louisiana Golden Apple of the Year teacher at Leesville High School

• Louisiana Elementary Principal of the Year at West Leesville Elementary

Lisa Lohman, curriculum supervisor for the Vernon Parish School Board, said there are three things she thinks about when promoting, not only Vernon Parish schools, but their strong partnership with Fort Polk.

“I think about communication, consistency and commitment. Those must be evident in everything we do. We want to effectively communicate the successes of our school district. We are proud of the achievements our system has accomplished and what we can offer to military Families,” she said.

Lohman said they want to consistently show that VPSB is dedicated to providing the best educational experience for all students — civilian or military.

“When we think commitment, it’s about being a true team. It has to be a partnership between the school district and the military installation (Fort Polk). We are committed to making that happen so we have more families that want to bring their children here so that we can have the opportunity to give them the quality education they deserve,” she said.

Marie Shultz, Fort Polk Exceptional Family Member Program manager, said she has a daughter in second grade at Parkway Elementary School and would like to see her education opportunities continue to grow and expand.

“The Education Summit is a collaboration between the Fort Polk garrison team and the state and parish education system working together to make things better. That gives me hope that things will only continue to improve for my child, as well as other military Families,” she said.

State Rep. Charles Owen said as a Vernon native, the relationship with Fort Polk is a continuation of efforts that have been ongoing for decades.

“We are all in this together. This is a good place to live and there are a lot of educational opportunities here,” he said.

Owen said the transition for older students from high school to college or technical school is fairly seamless and inexpensive on a national scale.

“The scholarship opportunities for graduating seniors is exceptional. There are many good reasons to make Louisiana your home and consider coming here for three years,” he said.

Owen said the state Legislature and governor are interested in keeping this partnership with Fort Polk strong.

“We have introduced important pieces of legislation on licensure and school enrollment and want you to let us know how we can continue to be of help in any way,” he said.

Smith said Fort Polk is a quality of life installation and what was talked about in the Education Summit was quality of life initiatives.

“We focused on those 13 areas you heard today. They were used based on last year’s feedback that we received from parents, teachers, administrators and community members. We wanted to address each one and we look forward to your feedback so we can take this to the next level and address even more,” he said.

Smith said there is no doubt that everybody taking part in the summit is committed to providing quality educational opportunities for children. “I heard the words ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,’ today. So we are going to show you what we are and what we want to continue to be,” he said.