CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
After a year-long effort by a school working group, Air Commando families have new access to educational opportunities within the Cannon community and the local area.
Stronger ties between the base and the community, more open communication, and a wider variety of programming for students, teachers and families have advanced the group’s goal of enhancing educational opportunities for Cannon kids.
The group formed after 27th Special Operations Wing commander, Col. Tony Bauernfeind, heard suggestions directly from parents.
Subsequently Lt. Col. Joyce Storm, 27th Special Operations Mission Support Group deputy commander, developed a response to families’ needs.
“Improving installation excellence and enhancing airman and family support are key to successful operations here,” Bauernfeind said. “When we take care of our people, they can take care of the mission. I knew when I gave Colonel Storm this project that she would succeed.”
Storm took charge, forming a group of key players on base and in the community who could work together to examine where and how Cannon could make improvements to youth education.
“This was more than a brainstorming session,” Storm said. “Once we formulated the survey, it went out to all of our parents of school-aged kids, and a few hundred people took it.”
The school working group analyzed the survey and began to figure out exactly what required their attention.
“Parents responded to the survey with positive feelings about the schools, but by and large, they wanted more,” said Storm. “So that’s what we worked to give them.”
The group’s holistic approach led to the wealth of programs families and educators can access today, from teacher and superintendent workshops to seminars for parents and an ever-expanding schedule of programming in and after school for students.
“A lot of parents wanted their kids to be challenged,” said Lori Dunn, 27th Special Operations Force Support Squadron school liaison officer. “On top of things like advanced classes, we wanted to have something to offer kids who were looking for a challenge.”
One such offering was the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology “FIRST” Lego League, an international engineering competition where students build robots to complete challenges and learn skills like critical thinking, team building, and the application of real-word math and science concepts.
In their first season, Cannon’s two teams built and programmed their robots for several weeks before scrimmaging against each other, learning lessons that will aid them in future competitions.
“We started late in this year’s season, but this way we were able to focus on the social aspect of bringing the competition to Cannon,” said Dunn. “We got a lot of our lessons learned out of the way, made the contacts we needed to make and now we’re better prepared. We can start the next season fresh and fully armed.”
The league was well-received by Cannon’s kids, who wrote reviews celebrating the teamwork, high interest, their new knowledge of building and programming, and their success in overcoming obstacles.
“It was an even bigger success than I imagined,” Dunn said.
Though the FIRST Lego League season is finished for the time being, students can still get their science fix at STEMulate Your Mind, an after-school program hosted at Cannon’s Youth Center.
The program, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics topics, is an Air Force-designed curriculum normally meant for teens, but Cannon has modified the program to fit pre-teens, according to Denise Vanderwarker, 27 SOFSS Airman and Family Services flight chief.
“We have taken the program a step further and brought it to younger students,” said Vanderwarker. “We did that not just because we have more kids in that age group, but also because if you start the interest earlier in their lives, they can work with it and build on it later on.”
“STEMulate has helped us on several fronts,” she continued. “It helps us keep pre-teens in our program and give them some challenging student-driven activities that they work on with professors from Eastern New Mexico University.”
The science-oriented program is just one of a long list of Youth Center classes and clubs that span homework groups, cooking classes, and multiple arts and crafts.
“The activities are enriching for them, but on top of that, they’re learning important life skills,” Vanderwarker said.
In addition to hands-on skills, Military and Family Life Counselors specifically dedicated to nearby schools help military children gain the resiliency skills they need to handle the ups and downs of military life.
“Just like we have MFLACs available to us and our family members, we wanted to take initiative and place a counselor right into the schools,” said Storm. “We knew there was a need, so we made sure we have someone in place to address the spiritual and mental well-being of our kids.”
Dunn herself also visits several schools a week, running military support groups at six schools that provide two-way communication and connect military kids.
“Visiting those students at school, I’ve learned what some of their specific challenges are. And they know that they can approach me if something’s going on,” said Dunn. “The main goal is to help them get connected and to give them a chance to grow and learn.”
The base education initiative also focuses on teachers, creating programs like superintendent summits and TUDOS (Teachers Understanding Deployment Operations) to help Clovis and Portales educators understand the unique challenges of military-affiliated students.
“I feel that one of the most important challenges was educating our educators,” said Storm. “We maintain a positive relationship and really open flow of communication with schools.”
This line of communication has created a strong team effort between Cannon’s school group and key personnel in Clovis Municipal Schools and Portales Municipal Schools.
“Lori has forged a wonderful relationship with all of the key people and schools; I have a very good relationship with school boards and superintendents,” Storm said. “We have a means of expressing our needs with them and they have been nothing but willing to answer our concerns.”
Educating parents provided the final piece of the group’s all-inclusive approach, with parent seminars meeting regularly to discuss topics like internet safety at home.
“We are focusing on every pillar of kids’ education,” Storm said. “All of these pieces together help them be the best they can be.”
For Storm, there is a clear connection between taking care of Cannon’s kids and performing the mission, with quality of life initiatives from Bauernfeind to Air Force Special Operations Command commander, Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold, proving the value of supporting Air Commandos.
“Advocating for our families here directly ties in with Colonel Bauernfeind’s priority of enhancing airman and family support,” Storm said. “And that line of operation connects to General Heithold’s line of creating an environment for airmen and families to thrive.”
Bauernfeind and Storm agree that taking care of troops and their loved ones at home leads to Air Commandos doing their best work when it matters most.
“The overarching goal is to create an environment so that when airmen deploy, they know their family and children are being taken care of in their absence,” said Storm. “They can know we have got their backs.”