Florida Catholic Schools Eager For Purple Star Campus Designation

By Lisa Buie for RedefinED

Military families move every two to three years, which means new homes, new cities, and most important, new schools.

To help make Florida’s education system more hospitable to the children of active duty and former members of the armed forces, state lawmakers recently approved HB 429. The law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed at a ceremony June 4, establishes a statewide program for schools to be designated as Purple Star campuses. Any district, charter, or private school that accepts state school choice scholarships is eligible to earn the designation.

Staffers at the Florida Department of Education are still developing an application process and detailed requirements that schools must meet for the designation. However, the law already lists these minimum standards, the first four of which are based on research from the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center:

·       Designate a staff member as a military liaison

·       Maintain a page on the school’s website that includes resources for military students and their families

·       Maintain a student-led transition program to assist military students entering the school

·       Offer professional development training opportunities for staff members on issues related to military students

·       Reserve at least 5% of controlled open enrollment seats for military students

Florida’s Catholic school leaders, who supported the bill during the 2021 legislative session, see it as an opportunity to boost declining enrollments, though the drops were less steep in Florida than at Catholic schools nationally, thanks in part to the Sunshine State’s robust support for school choice. Paired with the recent expansion of school choice eligibility to all active-duty military families, the new program could raise awareness and attract new students.

“For years, Catholic schools have successfully served military families throughout Florida,” said Michael Barrett, education associate for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This program will help Catholic schools continue to provide a wonderful education, helpful resources, and a welcoming community to those families. We look forward to participating in the Purple Star Campus Program and continuing to support the men and women of Florida who bravely serve our country and protect our freedom.”

The program, which exists in 12 states, is the result of a national grassroots effort aimed at helping the nation’s 1.2 million military students, who face unique challenges because of the many transitions they and their families must make that can disrupt their education and social and emotional well-being.

“Military children face issues such as gaps and overlaps in curriculum, different graduation requirements, and course placement disruption, as well as difficulties related to socially and emotionally connecting with a new school and community,” according to the Department’s Defense State Liaison Office website.

In addition to Florida, New Hampshire also began setting up a program, upon which military families rely heavily as they move to new stations and look for new schools that will provide the most support, according to the Military Child Education Coalition, a national nonprofit that supports the Purple Star initiative and whose mission is to ensure that every military-connected child is prepared for college, work and life.

“The programs are so successful, searching for a Purple Star school is often the first thing service member parents do upon receiving Permanent Change of Station orders,” the organization’s chief executive officer and president Becky Porter wrote in the Boston Herald.

Catholic school leaders say they are eagerly waiting for the Florida Department of Education to issue final rules so they can get started. Some of the schools, especially those near military bases, already have outreach programs to make their campuses military friendly, so designation could be earned quickly.

“The connection between this program and our state scholarship program is a great opportunity for our military families who serve and protect our country every day,” said Deacon Scott Conway, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of St. Augustine.  “Our diocese has many military bases around us, including NAS Jax, Mayport, Kings Bay, Camp Blanding, and the many coast guard members living in our boundaries.”