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Building Capacity in Military-connected Schools with Dr. Ron Avi Astor

February 1, 2023 @ 4:01 pm CST

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About This Episode

(Season 4, Episode 1)

In this episode, Jessica Beckendorf shares highlights from her conversation with Dr. Ron Avi Astor.

Dr. Astor holds the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs with a joint appointment in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Since the 1980s, Dr. Astor and his colleagues had been working on addressing school safety issues. His work caught the attention of several military-connected school districts in Southern California and prompted them to request his help on what they perceived as a school bullying issue.

Dr. Astor talks about his work and the “whole community” approach his team took to addressing the issues in the schools they worked with.


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Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to help each other,  our families, and our communities improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. To start our conversation, here are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.

Bob Bertsch: Hi, and welcome to the Practicing Connection podcast. It’s great to have you here with us. Today we’ll be hearing from Jessica about an interview she did with Dr. Ron Avi Astor. Dr. Astor holds the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs with a joint appointment in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Since the 1980s, Dr. Astor and his colleagues had been working on addressing school safety issues. His work caught the attention of several military-connected school districts in Southern California and prompted them to request his help on what they perceived as a school bullying issue. Jessica, why did you want to talk to Dr. Astor about his work with those military-connected schools?

Jessica Beckendorf: I ran across the Building Capacity in Military Connected Schools project while reading a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine for our work on the military family readiness system. The project was held up as an example of a systems approach to a community issue that benefited all families – military and civilian. I was excited about the approach because it was holistic – it addressed the bigger picture and designed for adaptability and complexity and inclusiveness. It also emphasized the role of connection and community in addressing issues versus designing a program for a single symptom of a larger issue. Here’s how Dr. Astor described the project.

Dr. Ron Avi Astor: It’s a long story, but I’ll try and shorten it a little bit. It didn’t start out as a military family project or whatever, my colleague, Rami Benbenishty and myself, and a lot of other people have been doing school safety work around the world since the late 1980s. The whole trend in the field, even now to a certain degree, is to create evidence-based programs, lots of programs.

What we noticed early on around the world is that these programs actually failed once they got into the field and they were spread out. They were good when they were in a research study and you had a lot of money and people supporting it. Then the field and the government were promoting many of these programs, but then they may not have had the capacity, the people to run it, or they didn’t have the money. People were complaining, “Yes, it was great when it was here, but the grant left and so did the program, or the person went to another job and we don’t have anybody here anymore.” So we heard that all over the world in Europe, in Israel, in South America.

We had projects all over the world, and we came up with a way of thinking called WEMA. I sent you the article to that, which is a welcoming empowerment ground-up. It uses data from the local schools, particularly the kids’ voices, and through survey and parents and teachers, and administrators. Instead of using that as data, we never use the word data, we use it as their voice, come back to the school, have focus groups, assemblies, say, “This is what y’all said.” There’s not one person saying it. There’s diversity in opinion. This is what you say is affecting you. This is what you say are your needs.

We’ve been using that around the world, that process to bring it in and create change from the ground up, a top-down since the late 1990s and Israel adopted that approach for all of its 5,000 schools. Chile has it for most of its schools, 75% of their schools. Quebec has been using some of the ideas too. What we like about that is it’s not a top-down, here’s a program, try and implement it. If you do it wrong, you won’t get results. It’s really listening to the voices of the ground-level people who are there. What that does is it captures the variation in region around issues of culture, so every school is a little bit different.

It may be, in Israel, you’ll have different Arab groups or different, even in the same city a school, a mile away might have different needs, different thoughts, different religious or cultural issues. What’s really good is that gets wrapped up in the local, and our idea is how do you do that at scale and how do you sustain it for a whole country, for 5,000 schools, for 10,000 schools?

We started seeing some really strong results in Israel, in Quebec, and in Chile that when people were using this ground up across the whole country, getting help and using it as a voice, and then building their, not just programs, but sometimes they need resources, sometimes they need people, sometimes they retrain people. Sometimes they need community partners. It was more complex. They actually started seeing really big reductions in bullying, in violence, in drug use, and in capacity. People like the school climate, we have more people who could work here.

I don’t feel like everything’s on my back. I have more community partners and people I could talk to. It was a very different way of thinking. 

Bob: I love how Dr. Astor connects community support with issues that we’ve largely left to our schools to solve. He mentioned the WEMA way of thinking. Can you tell us a little more about Wema and why it’s important?

Jessica: WEMA stands for Welcoming Empowerment Monitoring Approach. It is based in the social work field, but what I found really interesting is that it is also a place-based approach, based on school communities that is adaptive to the cultures and traditions of each community. What’s interesting about how this played out in this project is that the project team discovered that military and veteran connected families are a distinct cultural group. Here’s Dr. Astor talking about what he found when he started working with those military-connected schools.

Dr. Astor: What I was hearing was something that was really actually embarrassing and I was quite ashamed of as a civilian.

Yes, they were talking about bullying and being targeted, even weapon use, substance use issues, suicide prevention, but what I didn’t realize is that the cultural issue there that was being brought up over and over by kids or teachers or administrators I was meeting with, was around military family culture, and its conflict with civilian culture. Basically, it’s not a conflict, it’s a neglect of the civilian culture.

The reason why I said I was embarrassed and ashamed is because I’m a civilian and I was just an example of– I’ve been doing this for years. It was the longest war in our country’s history up to that point and ended up being a lot longer than that. I didn’t spend time thinking about that. I didn’t think of the military family or veterans as a diversity group. I didn’t think of them as a cultural group with a– even though they were really a strong cultural group that were devoting their lives to protect our country and places around the world. We said that but I wasn’t– so again, this was being defined as a bullying problem, but it was really– there was a bullying problem there, but the piece that was missing was the reason why.

One of the reasons why, was that the civilian culture, the teachers, the principals who were not military families or veteran families didn’t even know that it was there. Here we are in a region, with a lot of bases and a huge number of military families, and they’re calling me in just to do a bullying intervention without even discussing or talking about what does it mean to be a military family? What does it mean that your parents served, that you’ve been around the world to different places? We suspected there were probably families where everything went really well for them and they thrived out of it.

Then there were probably some families that this was a burden for a lot of reasons because they didn’t have enough resources or because they maybe weren’t high up on the rank in terms of socioeconomic. Socioeconomic, usually families tend to have more resources, they have more influence, they could get more treatment, they could get more support, but then we also saw that the schools where there teachers and principals, that were from military families, were reaching out and doing quite a bit more for their own, for their own group.

It changed my whole thinking on it. 

(transition – new track)

You really need to have that whole school, whole community approach. The burden has to be on the civilians too, in terms of reaching out.” So, we actually worked with eight superintendents and all the principals of 145 schools to create a consortium where we would help with our expertise with the data, with the collection to changing the state, changing the region so that they could get this ongoing.

One of our rules was we were not going to do anything that can’t be sustained afterwards. We’re not going to do any intervention there and that has been our rule everywhere we go. When we leave, this has to continue without us, and if that gets better over time. We came up with that each school needs its own data to get its own voice. Each school needs a way to interpret it. Each school needs a way to connect with all these partnerships, each school needs a way to exchange good ideas with each other back and forth.

That’s how we set up this consortium where the university was kind of this catalyst that helped organize both at the regional level but also at the individual school level. Then when we saw things that were really working well, we would try and capture that with the school in our guides, in our videos, in our other things then see if instead of doing a program, if we could spread it out so there’s pilgrimages between the various schools and the principals are exchanging with the videos in our guides, in our books. 

Bob: OK, so it sounds like the idea of approaching military families as a distinct cultural group was really transformational.  And the approach of engaging local voices in generating solutions and engaging community partners definitely connects this project to the Military Family Readiness System and our Practicing Connection initiative.

Jessica: It does. And I think it also provides a way of thinking about how we could go about addressing any issue in our communities.

Bob: How were they able to engage community partners in the safety efforts at each school?

Jessica: A significant part of the project involved using the information gathered from the annual school climate survey to find the “resource deserts.” The project team then arranged for NGOs and other partners to connect parents, students, and school personnel directly to the resources they identified as a need in the annual survey – this was true for each of the school communities involved – in other words, it wasn’t just one large event that covered all the school districts. Overall, the project connected school communities to almost 400 NGOs. Some schools would be visited by NGOs with financing expertise, others would create a partnership with the local YMCA—all based on what the students, parents, and staff had identified as important in the annual survey and follow-up conversations.The magic happened once these partnerships began, because the project team got out of the way and enabled the connections to continue on their own. Here’s Dr, Astor talking about the improvements the schools experienced. 

Dr. Astor: We were called in for school safety bullying behaviors and substance use. People were concerned, and weapon use, and even gang affiliation for some of the students both military and non-military. Those were in there. We also wanted to see an increase in belongingness, in a positive school climate, in caring between kids and kids and teachers and kids and community resources and that’s what we saw.

We saw an increase in the things that we wanted that built to capacity into climate and setting level and we saw a decrease– and those were really dramatic decreases even on the more severe things including– The weapon use, for example, we included that. A lot of people were upset about that, that we had weapon use and suicide and all those things in the survey that students were– but it created a door and allowed people to see that this is an issue for both the military and maybe we should provide more community resources and school-level resources on weapon threat assessment.

Also supports that come around that, what that means. We then saw really big reductions after we did the education. Some of that was through military but some of it was also broader. We didn’t always do just military but there were things that affected military families. I think we were very, very careful not to frame everything as only military family. Again the way the DOD does because of the stigma that comes with it. It’s a double-edged sword.

The more you define a military family as needing services and resources whatever, the more stigmatic it becomes. What we saw is that there’s huge diversity. They were bringing all these gifts of knowledge of being around the world of the strength and the courage of the values that they had. We also saw a large proportion struggling and that was true of the civilian too. It’s just the proportions are a little bit different. That’s why continually thinking about the setting and not the individuals only is really important.

Even in our mapping and monitoring methods, we’re having kids monitor spaces that are safe and times that are unsafe and what could be done better and which groups are affected more by and why and how they’re being responded. We move away from “this is happening to me alone” to “what can we do about this setting to make it better?” That’s true at the community level as well too.

That takes away the stigma because then it’s about the place. It’s not about a person whose issues are so– You know what I mean? I think psychological approaches tend to stigmatize more. What we wanted to show is that by making the place better and by providing more resources and caring, you actually make a lot of individuals feel better and have less issues. That’s true for the military, non-military kids together. I don’t think we could have sustained those results if we only focused on the military families and kids.

It had to be a system-wide thing because it was the whole school that didn’t have resources. It was the whole school that didn’t have pupil personnel. It was the whole school that didn’t have an awareness of diversity. We were able to change how kids understood military families.

We very quickly realized that some of these were beyond just military kids, as I said. I think that mind shift is not always in the family readiness programs. They’re very focused on military. That’s okay as long as they realize that the crux of the problem sometimes is not just lack of services, it’s also the relationship with those in the community who don’t know who they are.

Bob: Wow, that’s such an important point. Military families are unique and can be seen as a distinct cultural group, but members of those families live, work, and go to school in communities, and the issues and resources in those communities impact them.

Jessica:  As we ended our conversation, I asked Dr. Astor what advice he could give to schools and communities in other areas of the nation. 

Dr. Astor: Yes. I think the number one thing has to be is that the change that needs to happen is not in the military families or in services. The change has to be in the civilians who live in those communities and they’re thinking and their structures and that’s important because otherwise you’re always stigmatizing and it’s not resilient. It’s just providing a lot of resources to a group who you think don’t have those resources or have those skills.

I think if you change the mindset of the civilians who run the civilian structures and then look at capacity widely there, then it becomes a community approach and it changes it. We have this diversity group that we know that it’s there but we ignored it. Or we didn’t pay enough attention to. Once it becomes part of the community and what you do, you then add all those resources to it. It changes everything. I think that’s a big takeaway. It’s not just about the military families, it’s about the civilian families. It’s about those in charge.

The second piece is that the voices of those military families and kids and the civilians around them should not be a “needs” evaluation. That needs to be a true empowerment approach which means that you have to be flexible in adapting those systems when you hear from them. If the story is, oh, we heard that but you need to sign up for this, or this is only available at the base, or this is da, da, da, or if you have A, B, and C okay but not D those have to be loosened up so that you could partner with community organizations so that they see the benefit of it. One of the biggest pluses for a superintendent is that it’s not just the military. All their kids got better.

They have State level reporting and their own views and their academics went up. Yes, but it was added. I think if you’re thinking about it as a takeaway that way, it’s not just a win for the military families, it’s the fact that they’ve all become part of the same American fabric and culture. They’re not separated out. They’re part of a visible diversity group.

I think, three, there needs to be a lot of examples of military families and kids that are positive, that are community building oriented, that are not therapeutic alone or service oriented.

The idea of creating a look at the video of a military garden and having the civilian and military families and kids work together to create that guard community garden on the school grounds, and then having 90 or something of those we’re working together or just big celebrations. All those things are really meaningful because people then are interacting with each other on a real level.

We had cadres at events where the civilian initially people said, oh, just military. We had all the resources and we had entire baseball arenas filled with on the screen with resources, with all very positive. The goal there was really to impact the civilians so they understand. That obviously impacted the military families too. They came away with resources, with ideas.

You can’t do one without the other from our point of view. The easiest more flexible places to do is the school because actually nobody owns the civilian schools. You could do a lot there by partnering with them.

I would urge the readiness to actually partner with every school in the area to make sure all the teachers, the principals, the community urge are at least aware of it and then see where the resource deserts are and work very slowly around each school to build as many of those as you can based on the needs.

They’re going to be different. Like the childcare ones were one thing the family supports were another thing. Another school we found there were a lot of moms that felt very isolated. We started getting toddler mommy and me groups. It wasn’t a one size fits all.

Jessica: Much of his advice centers on military families, and I think it’s important to note that about two-thirds of military families live in areas outside of installations, so wherever you are it could make a big difference to even consider whether you have military families in your community and how you might adapt your practices to strengthen their resilience. But also, his advice could translate to how we approach other issues in our communities. What diverse groups might be affected by or involved in the issue? Who has traditionally been ignored – what aren’t you seeing? How can you get everyone involved in a way that builds relationship and resilience?

Bob: Your conversation with Dr.Astor was such a great way to kick off our 4th season of the podcast because we’ll be talking a lot about the Military Family Readiness System. Military family readiness is complex and the Department of Defense has identified the Military Family Readiness System as a way to address that complexity. Projects like the one’s Dr.Astor and his colleagues worked on are great examples of that system at work. So thank you for your conversation with Dr. Astor and for sharing it with us in this episode.

Jessica: It was such a pleasure to speak with Dr. Astor and get to know more about this project – I certainly left feeling inspired. Thanks for joining us for this episode of Practicing Connection. You can keep up with Practicing Connection by subscribing to the podcast in your favorite podcast app, by signing up to be a part of the Practicing Connection Community at, and by following us on Twitter, our Twitter handle is @PracticingCxn.

Bob: Thanks also to our announcer, Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing; and Nathan Grimm, who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. Once again, thank you for joining us. Please join us again soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.


Kalin: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award number 2019-48770-30366.

[00:26:35] [END OF AUDIO]


February 1, 2023
4:01 pm CST
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