PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. –
When Alicia Pepper prepared her family for a Permanent Change of Station move in 2017, she did what she’s done before: pack, coordinate movers, research the base, psych the kids up for a new adventure, check out housing — all the things military spouses often do behind the scenes to get ready for their next step.
Then she got news from her friends already living at Peterson Air Force Base: her two children needed to be on a waitlist to get into Colorado public schools.
“And I was not sure why,” Alicia said, “because we had never run into that before — the kids just went to the neighborhood schools.”
Colorado has what is called, “Public Schools of Choice,” which allows for students to enroll in any public school regardless of where they live, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
So, Alicia put her children on seven different waitlists and started calling schools. A new roadblock arose. Even though she knew what unit her husband would be assigned and where she would live, she didn’t have a lease and couldn’t begin the registration process.
“That's so surprising that Colorado, with so many military families, didn't have that in place,” she said of the enrollment process for those moving from another state.
Eventually, Alicia’s second and third graders got into the same Colorado school.
“As I started speaking to more spouses and families, I was really shocked that this had been going on for some time, and it was a bigger issue than just one or two kids,” she said.
This stayed on her mind for several years, and the issue arose again as the Pepper family prepared for another PCS move — this time to now-Buckley Space Force Base just east of Denver in Aurora. Again, Alicia started looking at schools.
“I was taking tours of the schools and being told (the kids) probably would not get into these schools because we did not have a signed lease so I couldn't begin to register them,” she said.
She learned by the time the family relocated, the open enrollment window would close and the schools would be full. Instead of going through the process again, the Peppers enrolled their children in private schools.
Recognizing many military families in their situation could not afford private schools, Alicia and her husband, U.S. Space Force Brig. Gen. Devin Pepper, went about making things easier for service members with school-aged children.
“Because the military puts such a high emphasis on taking care of our people, we were concerned and asked ‘how can we change this?’’ Devin said.
They started with the local superintendent of schools and officials from area districts. Service members explained the logistics of how military families move. Spouses talked about what their children experience with constant relocations.
“We were able to really talk to them about what was going on,” Alicia said. “And the bottom line is we ask a lot of military kids. We ask them to give up almost everything in their day-to-day lives, on average, every one to three years. We ask them to be champions, resilient and adjust quickly while leaving one part of their life behind and beginning a new part of their journey every time we move.”
School life is one of the biggest things in children’s lives, she went on to say, and contributes to a feeling of security and belonging.
“Knowing what the school mascot is or where the school is located or what sports they have are all important things to share with our kids while helping them look forward to where they're going instead of focusing on what they're leaving behind,” Alicia said.
Those initial conversations helped bridge gaps between the military and civilian world, and local districts started to amend their policies. Alicia realized she and other military families could change things for the better.
“It was a problem we could fix,” she said.
What followed in the next two years were countless meetings, email, texts, calls as Alicia lead an effort to get the Colorado law changed. Any time a local or state leader came on base, Alicia was there to talk about the school enrollment process. She called it her “elevator speech.”
“Hi, I’d like to ask, did you know that military kids coming into Colorado have a very difficult time getting in schools,” she’d start.
Most officials she spoke to didn’t know this was a problem. The military families knew, of course.
“But part of what we're really good at in the military is accepting the challenges and moving on — not wanting to cause waves within the community because we're the guests,” Alicia said. “But what I realized is our hosts didn't know we were having a problem.”
Word reached the statehouse in Denver and soon Alicia heard from a representative who wanted to know more. Lawmakers began to see this issue needed resolution and, amidst a worldwide pandemic, a bill formed.
The bill-drafting process had plenty of hurdles — everything from COVID-19 to rewrites to negotiations to total opposition. Yet, despite all the setbacks, Alicia got the opportunity to give her elevator speech to a key player. She encountered Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and told him she thought the team of spouses and bipartisan policymakers finally had a bill that was going to work. Spouses and service members were prepared to testify about how the bill would change their lives. Polis told Alicia if she could get the bill to his desk, he’d sign it.
Polis did just that in late May as HB 21-1217: Military Family Open Enrollment in Public Schools became Colorado law.
“The bill requires a school district, district charter school and institute charter school to accept the school liaison address for the military installation for purposes of demonstrating residency for inbound active duty military members participating in open enrollment,” it reads.
“The bill requires a school district, district charter school and institute charter school to grant guaranteed automatic matriculation to the child of an inbound active duty military member while the child remains in the school, and priority preference for younger siblings of the child for enrollment in subsequent school years.”
The military has a longstanding history with Colorado, said Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, House District 56, “and I believe we as a state should work to better the lives of service members and their families who give so much to protect our freedoms.
“I was honored to help champion this effort to improve education for military children,” he added. “HB 21-1217 was a grassroots bill which was started and driven by the very families it impacts. I view the Military Family Open Enrollment in Public Schools bill as the first step to progress educational opportunities for military children in the great state of Colorado."
Military spouses have powerful voices and can be tremendous advocates for change, said Devin, who currently serves as deputy director of U.S. Space Command’s Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate.
“We have a strong voice and we have a strong community, and if we use those things to do powerful things for our families it just compounds in so many ways,” Alicia said.
It was nice to see military spouses could affect change in their communities, she said.
“One voice became many, and we changed the law.”