As part of her doctorate work in educational leadership and management at Philadelphia's Drexel University, Edie Freudenberger interviewed “Jane,” an elementary-school aged girl from a military family that’s already relocated to a new city three times.
Jane has an individualized education plan (IEP) for dyslexia, and each time her family moves, her mother must search for a new school with the proper support system to assist with Jane's unique learning needs. It’s not an easy task, and complicating matters is the fact that the military lifestyle can produce additional challenges for children.
Children of active-duty military members move six to nine times in their elementary and high school careers, Freudenberger said, and relocating is just one way the children can experience gaps in their educational experiences.
That’s where Blue Star Academy wants to step in.
“We’d like to be a support to that (family),” said Freudenberger, founder of Blue Star Academy.
Blue Star Academy is a non-profit virtual community school that helps serve the needs of military- and veteran-connected students. The organization’s goal is to offer online core educational courses and extracurricular activities, professional development and resources for educators, and resources for parents — it’s a mission that Freudenberger describes as being part educational case management, part educational support.
It’s particularly important to address the needs of those military-connected children attending public school, where teachers can be unaware of how military culture affects kids educationally, socially and emotionally. Freudenberger said there are about 1.5 million military-connected children in the U.S. public school system, and some are experiencing a disruption to their well-being due to the military lifestyle.
While some kids might live close to a military base — and attend a school with instructors who understand how parents’ military commitments can impact on the development and learning of these students — others might be in schools where teachers aren’t aware at all, Freudenberger added.
Blue Star Academy aims to help fill those gaps — ones which Freudenberger is familiar with not only because of her doctoral work, but also because of her personal and professional lives.
Freudenberger started her career in graphic design before moving on to social services and then in education with disadvantaged youth. Later, she started a marketing and design firm with her husband Pete, who’s a disabled Army veteran; they also have five children between the ages 5 and 23. She was also an instructional designer in higher education.
While pursuing her doctorate, Freudenberger ventured into the corporate world, where she used her learning management skills at a for-profit for three or four years. However, she found she wanted a career that offered something different, something more fulfilling.
“As I was getting to the end of my doctorate, I felt like something more meaningful needs to come next,” Freudenberger said. “With everything I have and all my skills, everything I have to offer, I need to put it to good use somewhere in the world.”
So she focused on the military community in her doctorate work, studying the educational experiences of military- and veteran-connected children. Founding Blue Star Academy was a natural progression for Freudenberger in her search to do something more meaningful.
She wanted to launch the community school in 2021, after she finishes her doctorate this summer. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it got Freudenberger thinking while she was cooped up in her home in March.
“I thought, ‘You know, there’s a time in the world where you have to just do the right thing,’ ” Freudenberger said. “So, I just decided it’s time to start it up.
“But to sit and just build an infrastructure for a year while a pandemic is happening and schools are in turmoil and children are in turmoil, it seemed silly to sit back and do nothing.”
With the help of in collaboration with outside content providers and organizations that shared online resources for kids, Institute of Dance Artistry in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, Heroic Gardens and SportsEngine, she put some free programming on the website, going public with the site in May.
The goal was to work quickly to get a resource hub out there for these students and families, she said, while still building the professional development part of the academy. The programming currently on the site was donated. There’s a variety of activities including poetry writing, dance, puppeteering, acting, singing and yoga.
“The point is to be out there during this time because this is the time to be helping,” she said. “This is the time to do the right thing and dedicate our energy to things like that.”
If the current content proves to be a need and want for students using the site, Freudenberger and Blue Star Academy might curate more of it. But the ultimate goal for Blue Star Academy is to become a community school dedicated to working with military children to fill the gaps in their educational experiences and provide educational support resources with some educational case management, she said.
Blue Star Academy is free of charge to military- and veteran-connected students, and Freudenberger welcomes feedback about the programming. The website offers surveys to parents and students to help the organization determine the needs of those it serves.
Freudenberger and Blue Star Academy are trying to do as much as they can with as little as they have right now, but the hope remains that she will continue building the infrastructure over the next year to provide more services, reach more kids and work with more school systems.
However, she doesn’t want Blue Star Academy to overlap with services that already exist; she wants it to stay laser-focused on educational support and be adaptable to the needs of those it is serving.
“We’ll see how far we get and how many people we can reach, and then we’ll keep building and growing,” she said.