The Aiken County Public School District received a special designation Thursday to help make students of servicemen, women and military families feel even more welcome.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman announced Aiken County Public Schools' designation as a Purple Star School District on Thursday afternoon in the media center at North Augusta High School. Purple star balloons along the school's drive greeted school, civic and business leaders from across Aiken County who attended the news conference.

The Purple Star designation is a national program to help students from military families transition to new schools and become part of the student body and to help students who are relocating because of deployments with the hardship of leaving their schools and communities.

“We're so proud of Aiken County for really going beyond the duty in putting the programs and infrastructure in place to welcome military families,” Spearman said after the news conference. “We want military students to feel welcome. We want them to be able to get involved in the school just as soon as possible.”

Spearman said the Purple Star designation supplements a state program that gives every senior in South Carolina who enlists in the military a red-white-and-blue honor cord to wear.

“Anything we can do in our state to show that we are the No. 1, most military friendly state in the nation, that's what we want to do,” Spearman said.

Aiken and surrounding counties in South Carolina and Georgia are expecting an influx of students and families from Virginia and Maryland in the next couple of years when the U.S. Army's Cyber Command headquarters relocates from Maryland to Fort Gordon in Augusta by 2020.

Aiken County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford said the Purple Star designation lets military personnel and civilians connected to the cyber mission know that the school district's and the community's “heart is in the right place.”

“We have a desire to support not only a national mission but also down to the individual students and their families – those who serve our country and those who are connected to the mission,” he said. “We want people to know that not only the schools but also the Aiken County community have that heart and that we are people that you want to live around.”

Alford said the Aiken-Augusta area could expect a population increase of more than 13,000 individuals connected to the cyber mission through the military or industry over the next three years.

“That being the case, we certainly want not only those individuals but anybody who considers the CSRA as a place to live to know that Aiken County is the place that you want to be to live, work and play,” Alford said.

Alford said Aiken County Public Schools enrolled students from military or cyber-connected families last school year and the year before. He said he expects those numbers “to increase drastically” in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

“We've seen some schools like Paul Knox Middle School and its enrollment increase drastically in a very short period of time,” Alford said.

To receive the Purple Star designation, school districts must establish a student ambassador program to help incoming students feel welcome and navigate their new schools and to assist exiting students as they leave.

A member of the band, Beta Club, Robotics Club, Environmental Club and other organizations, Tommy Lloyd, a senior student ambassador, knows North Augusta High and can help new military students get to know the school, too.

“I did this program because I care about military families,” he said. “It's just the things we take for granted day-to-day that they might struggle with: having to make new friendships, new classes and new teachers. It must be a really hard struggle, and I want to make that as smooth as possible for them.”

Lloyd said his plan as an ambassador is to be a friend.

“Going to lunch, for example, new kids when they get to school don't have any friends, and when they go to lunch, they're all alone and sitting by themselves,” he said. “That's where we'll come in. We'll sit with them, talk with them, get to meet them and make them feel included.”

Emil Ayala, a sophomore student ambassador, knows firsthand what it's like to be the new kid at school. He moved to North Augusta from Puerto Rico six years ago.

“It was kind of a rough transition. When I came here, I didn't know the language much, so I was just learning,” he said. “That was the main thing that pushed me to join this program and help it succeed in our school and all through the area. People really need to know about this program, not just in our school or county, because it will provide a lot of help for them.”

To receive the Purple Star designation, school districts must complete other requirements as follows:

• Assign a designated liaison to be a single point of contact for military families and military-connected students who is trained to support issues that face military families, including relocation, deployment, loss and academic training.

• Create a website specifically for military families to provide current information about schools and the district.

• Adhere to the Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission to ensure that students receive transfer credit from previous schools so they will not have to retake classes.

• Ensure that transfer students can participate in sports, clubs and other school enrichment programs.

• Provide specialized training for school counselors, staff and administrators.

Richland County School District 2 also received the Purple Star designation.

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.