"Support the troops" is a call to action that's taken seriously in the Big Walnut area.

Now, the district has been honored for supporting those troops' families as well.

Big Walnut Middle School has received a Purple Star Award from the Ohio Department of Education, recognizing its commitment to students and families connected to the nation's military.

Assistant Principal Darin Prince, also a captain in the Ohio National Guard, was the school's liaison as it addressed the Purple Star Award requirements. The ODE notified the district this month of the award; a formal ceremony was set Feb. 28.

"Since 2001, the National Guard has played a huge role in service throughout the world," Prince said. "The Ohio National Guard has many soldiers who are community members first and soldiers second."

Prince said students go through "different trials and tribulations" when their parents are called up for service.

"Schools need to do more to support those students," he said.

One of the first requirements was to identify district students with parents or caregivers in the military.

"If the National Guard is your second job, that might not be known by many people," he said. "Our first task was to reach out to students' family members, to let us know they connected with the military."

The effort involved the entire district, with about 60 teachers attending a professional-development session to learn how they could help.

"I had several teachers inspired to become building liaisons," Prince said. "Now they are the point of contact for military students in their buildings. We have an extreme sense of pride in our teachers wanting to serve families of military personnel."

The district held a tailgate party for military families during an Oct. 13 football game. The middle school also held a breakfast for veterans and military families Nov. 16.

"We have to have a military-friendly culture," Prince said, "and do different events in our schools to support the military."

Students played a large role in organizing the breakfast, he said.

Students in the Community Based Instruction program, which emphasizes real-life experiences, came up with the theme of "serving others by serving them." They set up a "missing soldiers" table and served veterans and military families at their tables.

The school's student council raised more than $1,000 to stage the event and acted as masters of ceremonies. Sunbury VFW Post 8736 provided the color guard.

Three students read essays they entered in the VFW's Patriot's Pen program, and the student jazz band played a WWII-era song for the audience. Students also lined the hallways and applauded the veterans and military personnel.

Prince said more than 300 veterans and military family members attended.

"We had food for 300 and ran out," he said.

Middle school Principal Josh Frame said the school is excited to earn the recognition, "but more importantly, we're happy to try and provide additional supports for families with military connections.

"It's more for us a matter of trying to make sure that we have things in place to support kids in need," Frame said. "We try to live and breathe our mission to inspire and guide each student to their maximum potential. Some students maybe don't have additional supports at home, so we try to provide that within our school."

Prince said the Purple Star effort was aided by Chip Merkle, a National Guard child and youth education outreach specialist, and Andrew Seward, a National Guard child and youth program coordinator.

In its application for the award, the school identified a number of associated steps and goals. They include:

* Ensuring military students are making seamless transitions into the school or into their next educational opportunity.

* Studying and understanding the military deployment cycle, to be better prepared to provide military students with the specific resources at their time of need.

* Designating the middle school guidance and administrative team as the primary source for data collection on contact with military families.

* Outlining a new initiative called Big Walnut Military Families within the middle school that identifies, supports and celebrates military families connected with the school.

Prince serves with the National Guard artillery unit based in Delaware. His active-duty deployments included a tour in Afghanistan in 2011-12.

Schools that earn the Purple Star Award receive a special recognition to display at their buildings.