Matt Millham, Stars and Stripes
Baumholder | December 16, 2012
Just before Christmas, the last of the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s 4,500 soldiers will roll out of here for good, leaving this small-town Army base with fewer than half the Americans it has had for decades.
While some who remain lament the reduction in jobs and facility hours, there’s at least one clear winner from the cutbacks: education.
The ratio of students to teachers is, at least temporarily, at a level most parents and educators can only dream about. Baumholder’s population is expected to rebound modestly next year, so school officials left more teachers here than typically staff schools of similar size.
The student population at the base’s two elementary schools, Smith and Wetzel, has plunged from almost 900 last school year to under 350 today, a drop of more than 60 percent. Meanwhile, the number of educators has fallen by just 30 percent.
Based on the numbers the school district received from the Army, “we were confident that we would have rich staffing in the fall when we came back to school,” said Dell McMullen, superintendent of Kaiserslautern district, which includes Baumholder. “In fact, when we look at the classes up at Wetzel, grades one through four, there are 11 students to a teacher.”
The same thing is true at Smith Elementary, she said.
Those ratios, much lower than the Department of Defense Education Activity’s target of between 18-to-1 and 24-to-1, have paid off in the classroom.
“Our students are performing better than the administration there has seen in the last four years,” McMullen said.
“I’ve never had a class this size before,” Kerri Keedwell, a kindergarten teacher at Smith Elementary, said as children dashed to get their coats for the walk to lunch and recess. Along with an aide, Keedwell’s class of 13 will drop to 10 as the last 170th families move out. “It has a lot of advantages, having a small [class] size.”
At Baumholder Middle-High School, Peter Ward’s Advanced Placement calculus class has three students. Carolyn Dominguez’s algebraic modeling class has four.
Though many courses required for graduation are full, the student-teacher ratio in grades seven through 12 is just over 7-to-1 — about a third of DODEA’s target ratio.
The embarrassment of riches is likely to be short-lived, and teachers and administrators are making the most of it.
While some courses have been cut, others have been added by realigning staff to take advantage of unutilized teacher qualifications. A former fifth-grade teacher now teaches STEM — shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math — to students at both elementary schools. Wetzel Elementary added Spanish to its curriculum. The middle-high school added French and digital media.
Many educators teach more than one class, and many of those classes are smaller than the teachers have had before.
“So you really know them now,” Stacie Sais, who teaches high school culinary arts and family consumer science, said of her students. “There’s no one that can hide. If a kid is failing in two or three classes, the parent can come in and talk to all the teachers at once. And all the teachers can meet and we can see what is a common trend, and then be able to help those kids. It’s really individualized.”
All that attention has other positive effects. Discipline problems are a fraction of what they were last year at Baumholder’s middle and high schools, where assistant Principal Rick Jimenez has given out just three written referrals all year. Last year? “Probably three a week,” he said laughing. “It’s a big difference. So, we’re able to worry about little details in their behavior,” like sagging pants. “It’s wonderful.”
At the same time, the quality of education, almost across the board, is up.
Dyami Pike, 17, a junior, said he’s sure his grades are higher this year “because of the fact that I’ve had more time with the teachers. I feel like they care.”
Pike is seeking a career in culinary arts, and because the school is so small, he said, teachers in other classes take the time to point out how their subject relates to cooking.
“Like our chemistry teacher,” he said, “in the middle of class, she’s like, ‘Oh, you can use this in cooking,’ or ‘this happens.’ ”
Before the school population shrank, Pike said, teachers didn’t have time to address every student individually.
There also has been a noticeable bump in achievement levels.
In the middle school, the number of students making the honor roll in the first quarter increased from 42 percent last year to 66 percent this year. In the high school, 82 percent made the honor roll in this year’s first quarter compared with 70 percent last year, according to Baumholder Middle High Principal Joe Malloy.
Both schools saw similar increases between 2010 and 2011, a period in which the post’s student population was relatively static. That was after the school began promoting the use of critical reading strategies that force students to slow down and concentrate on what they’re reading, Malloy said. About half of this year’s academic gains can be attributed to critical reading as well, he said. The rest he attributes to the extra attention students are getting in and out of the classroom.
“If they’re having difficulty or they’re falling behind, teachers have fewer parents to contact, so kids have to work harder at failing now than they used to,” Malloy said. “So kids have to really work hard not to do well.”