DODDS students converge on schools in Europe as classes kick off
It was the first day of the last year of Heidelberg High School's existence. But this was no time for nostalgia; it was time for class.
"Where are you going?" Heidelberg High School principal Kevin Brewer asked as teens stood in the school foyer studying their schedules for a clue to the location of their first class in the new school year. "Who's your teacher?
"Third floor, all the way to the top. You can't miss it," Brewer said to one. "Right here, first door on your right," he directed another.
Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe welcomed in a new school year with some schools destined for eventual closure and others expecting larger enrollments in the future.
At Vogelweh Elementary School in Kaiserslautern, Germany, a few hands tentatively went into the air when teacher Kristine Cephus asked her first-graders if "they were a little nervous, a little scared."
"Me too," she assured them. "There's a lot of you, and there's one of me, but I promise you we're going to have a great year."
About 900 students are enrolled at the pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade school, spread among four buildings on 10 acres.
Some classes will be team-taught this year, said principal Sandy Meacham, including a first-grade class that has about 36 students, two teachers and an afternoon reading coach.
Attitudes among children varied.
In fourth-grade teacher Melanie McNeill's class, Trevor Elftmann, new to Vogelweh, declared: "I don't like school. I'd rather be home."
McNeill said gently that one of the year's challenges was to get Trevor to like school, while the other was to get all of her students to love reading.
In Wiesbaden, 6-year-old Lucas Torres smiled as he clutched his Schultüte, or school cone — a common German gift to children entering the first grade — and headed off to Hainerberg Elementary.
His mother, Kelly, said he couldn't be more excited. "Normally, I have a hard time getting him out of bed, but this morning he jumped out," she said.
Hainerberg Elementary's population this year has swelled by about 200 students to 800. The spike is tied to Army transformation plans, which resulted in the recent closure of Mannheim Elementary School and the upcoming closure of Heidelberg schools as U.S. Army Europe headquarters completes its move to Wiesbaden next year.
"We are really excited, we've had a lot of growth in the community," said Principal Penelope Miller-Smith.
In Aviano, Italy, the first day of school caused a traffic jam at the base gate. Inside the schools, lines moved more quickly, directed by teachers and administrators. Both the elementary school and the middle/high school have new administrators.
"I think I was probably more nervous than the kids," said Melissa Hayes, who begins her first overseas assignment with DODDS as elementary school principal.
Brad Seadore is the new high school principal, moving to Italy from Wiesbaden. Seadore, whose wife, Karen, is the DODDS Europe athletic director, has been in the system since 1989, but it is his first time as principal. He takes over a high school that's lost 10 percent of its enrollment, with just more than 180 students to start off the year.
In Naples, Paul Augustine held the hand of his fourth-grade son as he dropped his seventh-grader off at middle school.
"They were excited about coming back," Augustine said.
For many teachers, the first day of school is a time to help children adjust to their new surroundings.
"Military kids go through so many changes in their lives, and this is one more thing," said Teresa Gunn, a fourth-grade teacher at Vilseck Elementary School in Germany.
Shortly before the start of class at Patch High School in Stuttgart, hundreds of students milled about outside, getting re-acquainted after the summer break.
Gianni Hudson, a 16-year-old junior, said he looked forward to reconnecting with friends, but the prospect of hours of homework was less enticing.
"Dread and happiness," Hudson said.
Patch principal Danny Robinson spent the morning directing confused students.
"Let's go. First period," Robinson shouted above the din. "Thirty seconds. Don't be late."
Back at Heidelberg, some students lamented that this would be the school's last year. Its impending closure marks the end of what was once a quartet of American high schools opened in Germany after the end of World War II. Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt high schools all closed decades ago.
Next year, junior Joshua Yarborough, 16, will attend school in Wiesbaden.
"I'm not happy," he said. "I've lived in Heidelberg for 12 years. It's the best."
For Brewer, Heidelberg's principal for the past six years, this first day felt different. It was quieter, he noted, with only about 400 students streaming through the doors — half the number of earlier years.
"It's subdued. Bittersweet is the wrong word," he said. It's just … different."
Reporters Nancy Montgomery, Steven Beardsley, Mark Patton, Kent Harris, Jennifer Svan, Cristina Silva and John Vandiver contributed to this report.