Where to send your children for schooling when the military sends you abroad.
Schooling: It’s one of the biggest decisions military families with children must make when moving overseas. The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) operates the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS). DoDDS-Europe alone operates 81 schools within five districts throughout Europe and serves more than 35,000 school-age children of active duty military and civilian employees. According to DoDEA, all schools offer fully accredited pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education.
For military families, though, the question remains: Is it better to emphasize full language and culture immersion by placing children in schools on the economy (the “when in Rome” line of thinking), or is it better to keep them on a more Americanized curriculum so that when they return to the U.S., they aren’t behind their counterparts?
With low-cost options on the economy, many families choose local schools.
Army wife Natalie McQuilton pays 83 euros per month to send her 3- and 5-year-olds to kindergarten in Heidelberg, Germany, and both are taking swimming and music twice a month. Plus, children can start German kindergarten at age 3, while DoDDS schools require that children already be 5 years old by Sept. 1 of the year they are enrolled in kindergarten.
That’s one of the reasons Army wife Holly Dunn, who moved to Baumholder, Germany, chose German schools for her three boys, ages 3, 4 and 6. The other reason was socialization.
“Local school is a good way to meet other children of the same age in our town,” Dunn said. “Since we live off-post, we are not surrounded by military children to make friends with.”
Army wife Angie Harris, who lived in Hohenfels, Germany, for two years, said she wishes her 3-year-old could have lived in Germany longer to attend more years of school there.
“I loved the school, much more than the preschool she attended the next year in the States,” Harris said.
Of course, she said, there are also some drawbacks.
“Neither my kids nor I know the language,” Dunn said. “Although they will pick it up quickly, it will take me a lot longer. It will be difficult for me to communicate with the teachers and other parents and to read notes and letters sent home with my kids.”
McQuilton echoed her concerns.
Even to enroll her girls in the school within walking distance of their off-post home, she had to use Google to translate information off the Internet, call the school and ask for an English speaker and then tour the school. Thankfully, both the girls’ teachers spoke intermediate English and addressed all her concerns. But having experienced homework and notes in another language once before, she knows she has her work cut out for her.
“You usually have to go over it with the head teacher. There are field trips or school plays you wouldn’t know about if you didn’t have it translated,” she said.
DoDDS: Bridging the Gap
Vanessa Dyer attended three different DoDDS schools throughout Germany from third-12th grade.
“When we first moved to Germany, all kids in elementary school were enrolled in ‘Sprachbruecke,’ which means ‘language bridge’ in German,” Dyer said. “It was a German language class all children had to take since we were at DoDDS schools in Germany. When you went to middle school you could choose to continue with German or study another language.”
Because of that program and others, Dyer was fluent in German and Spanish and spoke some French before graduating from Ramstein High School on Ramstein Air Force Base, all without ever having attended a local school.
“I loved the DoDDS schools and felt very prepared for college,” she said. “In fact, my AP classes in high school in Germany were more challenging than a lot of my stuff at college.”
She said the opportunities she had, including taking a “field trip” to Tunisia with the French Club, viewing Shakespeare in England’s Globe Theater with the drama club and visiting the United Nations building in the Netherlands with the debate club, compared equally with the opportunities others had to experience European culture. And despite the rumors, the graduation rate for DoDEA schools is high – according to its website, at 99 percent.
“I really feel like I have done well and succeeded because of my DoDDS education,” Dyer, who now works as a federal employee, said.
Home Schooling Abroad
Faced with the daunting option of enrolling her children in local or on-post schools, Army wife Kathleen Rutan, who was turned off by the registration processes, chose a third option: home schooling.
During their first year in Stuttgart, Germany, Rutan homeschooled her then-kindergartner and fifth grader and sent the kids to “specials” at the DoDDS schools. This year, though, the children are attending the DoDDS schools.
“They missed the social aspect of being in the mainstream,” she said.