New school in Area I means a long ride will come to an end
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Shortly after 6 on a recent morning, children emerged from the pre-dawn darkness here one or two at a time to board a bus for their 90-minute journey south to schools at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul.
For the most part, the dozens of children who commute each day between Area I, the northernmost region in South Korea, and Seoul don’t seem to mind the three-hour roundtrip.
But parents and officials with Department of Defense Dependents Schools hope the planned August opening of Area I’s first on-base school, at Camp Casey, will give students something they have missed — a sense of “community.”
“I think it matters a great deal,” said Charlie Toth, Department of Defense Education Activity principal deputy director and associate director for education. “Schools are critical to the quality of life for soldiers and their families. The more isolated the community is, the more important that becomes.”
Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Johnson of the 2nd Infantry Division agreed, saying she is looking forward to next school year when her three sons will be going to the new school. It will be much easier for them to play after school with classmates, she can be more of the “involved parent” she wants to be, and she’ll be more likely to interact with teachers and other school officials in and around base.
“I look forward to it being more of a community — with the families, the teachers and the administrators and all that,” she said.
About 230 students are expected when Casey Elementary School opens this summer. The new K-8 school is part of a U.S. Forces Korea effort to get more command-sponsored families to move to the peninsula. A new high school will open at U.S. Army Garrison-Daegu in August 2011.
USFK announced in 2008 it would begin increasing the number of command-sponsored slots until as many as half the troops stationed here are allowed to bring their families. There are about 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea.
The number of troops who can bring their families on command-sponsored tours is limited by the space available at schools. Enrollment in DODDS schools in South Korea is at or near capacity with about 4,300 students attending nine schools.
Officials have projected that as many as 20,000 students could be going to as many as 22 DODDS schools on the peninsula by 2020 due to expansion of the command-sponsorship program.
Because students based in Area I have no DODDS school nearby, about 40 attend schools at Yongsan and another 140 or so attend one of four international schools in the vicinity of Camp Casey and Camp Red Cloud. The tuition for those schools — which averages about $17,000 per year — is covered for eligible families up to specified maximum rates, according to DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff.
Because there will be a DODDS school in operation in Area I — albeit a K-8 school — a quirk in DODDS regulations will force the high school students to transfer to Seoul American unless their parents want to cover the cost of their international school tuition. Hoff said exemptions will be granted for students going into eighth or 12th grade so they can graduate from the middle or high school they are currently attending.
He said that situation is under review, but he declined to speculate on whether additional exceptions might be made.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were scheduled for this week on the $12.2 million project to renovate Building 2400 into the new K-8 Casey Elementary School by August; a second wing, in Building 2409, will open in 2011. The school will ultimately be able to hold about 600 students, DODDS officials say.
Courtney Olofson, 14, a ninth-grader at Seoul American High School, said she looks forward to next school year when she will once again be spending about three hours a day on a bus every school day going to and from her Area I home.
“I bring my MP3 player and I do homework,” she said. “I like it because [on the bus] I get to sleep more.”
On the other hand, Johnson’s 9-year-old son Ethan, a fourth-grader at Seoul American Elementary School, said he looks forward to the opening of the new Camp Casey school and a shorter commute.
“I’m happy because when [it opens], it’s a short ride … [and] our parents can pick us up easily.”
Johnson said that the Camp Casey locale will make life a little easier for her children.
“Normally after school they would do their homework and then they would have time to relax, get on the computer or whatever,” she said. “Now, it just takes all of their playtime away because they’re on a bus.”