HEIDELBERG, Germany — Can a middle school full of children with a parent in a combat zone get by without an assistant principal?

Gena Churchwell, a counselor at Mannheim Middle School, thought not.

“It’s not educational,” she said. “It’s not safe.”

So after the Heidelberg School District decided to next year cut the Mannheim school’s assistant principal position because of declining enrollment, Churchwell, who is also the school advisory committee chairwoman, and others at the school protested.

First, they asked the district to look at the numbers again. The school has about 340 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders — 10 short of the 350 needed for an assistant principal, according to Defense Department schools staffing formulas.

“They said, ‘Don’t argue, please,’” Churchwell said.

But Churchwell, 40, decided that she would argue, even if other schools throughout U.S. Army Europe were closing and losing teacher slots as the U.S. military population and its children dwindle through transformation.

“My job is not to say, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’” she said. “My job is to say, ‘This is a problem, and we need to fix it.’”

So, with the help of some parents, she put together information packets, contacted various commanders and planned a variety of meetings, encouraged letters to the editor and Congress, and called the press.

Spurned by the district, she was incensed by what she saw as institutional hypocrisy.

“We’re still all about getting on TV and jumping up and down and saying, ‘Your child’s education is great and won’t be harmed by drawdowns,’” Churchwell said.

Parents with pupils at the school were no happier.

“I don’t understand how they can possibly cut that slot,” said Pamela Moss, who has two children at the school. “Students need the extra guidance. It’s going to be too difficult for the principal to do what she and the assistant principal used to do. Especially now, with all the deployments, the children in this district, they need — they need — both people to be there.”

Rhonda Cash, mother of a sixth-grader, said she also was concerned.

“I have nothing to lose except my son’s education, and that’s a lot,” she said.

But some three months after announcing the upcoming cut — and a day after school officials and parents started going public with their complaints — the district decided there was no need to make the cut after all.

The district had received new information, said Department of Defense Dependents Schools spokesman Dennis Bohannon. “The Army told us information that the student population would be over 350,” he said. “These figures change constantly.”

Bohannon said he didn’t know what the new information was that lead the district to amend its enrollment forecast and keep the assistant-principal slot. No one at the district was available for comment Wednesday, according to a staffer there, because of illness and temporary-duty assignments.

Churchwell said she was told the district decided to look at the community as a whole, and that it found that more units were staying than it had thought.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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