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NAPLES, Italy — In 1959, the average cost of a home was about $13,000, and gas was around 30 cents a gallon. Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood and Elvis Presley was in the Army.

That’s when Karen LaGioia began teaching elementary school. While a lot has changed over the last half century, one thing has remained constant: LaGioia is still teaching. She has taught at Naples Elementary School for 11 years.

However, LaGioia said this will be her last year of teaching. She plans to retire to Sarasota, Fla., at the end of the school year.

"I started teaching in the South Bronx in 1959. I taught there for five years," LaGioia, now 70, recalled. "The first two years, I taught kids that didn’t speak any English. They had just come from Puerto Rico that summer. It helped prepare me for DODDS. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would eventually teach kids who spoke different languages."

In 1964, looking for a way to see the world, she took a job with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Germany. Her first assignment was in Baumholder, and she has since taught at schools in Spain and at several bases in Italy. Her three children all attended schools overseas.

"What I love about DODDS kids is that they’re really savvy about all the cultures," she said. "They’re well-traveled and have more of a global outlook. It’s almost like teaching in the 1950s. It’s a small-town atmosphere on base and you run into your students shopping or when you’re in church. I love that part of it. I like the family feel where you know everybody and everybody knows you."

The main differences LaGioia sees between the civilian school systems and DODDS are the external factors that can affect children’s education.

"In the DODDS system, you always have at least one parent employed, and they all have medical and dental benefits," she explained. "You don’t always have that in the States. But [with military students] deployments can add stress to the children’s lives. Fortunately, Naples isn’t a big deployment area."

Some parents, whose children now attend LaGioia’s third-grade class, are amazed at her stamina and grateful for her service.

"I think it’s amazing that she’s still teaching," said Army Staff Sgt. Tom Rickert, assigned to the NATO base in Naples, and whose son is in LaGioia’s class. "She brings a lot of real-world knowledge to the classroom."

LaGioia enjoys sharing those experiences with her students.

"I didn’t have television until I was 13," she said. "[The children] say it must have been boring, but I say ‘No, it was not boring, boys and girls. We played outside, and everyone had lots of brothers and sisters, so our parents didn’t want us in the house. It was considered bad to stay inside.’ "

LaGioia has also seen many educational changes along the way. She said kids are still kids, but sometimes adults lose sight of that.

"Children nowadays see and know too much way too early," she said. "Protecting their childhood is very important. One of the downsides of having such informed children is they seem more grown-up, but they still need the reassurances, they need the hugs and kisses. They know more, but they’re not grown-ups.

"When parents ask me what they can do for their children, I tell them to protect their child’s childhood."


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