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First-grade teacher Melissa Rowley-Knudtson asks her new pupils their thoughts about first grade on the first day of the DODDS school year in Darmstadt, Germany, on Monday.

First-grade teacher Melissa Rowley-Knudtson asks her new pupils their thoughts about first grade on the first day of the DODDS school year in Darmstadt, Germany, on Monday. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

First-grade teacher Melissa Rowley-Knudtson asks her new pupils their thoughts about first grade on the first day of the DODDS school year in Darmstadt, Germany, on Monday.

First-grade teacher Melissa Rowley-Knudtson asks her new pupils their thoughts about first grade on the first day of the DODDS school year in Darmstadt, Germany, on Monday. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

First-grade teacher Janyne Roers shows Kristopher Cook and Sarah Chandler where to put their school supplies during the first day of classes Monday at Aviano Elementary School, Italy.

First-grade teacher Janyne Roers shows Kristopher Cook and Sarah Chandler where to put their school supplies during the first day of classes Monday at Aviano Elementary School, Italy. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Principal William Hunter greets students Monday at Liberty Intermediate School on RAF Lakenheath, England.

Principal William Hunter greets students Monday at Liberty Intermediate School on RAF Lakenheath, England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

Aviano Elementary School Principal Melissa Klopfer talks to fourth- and fifth-graders assembled in a courtyard to hear a few ground rules about the new school year.

Aviano Elementary School Principal Melissa Klopfer talks to fourth- and fifth-graders assembled in a courtyard to hear a few ground rules about the new school year. (Kent Harris / S&S)

First-grade students are welcomed to class as some proud parents look on, during the first day of the DODDS school year in Darmstadt, Germany.

First-grade students are welcomed to class as some proud parents look on, during the first day of the DODDS school year in Darmstadt, Germany. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

Mike Kovacs was preparing for his 37th first day of school on Monday.

The fifth-grade teacher at Liberty Intermediate School on RAF Lakenheath, England, plans to retire at the end of this year, calling a halt to a 37-year career with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools.

“This is my last first day,” he said in the quiet that preceded the rush.

More than 38,000 DODDS students returned to the classroom this week at more than 100 schools throughout Europe. Wearing new clothes and carrying the latest in fashionable backpacks, they climbed from buses and parents’ cars to make their way into a new adventure.

“It’s still exciting,” Kovacs said. “That’s why I was here at quarter after seven. You still have butterflies as the kids walk through the door.”

Down the hall from Kovacs, Principal William Hunter smiled as he watched several hundred children file through the door, greeting as many as he could and calling many by name.

“Hi, Jasmin. What’s going on? Good morning, Cindy. Hello. Hi. How are you?”

About 320 fourth- and fifth-graders will attend Hunter’s school, where he is beginning his fifth year as principal.

“I love the first day of school,” Hunter said. “It’s exciting. You haven’t seen the kids all summer.”

Before the school day began, Hunter had been on the playground, which was bathed in the slanting rays of an early morning English sun. He hugged children who rushed up to greet him.

“Life is good,” he said.

Then, he gave an extra special hug to a young girl in tears who was especially nervous about starting the school year.

At Darmstadt Elementary School in Darmstadt, Germany, a brass band filled the air with Disney tunes as nearly 500 students returned to school.

Principal Russ Claus invites the band each year as a way to calm the nerves of students and parents. This year the honor was given to the U.S. Army brass quintet from Heidelberg, Germany.

“The first day of school is hugely important as far as getting off to a smooth start and inspiring confidence and pride among the students and parents,” said Claus, decked out in a tuxedo and red bow tie.

One parent told him the school seemed like Disneyland, a place free of problems.

“When a parent says that, you are doing it right,” he said.

In Aviano, Italy, enrollments at the high school and elementary school are about the same as last year, the principals said. Melissa Klopfer said she had 719 students under her care at the elementary school. Doug McEnery said 276 students had registered at the high school.

Klopfer is happy to have “plenty” of new teachers, which will lower the student-to-teacher ratio from 24 to 1, which it was last year, to 20 to 1.

The day was one of nervous parents and excited children.

Tina Sexton, who dropped off first-grader Kirsten, 6, for school at Aviano, said, “She was more excited than I was.”

Nearby, San Juanita Sermon was saying goodbye to Noah, 5.

“I was like, ‘My baby’s starting school,’” she said.

Russ Rizzo in Darmstadt, Germany, and Kent Harris in Aviano,Italy, contributed to this report.


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