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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — There are seats in Department of Defense Dependents Schools classrooms worth almost $19,000.

That would buy a year’s worth of college education, but some families are willing to pony up that much cash just to send their children to a DODDS school.

“The base schools are very good,” said Tokyo restaurant owner Susan Burns, who paid to send her daughter to sixth grade at Yokota last year. “I wanted her to know what American life is.”

When space is available, families that aren’t Defense Department-related or otherwise federally connected — and thus don’t qualify for free, guaranteed admittance — can pay tuition for a DODDS education.

Most tuition-paying students are children of U.S. contractors and U.S. Embassy workers, but host-country students also can attend.

Last school year, Burns and her 13-year-old daughter got up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a train, then another and then a bus each day just to get to Yokota. Although the long commute since has become too much for them, Burns, who was born in Vietnam and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, said she likes what DODDS has to offer.

“Your mind is free. You can think whatever you want,” she said.

During the 2005-06 school year, more than 700 tuition-paying students were enrolled in the DODDS-Pacific system, according to spokesman Chip Steitz.

The rules recently were changed for the upcoming school year, requiring DODDS to find space for government contractors’ dependents. The contractors still are charged tuition — paid as a part of their contract, not out of pocket — but their children are guaranteed a spot in the school. Before, contractors’ children were admitted only on a space-available basis.

Embassy workers’ children technically are allowed in only when there is space, but Warren Tobin, chief of staff for the South Korean district, said he doesn’t think “we could ever not find space for them — not politically, at least. We could operationally.”

Last year, about 50 such students attended DODDS schools in South Korea, he said.

Mary Jessee, a U.S. Embassy community liaison in South Korea, chose DODDS over Seoul’s international schools for her two teens — who had spent two years in Africa where they were escorted to a high-security school. Jessee said she liked that they could walk to the DODDS school in Korea and “be normal for a small given amount of time before they went back to high adventures.”

The State Department pays the $18,276 annual tuition for each of her children to attend the DODDS high school. Students not federally connected, such as those from host nations, pay $700 more.

Tobin says there’s more interest from South Korean families than there is space available in the schools. Thirty South Koreans were admitted last year.

Some of those interested are professors who taught in the United States and have children who cannot or don’t want to adjust to a South Korean school, he said.

Host-nation families are part of a group that gets last priority for admittance, so they usually are put on a waiting list until shortly before the school year starts.

“It’s hard for them because we don’t know until the last minute, and sometimes we say no,” Tobin said.

Tuition facts

In 2005-06, there were 466 tuition-paying students in DODDS schools in South Korea, 180 in mainland Japan and 114 in Okinawa, up from 80 in 2001. The annual tuition:

Preschool$8,268 for federally connected students$8,580 for students not federally connected

Kindergarten to 6th grade$16,536 for federally connected$17,172 for not federally connected

7th to 8th grade$17,400 for federally connected$18,072 for not federally connected

9th to 12th grade$18,276 for federally connected$18,972 for not federally connected

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