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Fifth-grader Lindsay Turvold and her classmates line up outside Sollars Elementary School at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Aug. 27, the first day of school. Both of Misawa's elementary schools saw their enrollment decline this school year, echoing a trend at DODDS schools across Japan and Okinawa.

Fifth-grader Lindsay Turvold and her classmates line up outside Sollars Elementary School at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Aug. 27, the first day of school. Both of Misawa's elementary schools saw their enrollment decline this school year, echoing a trend at DODDS schools across Japan and Okinawa. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Where have all the children gone?

Enrollment in military base schools across Japan and Okinawa has declined significantly the past three years, but officials say it’s difficult to pin down a leading cause.

According to statistics provided by DODDS-Pacific, there were 9,300 students in Japan district schools at the start of 2005-06. That figure fell to 9,000 a year ago and now sits at 8,800.

On Okinawa, there are currently 7,970 students attending base schools, compared to 8,320 last year and 8,470 in September 2005.

Citing operational security, Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific would not provide enrollment figures by school location.

But officials cite several contributing factors, from shrinking base populations, deployments keeping families home instead of coming overseas, and many children on Pacific bases too young to be in school.

Home schooling and off-base schools, such as religious and international schools, also siphon off a small number of students.

Chip Steitz, a DODDS-Pacific spokesman on Okinawa, deferred to U.S. Forces Japan when asked about the dwindling numbers. “I am not going to speculate on the reasons why student enrollment has declined,” he wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Last year, USFJ adopted an instruction requiring all services and agencies to account for where children attend school, whether it’s on or off base or in the home. According to the regulation, information would be used to assist in planning, programming and budgeting.

But Marine Corps Master Sgt. Terence Peck, a USFJ spokesman, said the 2006-07 data is incomplete because of disparities in the way it was submitted. Officials have discussed better collection methods, he added. New reports are due Feb. 15.

As of Nov. 1, more than 48,000 active-duty personnel were stationed in the theater, and they had 47,169 dependents, according to USFJ’s Web site at www.usfj.mil. Peck said servicemembers totaled 50,652 in 2005 while family members numbered 47,615.

Shirley Rogers, school liaison officer for the 374th Mission Support Group at Yokota Air Base, said waning DODDS enrollment can be linked to a “combination of several different factors.”

“We have a new group of military families coming in with younger children,” said Rogers, who’s worked in military child care for 17 years. “My guess is you’re going to see that bubble move higher into the upper grade levels. It’s just a cycle. There were lots of babies after the Gulf War. The same thing is happening now.

“And today, there’s a lot more deployments from overseas bases, so families are choosing to stay home with the children while the active-duty member deploys. That happens.”

The downturn has been sharp at Yokota High School, where enrollment is off roughly 25 percent since September 2004, falling from about 430 students to 315 now, said principal Richard Schlueter.

“It has something to do with the military end — servicemembers or families not coming over,” he said. “I’ve not been given an answer … I wish I knew. For provisioning purposes, I hope it goes back up as slowly as it’s gone down.”

Schlueter said teachers have been trimmed from Yokota’s faculty as enrollment has decreased.

Rogers could not provide statistics due to the problems with last year’s count but said the percentage of Yokota children being home-schooled or enrolled in an off-base private institution is “real, real low.”

Yokota Christian Academy, which is operated by the off-base Yokota Baptist Church, has a student body of about 25. The numbers have remained steady in the past four years, and Pastor Warren D. Webster said he knows of few parents who home-school their children.

“There are some people in the congregation who do home school but not many,” he added. “I’d say it’s probably only about four or five sets of parents.”

At Cummings Elementary School on Misawa Air Base, Japan, principal John Williams has seen enrollment drop by nearly half since 2000, his first year at the school.

Enrollment then, including preschool students in Sure Start through sixth grade, was 550.

“In the last three years, we’ve dropped from 400 to 291,” he said.

Williams has no explanation for the drastic decline.

“Units are being renovated here in the north area, and those families sometimes move down to main base, but actually Sollars (enrollment) has declined, too, considerably in those years, so I have no idea,” he said, referring to Sollars Elementary School on main base.

Enrollment numbers also have decreased in recent years at Jack N. Darby Elementary School on Sasebo Naval Base, principal John Mueller said. But the reasons are unclear.

He said the Navy cutting back on multiple, consecutive overseas tours by servicemembers could be one. Enrollment also fluctuates with the housing supply at Sasebo, he added.

Meanwhile, at Sasebo Elementary School on the main base area, student enrollment has increased the past two years, said Nicole Flores, the school’s guidance counselor.

“We are the little school who kept on growing” though enrollment now is beginning to stabilize, Flores said.

Stars and Stripes reporters Travis J. Tritten and Jennifer H. Svan contributed to this story.


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