Menwith Hill parents fear options briefing is first step toward closing school
Parents and students at RAF Menwith Hill will be briefed next week on life at London Central High School.
Department of Defense Dependents Schools says the meeting at the base in northern England is to present families with all the options available for the education of their children.
But parents fear it is the first step toward closing the high school, which opened its doors only five years ago, and sending students to London, 200 miles to the south, where they would live in a dormitory.
“There are no plans at all for closing Menwith Hill [High School],” said Linda Curtis, superintendent of the DODDS Isles District, which includes schools in England. “We’re just looking to make sure they have equal access to everything other schools have.”
But Maggie Haacke, a parent of a 10th-grader and president of the School Advisory Committee, said, “If they have no plan to [close the school], why are they alarming us so much? It is causing a lot of alarm.”
Word reached the communications post in the Yorkshire hills this month that Curtis and representatives from LCHS would visit the base to discuss the attributes of the school in London. The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.
That has led to speculation that the high school at Menwith Hill, which opened for the 1998-1999 school year, would be closed.
Air Force Col. Randy Roberts, the base commander, said in a statement to Stars and Stripes that he was told May 2 to arrange a meeting between parents and LCHS. He was subsequently told there would be no changes made for next school year, but “action might be taken” before the 2004-05 school year.
“This is naturally a very emotional issue for parents,” he said.
In his weekly Commander’s Column in the base newspaper, Station Break, he has stated his concern that military members and civilian contractors will not want to be stationed at the base if there is no high school.
“We will do everything we can to challenge this proposal,” Roberts wrote in the paper. “This is a core quality-of-life issue for our U.S. population.”
He has since sent a letter to generals and others with a stake in Menwith Hill asking that they help derail any closure move before it gets started.
Joseph Tafoya, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, said, too, there is no plan to close the school, but options to improve the academic experience are being explored.
“The educational concerns include equality issues involving small high schools,” he said in e-mailed answers to questions Tuesday evening. “That is, whether we can offer the same educational options and course work in these small schools. With room at London Central, this provides a fiscally attractive alternative.”
He admitted that Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe may take a $20 million hit in the budget next year, but that, he said, is a worst-case figure based on possible cuts and a low dollar exchange rate. He said that is not what is driving the discussion over possible closure.
Curtis said the issue of small school vs. big school is a common one. For example, she said, the Menwith Hill school was unable to field a football team last fall, which is important for many high school boys.
Eugene Perillo, principal at Menwith Hill, said the school now has 94 students in grades 9 through 12, but will have more than 110 next year.
Twelve seniors will graduate this year, but that number will be closer to 20 in 2004.
For years, high school students at Menwith Hill either attended British schools or Lakenheath High School at RAF Lakenheath, 150 miles south. But a school opened on base five years ago and has had an important impact on community life, residents said.
“We’ve begun to establish that tradition and that routine,” Perillo said. “It’s been pretty well-received by the parents.”
He and Haacke said the school is a rallying point for the community.
Haacke admitted that the small school does have limitations. She said the flexibility of classes is not as great as at a larger school. There is no gym for the high school and the lack of a football team was a minus.
“The counter argument for that is, they have a good student-to-teacher ratio,” she said. “The kids look out for each other. They know each other.”
She said her husband, who is in the military, even extended for one year so their son, Thomas, now a sophomore, could graduate from the school where he would spend four years. Now, that possibility is in doubt.
“We would not have come here without the high school,” she said.
Frank O’Gara, spokesman for DODDS Europe, said, “No decision has been made on the future of Menwith Hill.”
The military is talking about changing its look in Europe, he said, referring to discussions over closing bases in Germany and other places and opening ones farther east, a possibility that is in talking stages.
“It’s prudent for us, as a DOD component, to do some advance planning,” he said. “It’s not surprising that we look at places that have small high schools.”
Curtis said, “We are sensitive to family needs and quality of life issues. That is important. But we’re here because of the military. If the military changes its footprint, we have to change ours.”