YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — James Ritton has been enrolled in Department of Defense Dependents Schools his entire school career.

The 17-year-old senior plays on the Yokota High School football and baseball teams and is an honor student with a grade-point average above 4.0.

Last spring, Ritton and his family learned he might not be admitted to school this fall for his senior year. Until days ago, he was in limbo, relegated to the DODDS space-available waiting list, even though his family pays thousands for tuition.

Depending on their sponsors, students who attend DODDS schools fall into one of several categories that determine tuition and priority.

Servicemembers’ dependents have first priority.

Others, like Ritton, whose father, Henry Ritton, works for University of Maryland University College, can attend only if there’s room left over.

DODDS admits a certain number of students per teacher or classroom.

In the past, schools with plenty of room have enrolled all students during the summer because they generally could accommodate last-minute priority students.

But staff cuts last summer meant fewer students could attend, and some schools admitted too many.

“We got ourselves in trouble last year,” said Jeff Martin, chief of staff for DODDS-Pacific Director’s Office. “In some places we were really overcrowded.”

This year, schools were directed to wait until at least the week before school began to decide how much space is available.

With school starting Monday, some students are still waiting to find out about enrollment. And some could continue to for weeks or longer.

“Usually by the end of August if they’re tight [the schools], they’d be able to tell people on the waiting list, your chances are pretty slim,” Martin said.

About 70 of the 350 or so students on the waiting list in the South Korea District might not be admitted, schools officials said. In Okinawa, all students will likely have space.

In Japan, there are 150 students on the waiting list, officials said. And as of Friday, all but seven had been admitted.

Admission is based upon the sponsor’s arrival date within each category. “It has nothing to do with the rank or test scores of the individual student,” Martin said.

When DODDS schools are full, parents and guardians must enroll students in private schools, send them back to the States or home-school them.

Henry Ritton said if his son James wasn’t admitted, he probably would have found an American school in Tokyo, adding a considerable commute to his son’s day.

His son also would miss out on the sports he’s been part of for years.

“You take away part of his life if you do that,” Henry Ritton said.

For the past few years, district administrators made the final decision on who gets in, so the policy is administered equally across the board, Martin said.

Previously, school principals made the decision.

Henry Ritton said the system is stressful for families, and he added that students paying tuition should be admitted regardless.

He pays about $16,000 a year for his son to attend Yokota High School. Tuition is standardized by the Department of Defense.

Ritton calculates he has spent more than $108,500 for his son’s education, as well as his daughter, who graduated from DODDS three years ago and now attends University of California, Berkeley.

Parents of space-available students might not find the system fair, but administrators say it is the best they can do.

“It’s as fair as we can get it, we think,” said Dave Menig, chief of staff for the South Korea District. “We’ve looked at every possible way. We cannot predict the command-sponsored people who might come in.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now