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HANAU, Germany — At an open house last week at Hanau Middle School, an eighth-grader and his father chatted with school counselor Vicki Leivermann.

“I’m going to have a better year this year,” the boy promised Leivermann, who recounted the conversation. “My dad is back.”

In turn, the father let Leivermann know he had her back on this one.

“I’ll be here if you need me,” the father said.

What a difference a school year makes.

A year ago, thousands of 1st Armored Division troops were in Iraq when the Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe began the school year. The deployment left a majority of 1st AD children without a parent — and, in a few cases, without both parents — for the entire year.

This year, with the division back in Germany, teachers and pupils say there’s a levity that was lacking in 2003-04.

“When you don’t have a parent at home,” Leivermann said, “it makes a big difference.”

Talk to those associated with DODDS about last school year and they’ll probably use words such as “tough” and “challenging” to characterize it.

Kids came to school burdened with an array of emotions and expectations. The level of concern for their deployed parents would rise and fall based on the latest news coming out of Iraq.

“People would act happy because they were in school,” said 13-year-old Briana Fantauzzi, an eighth-grader at Hanau Middle School. “But once someone mentioned it [Iraq], people would get sad.”

Though focused on their studies, they also assumed a greater role at home, in some cases taking on duties beyond their years. For example, Briana said some boys in her school “felt like they had to be the dad” of the family.

Such added responsibilities, from watching younger siblings to fixing things around the house, “is a lot to put on a kid,” said Eric Goldman, principal of Gen. H.H. Arnold High School in Wiesbaden, Germany.

To a degree, Briana said, teachers may have been “more easy on us,” because of the long deployment. Some classmates, she added, took advantage of the situation and “didn’t behave as much because their father was gone.”

That last point is something Jason Ruzicka wholeheartedly agrees with. This year, the 12-year-old said, there is “less bullying.”

Martha A. Duncan, the assistant principal at Hanau Middle School, acknowledged there were more disciplinary problems last year — her first at the school — than she had anticipated.

But no one can say for sure how much of it was related to the war, Duncan said. Administrative changes, coupled with the departure of some disruptive pupils, she said, probably has as much to do with the improved climate at her school this year as anything else, though she adds the presence of both parents is huge for a child.

“When families get back together there is a sense of calmness,” she said.

Walt Ulrich, assistant principal at Giessen High School, which serves children of 1st AD soldiers, said his student body seems more suburban, than urban.

“It was not as rough of a school as people” perceive, Ulrich said. The big change from last year, besides the departure of some students, is the school “is just more relaxed. I don’t see the tension in the kids.”

Goldman agrees.

“You couldn’t tell these kids had been through a bad year,” Goldman said. “Their spirits are up. They are revved up.”

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