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Education Overseas: a History of DoDEA Schools

DoDEA schools are a common part of military life for many military kids. They are often a place where we find a community that can relate to us and support us during difficult times. Attending DoDEA schools fosters a sense of belonging and understanding among many military teens. I am so grateful to have had this experience, but I wondered about how this school system came to be. Most of the following information is credited to DoDEA’s website, which can be found here.

The earliest recordings of military schools were when General Winfield Scott issued regulations for schools military dependents through the use of tax money from merchants who sold products and services to servicemen. In 1866, Congress passed a law that provided education for enlisted men, and schools for dependents were included with it. Unfortunately in 1898, many “post schools” lost funding and legal status due to the reorganization of military education.

Come 1905, William Howard Taft, the then Secretary of War, separated schools from regular military activities. However, the impacts of the action were cut short by the Judge Advocate who, in 1913, proclaimed that such a separation was illegal.

In 1918, military-dependent schools were opened in the Philippines. This school, the Leonard Wood School at Fort Stotsenberg, educated children in grades one through six. With the establishment of this school, the Philippines is believed to be the only country in the Pacific Region with an open military-operated school before World War II.

Back in America, to counter the Judge Advocate’s 1913 decree, John W. Weeks, the Secretary of War in 1922, authorized the use of recreation funds and profits from the Post Exchange to finance schools. In 1925, the Judge Advocate relented, retracting their 1913 decision, deciding that the use of these funds was, in fact, allowed, as long as no buildings were used as school facilities instead of military missions.

After being long-awaited, the first official overseas post-school at the United States Naval Base of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was opened in 1936. To further this achievement, in 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act, providing for the maintenance and operation of such school buildings.

After World War II, many American troops stayed behind to maintain the stability of Europe, leading to the need for, and development of, schools to educate the dependents of these servicemen. In Korea in 1945, the first military dependents school was established at the former Air Base Yongsan Air Base, serving 99 students.

The first formal organization concerning these overseas schools was formed in May of 1946, as the U.S. Forces, European Theater (USFET) General Order 132 established the Dependent Schools Service (DSS). Six days later, the first military dependents stepped foot into Japan, attending the new school on Johnson Army Base in the fall. The first schools had tuition, ranging from four to eight dollars for most ranks, unlike now. By the end of that year, 43 schools were opened and operating in Germany, Austria, and Japan, benefitting about 1,300 students.

In 1947, the DSS created the Dependents School Detachment (DSD) to help with the organizational side of post-schools. It was around this time that DoDEA requested and successfully received accreditation. Today, every school run by DoDEA remains accredited with the NCA. In 1948, the Army established the Dependents School Division (DSD - again), which replaced the DSS. By 1949, the three major branches (Army, Navy, and Air Force) had almost 100 schools in operation worldwide, and the Department of Defense (DoD) was formed.

Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense in 1964, created the Department of Defense Overseas Dependent School System through the merging of all the schools (across the three branches), dividing them into three geographical regions. Per this order, the schools in Europe would be the responsibility of the Army, the schools in the Pacific Theater would be managed by the Air Force, and the Atlantic Theater would be overseen by the Navy. By 1965, the combined enrollment of dependents of personnel overseas reached around 166,000 students, separated among the now 325 post schools.

Fast forward to 1976, and the Department of Defense assumed the responsibility of the schools, effectively kicking out the military leaders and assigning the new Office of Overseas Dependent Education (OODE) to manage the schools. The Defense Dependents Education Act of 1978 officially provides a free public education system for dependents overseas through the establishment of the Defense Dependents Education System. That same year, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) took over for the OODE. In 1979, they decided to redistribute the original three geographical regions, replacing them with six.

The effects of the Cold War led to the number of DoDDS schools being reduced and merged with the U.S.-based Domestic Dependents Elementary and Secondary Schools, effectively becoming the Department of Defense Education Activity in 1992, or as many know it now, DoDEA. And with this, the regions went back to the original three.

Today, DoDEA schools offer high-quality education for members overseas and in the United States, with students recently scoring 15-23 points higher than the national average on the National Assessment of Education Progress Reading and Mathematics Assessments, according to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. Many DoDEA schools offer a multitude of opportunities uncommon in civilian schools, such as international sports matches, rare languages, and technical classes. Currently, DoDEA operates 160 schools, spanning 11 foreign countries, among other places.

Despite the confusing history, DoDEA remains a crucial part of life for military dependents around the world. Writing this article allowed me to know more about the schools that shaped so much of my life, and I hope you enjoyed learning more about DoDEA’s history, communities, and the decisions that shaped it.


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