The Way Forward: New Faces, Renovations for Kwajalein Schools

By Jessica DambruchAugust 13, 2021

Kwajalein School System Head of School Paul Uhren, center, leads parents and students in the Pledge of Allegiance during the November 2020 Kwajalein School System Veterans Day Ceremony at the Davye Davis Multi-Purpose Room on U.S. Army...
Kwajalein School System Head of School Paul Uhren, center, leads parents and students in the Pledge of Allegiance during the November 2020 Kwajalein School System Veterans Day Ceremony at the Davye Davis Multi-Purpose Room on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll. (Photo Credit: Jessica Dambruch) VIEW ORIGINAL

New faces, upgrades to facilities and a series of renovations are just a few of the changes island students will encounter on their first day of school Aug. 11.

Both George Seitz Elementary School and Kwajalein High School have received telecommunications upgrades, new classroom furniture and fixtures. During recess this year, GSES students will climb on playground equipment installed after a schoolwide consensus was reached. A complete renovation of the high school science labs is nearly complete.

Most notably, the school community has changed. New staff are on their way. The newest members of the Ri-Katak student body will join Carrie Corley’s kindergarten class. Some new students will transition back to in-person instruction after months of stateside virtual learning.

For the Pugsley family, the back-to-school season is especially meaningful this year.

“My daughter was out for spring break when COVID hit. She was in first grade, and she hasn’t spent a day in the classroom since,” wrote USAG-KA Commander Col. Thomas Pugsley, a father of two school-aged children. “That was 18 months ago.”

Though Pugsley’s spouse, Shawna Hughes, stepped up to help facilitate their children’s education, their daughter, Elena, now entering third grade, looks forward to attending classes in the island’s one-of-a-kind school system.

School on Kwajalein

Since its opening in 1956 as a Navy Overseas Dependent School, the Kwajalein School System has remained unique among military education sites as the world’s only private, U.S. government-owned school on a U.S. military installation. KSS is currently managed through Amentum-DynCorp International’s contract with the U.S. government. Its staff remain steadfast in their commitment to student learning.

The contractual agreement for the school aligns its programs closely with DODEA standards—the Department of Defense Education Activity that coordinates K-12 education for the DOD—and ensures a transition for students entering stateside schools with few gaps, according to KSS Head of School, Paul Uhren.

KSS secures internationally recognized accreditation for its diploma through Cognia, a non-governmental organization that certifies primary and secondary schools around the world, and by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. A graduating senior has only to apply to the school of their choice, and their diploma will be recognized as valid.

“That diploma assures the colleges our requirements meet specific standards, which makes the students eligible to apply for admission,” said Uhren. “The students are exposed to the American curriculum while living in the Marshallese culture. Hopefully for them it is the best of both worlds.”

As head of school, Uhren finds his greatest rewards in coordinating learning opportunities for students with the island’s school team. He thinks big in the island’s small town: Anything can pose a student enrichment opportunity.

Changing Faces at KSS

In the coming weeks, two new English teachers will join the school team. Current openings in science and high school counseling will be fulfilled by existing staff until new educators have arrived. Though the faces of school staff may change, it remains steadfast in its mission of student support, said Uhren.

“Every year there is some change in staffing,” he said. “With change comes new ideas to enhance the learning of all. I am excited about our new staff who are joining the Kwajalein School.”

Pugsley acknowledges the logistical challenges of staffing at a distance during the pandemic. He reassures parents that their students will have the support and resources they need.

“We continually strive to provide the best school services possible for the entire team and to look for new and innovative ways to better align with the needs of the community,” said Pugsley, of the search for staff. “Being as isolated as we are, here, it is sometime difficult to fill critical positions within the schools, Child and Youth Services or the Child Development Center, but we expect the Amentum-DI team to work tirelessly to ensure we are providing the best level of service possible.”

To do so, some teachers will assume new roles. This year, KSS announced incoming KHS Principal Matthew Gerber, who has pursued his dream to work as a school administrator on Kwajalein for more than a decade.

“This opportunity is the reason I pursued school administration from the beginning,” said Gerber, who has also worked as an associate principal in Lincoln, Nebraska. He once told a previous employer he was loyal to their school “unless Kwajalein sends a helicopter for me.’”

Gerber will continue teaching science courses until a new instructor arrives. He expressed deep gratitude to be able to serve the community as an administrator and use the full range of his skills. He appreciates the strong community school support and the chance to continue nurturing the talented student body.

“We really get to invest in kids here and hope to see them reach their goals and dreams,” he said.

Knowing education is a team effort, Gerber extends heartfelt gratitude to all of the KSS educators who have preceded him.

“Things are always changing and sometimes those changes are not as predictable as we would like,” he said. “There are so many valuable people who have built this school into what it is, and I recognize the efforts of others who have come before me. I certainly intend to support students as well as possible amidst any changes. There are new teachers coming on board who are going to do amazing things and we will always want to recognize that those who have impacted our students and community can never be fully replaced in the same way.”

Gerber is enthusiastic for classes to begin and to work with the school team.

“There are many things that get me excited about the upcoming school year—the greatest one being the quality of our students,” said Gerber. “In terms of working with the team, I think we are all in this together. … I truly hope to make this the most positive place to teach in, as well as an engaging place to learn. I look forward to building toward that goal every day with our team.”

Anyone committed to facilitating a supportive educational experience for the island’s students could also have a fascinating reading list. What books might Gerber—whose own science classes conducted STEM workshops for younger children and publish their coral research online—recommend to young people?

The answer might surprise you: “Many kids read a ton, but a lot of the content is online. I highly encourage students to unplug and grab any book they are interested in and to engage in content online that will inform them and benefit them in some way.”

Welcome Back to School

For students and parents alike, a new school year presents a clean slate and a chance to grow and explore. As a father, Soldier and former professor himself, Pugsley embraces the qualitative change Kwaj life offers for his family in their new island home.

“Change is always difficult: uncomfortable, even,” he said. “It’s in our nature to be wary of it, but it is also a necessity if we are to improve. Thus, change should be looked at as an opportunity and not always considered in a negative light.”

As students and parents on Ebeye and Kwajalein get ready to start the year, Gerber has a welcome message for them:

“We are so thankful and blessed to serve your family and students at our school. When parents send their kids to us, they are entrusting us with the most valuable things in this world, and we take that seriously. We truly hope your student’s story is an incredibly positive one and launches forward.”

Recent Changes at KSS

Keep an eye out for the exciting new changes in the Kwajalein School Systems facilities. At George Seitz Elementary School, recently completed projects include new playground equipment and new flooring in the K-6 school building. The last big renovation at KHS included the complete overhaul of the library. Currently, both science labs are being refurbished. Improvements are coming soon to the Home Economics classroom, and it would be impossible to miss the new PA system at the KHS Davye-Davis Multi-Purpose Room.

Upcoming Activities

This year, get ready for all the usual great events—and a few new surprises—including band concerts; themed career events for trade, college and military; the George Seitz Elementary School STEM fair; Ri-Katak Exchange Student Visit Day; and of course, Manit Day.

Here’s How to Get Involved

KSS encourages parents to be active in their child’s education in each grade level. Among the array of opportunities available are participation at School Advisory Council meetings; volunteering at schoolwide activities or with the Parent Teacher Organization; sponsoring Marshallese students and parents for school functions; and sharing valuable expertise and skill at classroom job talks and school career fairs.

For more information, contact George Seitz Elementary School at 805-355-3601 and Kwajalein High School at 805-355-2011.