- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

BAGHDAD - Iraq sought $3.2 billion to rebuild its education system at an international donors conference in 2003 and hopes to build 4,500 schools in the next four years, but officials say existing schools still need repairs.

The Shalaw Abuchon high school in central Baghdad is a crumbling heap of mortar, but students and teachers have no alternative. In one classroom, electrical wires dangle from a pockmarked wall like snakes ready to strike.

As the school prepares to begin its next year, paint peels in sheets on the back wall, and the door lacks a handle. In the hallway, powdery white dust covers the floor where plaster has rained from the ceiling. Shards of glass jut from a shattered window on the landing of the stairway to the second floor.

Eman Fadhel, 27, the school’s deputy principal, says the plumbing has been destroyed. She buys water on the street with her own money so the janitors can clean.

“We have become accustomed to this,” she said. “The students must learn, so the teachers must manage, somehow, but we need help.”

More than two years after the U.S.-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein, the successor government is struggling to rehabilitate dilapidated schools and restructure Iraq’s education system. Teachers and students must adapt to a society that is trying to become a democracy.

The Education Ministry reports that 80 percent of Iraq’s 14,924 schools need repairs and about 40 percent need major rehabilitation.

In the 10 months ending in March 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) donated $35 million to repair schools and provide supplies in central Iraq. Part of the money was earmarked for 1,560 of the 1,700 schools in Baghdad.

Usama Yassen, 27, a middle school math teacher and deputy principal, said a Lebanese construction firm was hired to repair his school, but he thinks the changes are only cosmetic.

“They painted the walls, but did little else,” Mr. Yassen said. “The work and the materials were shoddy.”

Naeim Saleh, deputy principal at Ali Hassan al-Sahde high school in Baghdad, said contractors spent one day building a wall outside the school and painting inside. “They came in and looked around, returned the next day to work, and then left,” Mr. Saleh said.

Iraqi teachers and students say the distribution of school supplies was as slapdash as the repairs. Schools in Baghdad were given $750 each last year from USAID for notebooks, book bags, pens and chalk, but many of these soon appeared on the black market.

Hatham Kadam, 31, owns a small kiosk in Baghdad’s central market, where merchants line either side of a long, narrow corridor under a high roof. He said he doesn’t like to sell USAID war-relief goods but often has no choice. “My supplier mixes them up with the regular items, so I have to buy them if I want to restock my shop,” Mr. Kadam said.

Mr. Yassen, whose students are mostly Shi’ite Muslims, thinks corruption is the primary source behind illicit sales of school supplies. “I went to the warehouse and could gather only enough for a little more than half the 1,200 students at my school,” he said. “The warehouse was nearly empty, but the black market is filled with them.”

Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, the main supporters of Saddam, refuse help offered by the United States.

Ghassan Abdulheed, 30, an English teacher at a predominately Sunni high school in the capital, said the parents of most of his students refuse to accept American supplies because of their opposition to the U.S. government, so his school sells them.

“Many parents feel they are doing something against Islam by accepting supplies with the USAID mark on them,” Mr. Abdulheed said. “The headmaster spends money from the sale of U.S. classroom supplies on improvements for the school.”

Miss Fadhel said her high school has not received any money for repairs or supplies in the past two years.

Iraq’s school system is coping with unprecedented social changes amid the rebuilding. The Education Ministry has introduced a policy of freedom of thought and expression, tolerance and national unity in schools. Kadhim G. Madhi, a director-general in the ministry, said the first step in applying this perspective in Iraqi education begins with retraining teachers.

“We must shift the teachers’ mind away from their ways of thinking before the war,” said Mr. Madhi, who earned a doctorate in education at the University of Wales. “Today they must emphasize human rights, democracy, and promote open and diverse thinking.”

It may prove easier for teachers to change their attitudes than to refuse bribes. The new government has raised average monthly teacher salaries from $2 to $100, but most still need to find additional income.

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, many parents paid teachers to tutor their children at home and to provide questions and answers before exams. A teacher tutoring a student from a wealthy family in the final year of school could earn up to $175 in one year.

Mr. Abdulheed said he has never had to accept a bribe because he earns three times his teaching salary, roughly $300 per month, working as a barber after school hours. He says many of his colleagues still take bribes.

“It’s not acceptable anymore, but some teachers do not have another job, so they need to supplement their salary,” Mr. Abdulheed said.

Iraqi students are experiencing equal difficulties in their transition after the war.

Mr. Saleh said student behavior is more of a problem as the youngsters adjust to freedom. “Teachers suffered a lot of abuse from students during the first year after the war,” he said. “They believe discipline is weak and there are no restrictions on them.”

Essam Mohammed Swadee, 16, a student in Fida’a Middle School, said teachers have lost the upper hand when dealing with students since Saddam and his Ba’ath Party fell from power.

“The teachers are more liberal now,” he said. “They fear students will accuse them of supporting the insurgents and opposing democracy if they are too strict.”

The Education Ministry and the United Nations Children’s Fund said in a joint report last year that Iraq will have more than 10 million school-age children by 2015.

Mr. Madhi is optimistic that the school system can be rebuilt to prepare the next generations of Iraqis for the future.

“We are living in a new era now,” he said. “Anything is possible.”

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