BAGHDAD — Amer Abdul Hamid wipes his hands on his filthy overalls, steps back, and admires the brand new paint, glaring white in the afternoon sun, on the walls of the school that his work crew is remodeling.
"This place was a wreck when we arrived two weeks ago," he says proudly. "When the kids come back to school they will walk right past the front gate. They won't recognize it."
But as 7 million Iraqi children and students prepare to start a new school year Wednesday, their shattered education system needs more than a fresh coat of paint. In a top-to-bottom overhaul, teachers, government officials, and American advisers are racing to do everything from hammering together school desks and installing decent toilets to revising textbooks and exploring new methods of teaching.
"This is the beginning of a new era, with a new vision for education," said Education Minister Aladin Alwan, as he opened a teacher-training seminar last week. "We have to rebuild and reorient our education system."
Most of Iraq's schools and colleges have emerged from 13 years of international sanctions and a wave of postwar looting in pitiful shape, stripped of even the simplest teaching aids.
Two generations of underpaid, undermotivated teachers hemmed in by the former Baathist government's ideological restrictions have given their classes a "rigid, shallow, and passive" education, in the words of Leslye Arsht, a US adviser at the Ministry of Education.
The first task has been simply to get Iraq's schools and universities ready to receive students.
At the Al Rawabi school in the Al Mustansria district of Baghdad, where Mr. Hamid's 25-strong crew has been working 15 hours a day since the beginning of the month, that means giving the whole place a complete makeover.
"It hadn't been looted, but it was like all schools in Iraq," Hamid says. "The ceiling was leaking, all the tiles and windows were broken, some of the doors were missing. We've put in new plumbing, new toilets, rewired everywhere, laid new floors in the classrooms, and repainted. It makes me happy to do this kind of work for the kids' future." Shortages of time and money, though, have left most schools untouched.
Only about 1,000 of Iraq's 13,500 schools are getting this sort of treatment, and at Baghdad University, staff are paying from their own pockets to repair broken windows.
At the university's faculty of electrical engineering, the students' first assignment this week will be to clean up their labs and classrooms, coated with thick dust that has blown in through empty window frames, says Nehad al-Rawi, the faculty dean and university vice president.
"They are used to it," he adds. "They've already cleared up tons of broken glass."
Equipping the schools will take longer. As a first step the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is handing out to each of Iraq's 1.5 million secondary school children a blue canvas satchel filled with workbooks, pencils, ballpoint pens, an eraser, a ruler, a protractor and compasses, and a pocket calculator, all loudly emblazoned with the USAID logo.
The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, is equipping primary schools with their basic needs. But universities, where scientific teaching equipment is more expensive, are still waiting for help.
At Baghdad's Al Mustansria University, for example, where much of the campus was looted and burned, the administration has found the money to replace only 200 of the 4,000 computers that were stolen.
"We are looking forward to the donors' conference in Madrid next month," when the United States is hoping to secure reconstruction pledges of $10 billion from foreign governments, says Mohammed al-Ani, the university's vice president.
Equipment is not the top priority, though, for Professor Rawi at Baghdad University, who is focusing his attention instead on arrangements at the main campus entrance.
"My main problem is the main gate because of the security situation. We are afraid of thieves and terrorists," he says, especially after a suitcase bomb was found - and defused - recently at the School of Media Studies.
Rawi and other members of staff regularly receive threatening letters from opponents of the new US-backed authorities, warning of violence. "If you cooperate with the new student union we will declare war in the university against the students and the staff," read one such handwritten, unsigned missive sent to a faculty dean 10 days ago and shown to a reporter.
Security is a concern for schools too. The fear that plagues many parents of small children in Baghdad, where kidnapping is on the rise, means that almost half the girls enrolled were not going to school at the end of last term, according to Carel de Rooy, head of UNICEF's Baghdad office.
"I have told all the parents that if they bring their children to school, they must come and pick them up themselves at the end of classes," says Haelia al-Jenabi, principal of a primary school in the middle class district of Karrada in the capital.
Those kids who do show up will find some things missing from their schoolbooks, mainly the once pervasive portraits of Saddam Hussein.
An Education Ministry committee has been through more than 500 textbooks, excising all references to the former dictator and his Baath party from pictures, poems, texts, and math problems.
"It was a very rapid and superficial revision, given the deadlines," says Mr. de Rooy, whose agency is paying for the printing of new books. These new books are not ideal, but that's the reality today: Kids need to get to school and learn."
Plans are under way for a more profound reform of school curricula by Iraqi experts, he says, "but that is a revolutionary process."
In any case, "it's less about what you are teaching and more about how you are teaching it," insists Ms. Arsht, the American adviser, as she lectures a group of Iraqi teachers gathered in the cavernous ballroom of a Baghdad hotel for a seminar on new instructional methods.
They are the pioneers of a project run by Creative Associates, a US consultancy firm, designed to introduce more student-centered, interactive teaching methods to Iraq, where children have become used to authoritarian teachers making them learn by rote.
"We teach this seminar the way we want the teachers to give classes," says Hind Rassam, an Iraqi-American instructor. "One of them told me she was surprised: We didn't bark at them, we didn't give them orders, we were gentle with them."
That approach appears to have rubbed off on at least some instructors. "I used to think that if a boy didn't come to class day after day I should just have him expelled," explains Khaled Hinaidi, a young teacher from Diwaniyah, a town two hours south of Baghdad. "But maybe there's a reason he is not coming that I should look into, like his parents making him work."
As officials and teachers start the long process of reforming Iraqi education, meanwhile, they are doing so under entirely new leadership, inexperienced in their jobs, after senior Baath Party members were sacked on the orders of Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that runs Iraq.
That edict removed top Education Ministry officials, senior regional bureaucrats, university presidents, and top faculty staff.
But even as he surveys his ruined campus, Al Mustansria University's vice president is hopeful. "We should be able to give our students an education that is 60 or 70 percent of what it ought to be this year," Mr. Ani says. "Under the circumstances, that is acceptable. We are starting from zero."