Once Classroom of Mideast, Lebanon Struggles to Teach

Before Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, the country's education system was the envy of the Arab world.

Its top-notch universities attracted students from across the Middle East, and its cosmopolitan capital, Beirut, had a well-educated pool of graduates to teach in its secondary schools. Classrooms were teeming with ideas and enthusiasm.

Today, Lebanese officials are struggling to put what remains of their once-stellar education system back on track. Years of war and neglect have left government-run schools in shambles, and poor pay has decimated the ranks of qualified teachers.

"You had to be crazy to teach during the war," recalls Adel Hajjar, who teaches French at a public school. "The students used to threaten us with guns if they did not like their grades."

Many teachers have been on strike in recent weeks over pay. And, due to a severe economic crisis spurred on by uncertainty over peace prospects in the Middle East, the Lebanese parliament was forced to scale back an ambitious $180-million project to build new schools earlier this year.

Despite these setbacks, Education Ministry officials are still actively pursuing a foreign-sponsored proposal to revive public education called PARSEL, which now awaits approval for funding by the World Bank. The program has the backing of several United Nations groups.

"A major investment project has been under study to build new schools and add classrooms throughout the country," says Nicholas Al-Jammal, acting general director of Lebanon's Education Ministry.

Despite the official optimism, one university professor involved with the project, who asked not to be identified, was extremely critical of the World Bank: "They seem to be more interested in approving credits for new roads and buildings than for spending money on children."

Others, like Mohammed Barakat, director of Dar al Aytam, an Islamic charitable organization, complain that such highly touted proposals for public education do not have the enthusiastic backing of the government anyway.

"Governments in Lebanon, since independence in 1943, have always favored private school education over public education," he says. "Lebanon's 17 different religious groups all want to run their own schools with their own curriculum."

Last year, private schools taught slightly more than 70 percent of Lebanon's secondary school students, and tuition in those schools varied in cost from just under $1,000 to more than $5,000 a year.

Tuition hikes of up to 20 percent in 1996-97 at many of Lebanon's private schools have forced a growing number of pupils toward public education. But the dilapidated public schools have not been able to absorb them all.

LIKE a great number of children, 12-year-old Samir Ghantous, who has always been an "A" student, was pulled out of private school this year because his parents could not afford the tuition. Samir was eventually enrolled in a public school. But even there, enrollment is not free.

Public schools cost $150 a year on average for administrative fees and at least another $200 for books. Local newspapers reported an almost 20 percent drop in school enrollment across the board when most Lebanese schools opened their doors at the end of September.

For Lebanese families, the decision to pull their children out of school is often painful. "I know three families that had no choice but to remove their children from school," says George Atallah, a teacher in Beirut public schools for 25 years. "It was a choice of paying for food or paying for tuition."

Nongovernmental organizations - including the the Roman Catholic charity Caritas and the independent Beirut-based Organization for Mother and Child - are trying to step in to help such families.

"We would like to help more families send their children to school," says Hoda Barbier of Mother and Child. "But our resources are severely strained this year."

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