Iraqis wary as school year starts

Six million students are expected to begin school Saturday in a key test of security.

Khadija Ali Mijaual plans to greet children and parents at the front gate of the Nejib Pasha elementary school this Saturday, just as she has done every first day of school for the past 17 years she's been principal.

Along with her optimism for the learning she anticipates in the school's whitewashed classrooms, this year she'll be holding her breath: How many parents, given Baghdad's uncertain climate, will keep their children at home?

"I've worked hard to make the school extra inviting and attractive this year, and the teachers will be here ready to teach," says Mrs. Mijaual. "But the reports I'm getting tell me maybe half the children won't come, at least not in the beginning. Parents are just too afraid."

Much is being made of January elections as the critical hurdle the new regime must clear to prove its utility. But this week another crucial test confronts the interim government, as it opens schools Saturday to 6 million students.

In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is under 25, the question on parents' minds is whether the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi - which many believe is so far failing to assure general security - can keep the children safe.

"It's really like an early trial of what the elections will be," says Sadoun Al-Dulame, executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "If the government can't protect the schools from the violent groups, how can they hope to guarantee elections?"

Citing heightened security concerns, the three-month-old interim government already put off the traditional early September opening of schools. But if anything, the past month, with its increased bombings, kidnappings, and insurgent activity, only heightened the public's doubts and placed an even heavier burden on the government.

Barometer for a new Iraq

The role of elections and "the demo- cratic process" in building a new Iraq is important, but for many Iraqis it's the more tangible daily measures of well-being that determine their feelings about this new political direction, some experts say. Chief among those close-to-the-heart barometers are schools.

"Not everyone thinks about democracy when they evaluate whether this dramatic change we've undergone is worth it," says Riyadh Aziz Hadi, dean of the College of Political Sciences at Baghdad University. "I might put it at the top of my list, but for many people it's jobs and the schools that count," he says.

The terrible events in Beslan, Russia, earlier this month - where Chechen separatist terrorists attacked a primary school, killing hundreds of children - are also in the back of people's minds, if not on the tip of their tongues. "How can I send my children to school when our situation is not so different from what struck those poor Russian people?" asked a mother recently on a Baghdad call-in radio show.

Most Iraqis say they are confident such a tragedy could never occur here, but some add that they never thought such tactics as suicide bombings would ever be used here, either.

Parents on edge

The nervousness has one man, who is building a new house near the Nejib Pasha school, insisting he will keep his children home this year. "Better to lose a year of school than lose their life," says the father of three school-aged children, who requested that his name not be used.

Other parents say that even with the turmoil they will send their children to school for a simple reason. "Without it they can't have a good life," says Ali Hussain Mohamed, as he makes last-minute arrangements for son Yassir and daughter Hiba at the Al Waziriyah elementary school.

"Their 12-year-old brother will walk with them and God willing they will be safe," says Mr. Mohamed, a guard who works at a house opposite the nearby Italian Embassy. "But I do know the dangers," he adds, "because I myself have been shot at in attacks on the embassy."

Better schools

Still, Mohamed says he is more interested in questions he has about the schools: Are there sufficient materials to help the children learn, do the schools have modern equipment like computers to help his children prepare successfully for the future?

"Their education already improved last year because teachers received higher salaries," he says. "There were fewer bribes and teachers were able to focus more on teaching."

Indeed, education officials cite dramatically improved teacher salaries as one of the major accomplishments of the postwar period. A primary school teacher who made 3,000 dinars a month before the war now makes 240,000 - about $165.

Other improvements include new textbooks in some subjects and grade levels, new teacher-training programs, dropout outreach, and accelerated learning for gifted students - some of which are programs either initiated or partly funded by the US Agency for International Development.

"The new atmosphere in our schools can be seen in the reform of religion classes," says Majeed al-Alaq, director general of education for the Education Ministry. "Before there was only mention of Islam, but now these classes include learning respect for other religions."

All schools will have sufficient guards to ensure security, Dr. Alaq says, but clearly his preference is to focus on the new direction of Iraq's schools. "We are doing new things to retain children who are falling behind, and we are trying new ideas to bring back small children who have left school."

Every city in Iraq is under orders to open at least one center to teach reading and math to 10 to 14 year olds who have dropped out of school. This program alone could bring as many as 500,000 children back to school. "Many of these children are the breadwinners of their families, so we have to come up with ideas like evening classes to reach as many children as possible," Alaq says.

Toward a stable Iraq

As important as all these new programs are, Alaq says the schools have a function that transcends textbooks and test scores - they are a crucial building block in a stable and just Iraq. "When people see children going to school, they will be relieved and feel more confident that we as Iraqis are moving forward," he says. "People will see better schools and feel we are building a better country."

That view is echoed by many of Iraq's teachers. Shaimaa Said, an English teacher at a Baghdad commercial high school for girls, talks enthusiastically about a new program she and other teachers developed - and which the ministry approved - that will involve a longer school day and more classroom time.

"Before if you had an idea no one would take it under consideration, but now we feel there are people higher up who are listening and who want to get new ideas," says the young woman beginning her sixth year of teaching.

With Iraq's coed universities under threat from Islamic extremists promising attacks if the sexes aren't separated, Ms. Said says that at least single-sex high schools don't have to worry about that. But she doubts her students would be put off by the uncertain security climate anyway, she says. "They see a diploma as a ticket to a better future."

Faith in education

It's that faith in education that has Aruba Aziz Jassim predicting a successful opening day of school. "People know things are changing, and they don't want their children missing out," says the elementary school teacher from the Shiite city of Karbala, who is one of about 12,000 teachers back in the classrooms after being dismissed under Saddam Hussein for religious or political reasons.

Reviewing her new Baghdad teaching assignment, Mrs. Jassim - herself veiled in black, but with a young daughter in a Queen Barbie T-shirt in tow - says positive changes in the schools are an encouraging sign to Iraqis.

"People won't give up their schools, no matter what they are facing," she says. "Security is one thing, but when it concerns children Iraqis are a strong people."

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