Amid Iraqi Chaos, Schools Fill After Long Decline

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Jun 26, 2006, 12:26:53 AM6/26/06
June 26, 2006
Amid Iraqi Chaos, Schools Fill After Long Decline
BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 25 — Enrollment in Iraqi schools has risen every year since the American invasion, according to Iraqi government figures, reversing more than a decade of declines and offering evidence of increased prosperity for some Iraqis.
Despite the violence that has plagued Iraq since the American occupation began three years ago, its schools have been quietly filling. The number of children enrolled in schools nationwide rose by 7.4 percent from 2002 to 2005, and in middle schools and high schools by 27 percent in that time, according to figures from the Ministry of Education.
The increase, which has greatly outpaced modest population growth during the same period, is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape of bombs and killings that have shattered community life in many areas in western and central Iraq. And it is seen as an important indicator here in a country that used to pride itself on its education system, then saw enrollment and literacy fall during the later years of Saddam Hussein's rule.
Sorrows seep into the classrooms. During a chemistry exam at Hariri High School in Baghdad on Thursday morning, a random sample of students turned up one whose father had been killed three days before, another whose uncle had been killed in an American-led raid and yet another whose family was leaving Iraq for good once she finished. The official who helped prepare the statistics for this article was assassinated this month.
But while life in Baghdad grows more paralyzed — it was the only province in the country where primary school enrollment fell — the figures for the rest of Iraq show that everyday life goes on, particularly in the largely peaceful south, which experienced the biggest jumps, with some regions having above 40 percent enrollment increases since 2002.
"There is a considerable increase in the number of students," said Majid al-Sudanie, an official in the Education Directorate in Najaf. "This province needs more than 400 schools to accommodate the growing number of students."
It is a complex phenomenon. Increases in some places, for example, are being driven by bad news: among the highest increases in secondary and high school enrollment were in provinces that have received families who are fleeing the violence of Baghdad and its dangerous outskirts, including Babylon, with a 44 percent enrollment rise; Najaf, with 35 percent; and Kirkuk, 37 percent.
But the growth is too broad to be explained only by migration patterns. According to American government estimates, Iraq's population grew by about 8 percent to 26 million from 2002 to 2005.
Even in provinces that have experienced population declines, for example, school enrollment is still up. In Anbar — the large desert province in western Iraq, where insurgents regularly battle American soldiers, causing residents to flee — enrollment in primary school is up by 15 percent, and in secondary and high school it is up by 37 percent.
Economics is driving much of the rise, officials say. Public sector employees, who make up almost half the work force in Iraq, according to the Ministry of Planning, used to collect the equivalent of several dollars every month under Mr. Hussein. But since the American invasion, Iraq's oil revenue has been earmarked for salaries instead of wars, and millions of Iraqis — doctors, engineers, teachers, soldiers — began to earn several hundred dollars a month.
Income from oil covers more than 90 percent of the Iraqi government's spending, officials say. American money finances investment and reconstruction projects, but no current costs, like salaries.
"Fathers can provide food for their families," said Abdul Zahra al-Yasiri, a teacher in Karbala in southern Iraq. "Kids don't have to work to help their parents anymore."
While some parents have held their children out of schools at times because of safety concerns, especially in parts of Baghdad, direct attacks on schools have been relatively rare, allowing the school year to continue without major interruption in some parts of the country.
The largest change among Iraq's approximately five million schoolchildren was in secondary schools and high schools, the equivalent of 7th through 12th grade in Iraq, where numbers of enrolled students rose to 1.4 million in 2005 from 1.1 million in 2002.
Primary school enrollment rose to 3.7 million from 3.5 million. The numbers do not include the students in the northern Kurdish region, which is administratively separate.
High school enrollment increased more for girls than for boys, while boys made bigger gains in primary school — in Iraq, first grade through sixth grade.
In many ways, the increase is a measure of how far Iraq had fallen. Iraq was one of the most educated countries in the Middle East in the 1970's. Many Iraqis traveled abroad to study or took part in state-sponsored exchange programs. Literacy rates were relatively high.
But enrollment began to fall significantly in the 1980's, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and only worsened during the period of international economic penalties that were imposed after Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
By 2000, only 33 percent of all high-school-aged Iraqis were enrolled in school, compared with 75 percent in Jordan, according to Unesco figures published in a 2004 report by the Ministry of Education. The overall enrollment rate appears to have risen since then, according to the best estimates available. Unicef estimated that in 2004, about 50 percent of all school-age Iraqi boys and 35 percent of school-age girls were enrolled.
Teachers and administrators interviewed in four Iraqi cities said their classrooms were more full than they had ever been — a continuation of a pattern they began to see just months after the American invasion in 2003, when class sizes began swelling again.
"We emptied the storage rooms and use them as classes," said Raya Faid Allah, a primary school teacher in Mosul, who said some classes had reached 75 students, more than double the normal size. "I am afraid that next year we will have to use the teachers' room and the principal's room."
The increase has pointed out many of the infrastructure problems that plague the country. Hussein al-Rifaii, a former high school teacher and political prisoner under Mr. Hussein who is now the general director of schools in eastern Baghdad, said
the country needed approximately 5,000 new schools, an increase of almost 50 percent. The schools that exist are in need of repair. Only 20 percent of schools in central and southern Iraq had working toilets, the ministry report said. A quarter had trash bins.
The enrollment figures are encouraging, but also describe the chaos of the war. The southern provinces with the highest flows of Iraqis fleeing violence have the largest rises, while Diyala, a province to the north of Baghdad that has been nearly as violent as the capital, registered the second-lowest rise in primary school enrollment growth, after Baghdad.
The ministry administered about double the number of early examinations in 2006 compared with 2005, as more students changed schools because their families moved.
Even the bookkeeping told a story. The Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq was included in figures the first year after the invasion, but later dropped, as if in an acknowledgment, at least in the bureaucracy, of the area's relative autonomy.
Much of the decline in the education system that happened in the last years of Mr. Hussein's government came as a result of an economic downturn during the era of international penalties on Iraq. As the country grew poorer in the 1990's, the numbers of working children went up. More than 10 percent of Iraqi children from 5 to 14 years old were working in 2000, according to the ministry report. As a result, Iraqis are less literate than they were 20 years ago, after literacy campaigns had increased rates substantially.
Ms. Allah, who teaches in a poor area in central Mosul, said a recent survey in her school showed that about a quarter of the parents of first graders could not read or write.
Those families, she said, are trying harder to keep their children in school, in part because civil service jobs that require diplomas are paying higher salaries.
"Families are insisting their kids should finish their studies, even if they are failing or exhausted," Ms. Allah said. She recalled a father "coming in to school and making trouble" to reinstate his wayward sixth grader who had been suspended.
"We didn't see this before," said Ms. Allah, who has taught in Mosul for 25 years.
The provinces that had the highest rates of child labor — Babylon, Maysan, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Wasit — registered some of the largest increases in enrollment since 2002.
Even adults who never finished school are going back for degrees, teachers said. Those students are not reflected in the ministry figures, but their presence is obvious in the school system. In the Almu Tamaizat high school in Adhamiya, in central Baghdad, women in dresses and hijabs sat at small desks writing answers to final exam questions.
A 35-year-old with a pierced nose and a hijab emerged from the exam smiling broadly. She did not appear to feel shy standing in a hallway littered with pink Barbie pencil cases and child-size rhinestone studded backpacks.
"I work in the Housing Ministry," she said, her hand on her hip. "I want progress in Iraq."
Sahar Nageeb contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Mosul, Karbala and Najaf.

Get back on track - out of Iraq!
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