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Published in Print: October 13, 2004, as With Election as Backdrop, Afghan Children Go Back to School

With Election as Backdrop, Afghan Children Go Back to School

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On the brink of the first direct presidential election in Afghanistan’s history, some 4.5 million Afghan children had returned to school, despite crude facilities, poorly trained teachers, a lack of basic supplies, and growing security concerns.

Efforts to rebuild the country’s school system—including more than 5,000 school buildings that are in need of repair or replacement—have been slowly, but steadily, marching forward, observers say. Reconstruction since a U.S.-led coalition toppled the extremist regime harboring Osama bin Laden in 2001 is boosted by strong community support and millions of dollars in aid from international organizations and the U.S. government.

But in a country that prided itself on its public education system before the rise to power of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, progress has not kept pace with an intense desire for schooling among children and their parents, according to some consultants there.

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“The students are sitting on the floor or under the trees, but they are really happy to come to school,” said Keiko Miwa, an education specialist for the World Bank in Kabul. “The same with the teachers. They are getting paid, but not on time, … but they are still coming to school and teaching the best way they can.”

Outside Funding

The World Bank has dedicated more than $36 million in loans and grants to help the Afghan Ministry of Education draft a systematic plan for strengthening the agency, and to subsidize the work in local communities to build facilities and purchase school supplies. The U. S. government promised $60 million to help build 1,000 schools and train more than 30,000 teachers, enterprises that are still under way.

In addition, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has provided millions of dollars and technical assistance for shoring up management skills in the ministry, as well as for curriculum reform and textbook development.

In many places, the local school is little more than a tent, a rented house, or a bare, decrepit building. Students are often crammed into makeshift classrooms, seated on cold concrete, with few school supplies, according to Thomas E. Gouttierre, the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“There are not enough schools, they are very crowded because of the large number of students that arrived at school, and not all of [the buildings] have been repaired. There is a lot of need for infrastructure,” he said. “But on a comparative basis, education is clearly the most successful venture yet.”

Dangers Present

The war-ravaged country has instituted a new national curriculum and is in the process of publishing related textbooks and teachers’ manuals. Work is also going on to provide more support and training for teachers, many of whom have only a primary school education themselves. Teachers College, Columbia University, has been instrumental in both of those areas; it returned to the country last year, a quarter-century after it had abandoned its educational assistance efforts there in the midst of a Soviet-backed coup. ("U.S. Institutions Help Shape Education in Islamic World," May 28, 2003.

“This is not going to be an easy transition,” said Barry Rosen, who is heading the Teachers College project in Kabul. “We need time to develop both a new curriculum and a teacher corps.”

“It will take years,” he added.

At many sites, however, the teachers’ skills or the condition of the schools are of less con sequence than the risk to children who attend them. Several weeks ago, 10 people, including nine pupils, were killed in a bombing at a school in the Paktia province in southeastern Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had financed an accelerated-learning program at the school.

Other projects underwritten by the aid agency, including education-related ones, have been the targets of increasing violence. Between August 2003 and August 2004, the number of hostile attacks on USAID reconstruction activities rose from almost none to more than 60 a month, the agency reported.

Growing violence, in some places fueled by warlords angling for local control, forced Teachers College representatives to postpone field-testing of the textbooks until after the elections that were scheduled for Oct. 9.

“The situation here is not easy, but there are many, many children wanting to go to school,” Mr. Rosen said. “Schools are targeted in many places, … but I think education is on top of the agenda.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Vol. 24, Issue 07, Page 6-7

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