School Climate & Safety

Violence Confines U.S. Education Dept. Employees in Iraq

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 21, 2004 5 min read
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Two U.S. Department of Education employees have been detailed to Iraq’s education team, but their work has been inhibited while they are holed up for safety reasons.

Stephanie Stoll Dalton, who is on leave from heading a teacher-quality-grants program in the Education Department’s office of postsecondary education, said last week that “because of the circumstances lately,” she was restricted to the Green Zone in Baghdad. That 4-square-mile zone, the location of the U.S.- led Coalition Provisional Authority’s headquarters, is partly surrounded by walls topped with razor wire and has extra military protection.

When Ms. Dalton, a longtime teacher-trainer, arrived in Baghdad toward the end of last month, she was free to leave the special zone, where she sleeps in a trailer and eats institutionalized American meals such as Sloppy Joes and meatloaf inside former President Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace. But last week, as clashes between coalition forces and their foes continued, she was told to sit tight unless there was a “mission critical” reason to leave.

“We can’t get out and aren’t able to visit schools,” Ms. Dalton said. “Hopefully, that will change.”

Chelton “Todd” Givens, a financial auditor for the Education Department inspector general’s office, called the confinement to the Green Zone “obviously limiting.” He said in an e-mail message that “face-to-face communication and interaction is obviously preferred, and even that can be difficult at times because you have to work through an interpreter.”

None of the buildings that house Iraq’s Ministry of Education is located inside the Green Zone. One is close enough to the zone that members of the provisional authority’s team can visit without much risk, said Leslye A. Arsht, who has been a senior education adviser for the provisional authority in Iraq since July.

In Iraq, Ms. Dalton is a coach on student-centered teaching methods for teacher-trainers in the Education Ministry. Mr. Givens, who arrived in Baghdad March 17, is helping the ministry set up an inspector general’s office.

First on Team

Ms. Dalton and Mr. Givens are the first employees of the Education Department to be assigned to work on the education team of the provisional authority in Iraq.

Another department official, Dallas B. Lawrence, has been working for the coalition since early January, but in a different capacity. Back in Washington, Mr. Lawrence is the Education Department’s director of congressional communications. In Baghdad, he is the press officer for the ministries of Education, Higher Education, and Electricity for the provisional authority.

All three volunteered to spend six months in the country and are being paid by the Education Department while there. All said last week, however, that they expect to return to the United States soon after June 30, when the coalition plans to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis.

President Bush emphasized in a televised speech and press conference last week that he intends to stick with that deadline, despite the recent increase in violence.

In Baghdad and other Iraqi cities last week, coalition troops continued to fight insurgents. News reports indicated that threats to the safety of Americans and other foreigners in the country had escalated. Insurgents were holding foreigners as captives and demanding the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq. An Italian hostage and an Iranian diplomat were killed last week, and six American contractors were missing after an attack on a truck convoy, and a seventh had been taken hostage.

Ms. Dalton, speaking by telephone from Baghdad, and Mr. Givens, communicating through e-mail, said on occasion they hear noise from gunfire, rocket- propelled grenades, and mortars. Ms. Dalton said mortar shells sometimes land within the Green Zone.

“You can’t work here and not think about personal safety,” wrote Mr. Givens. “Loud, unexpected noises almost always cause a slight momentary pause in meetings/discussions. The moment after a rocket/mortar attack, people are checking to see if their colleagues are OK.”

Both U.S. education officials said they wanted to go to Iraq to do whatever they could to help the educators there. They said they are impressed with Iraqis’ drive to improve their schools.

“They are very impressive because they are so energized and knowledgeable,” Ms. Dalton said. “The people whom I work with are highly educated. They are hungry to learn what is happening in other countries.”

‘Not a Substitute’

Because her movements are restricted, Ms. Dalton said, Iraqi teacher-trainers and principals have been visiting the Green Zone to meet with her. She said their questions are similar to those of American educators: They’re concerned about how to manage classrooms, make sure learning goals are met, and get all students in a classroom to participate.

Ms. Dalton said she’s eager to observe in Iraqi schools. “Without visiting classrooms, it’s difficult to have a sense of the teaching and learning interface and how that works in this culture,” she said. “People can talk about it, and that’s helpful. But that’s not a substitute for being there.”

While Ms. Dalton and Mr. Givens were still getting adjusted to life in Baghdad last week, Ms. Arsht was traveling back to the United States.

The previous deputy senior adviser for the provisional authority, Pamela Riley, is now heading up the education team.

Besides Ms. Riley and the two Education Department officials, the education team includes four others: Fuad Hussein, a native of Iraq who has lived in the Netherlands and supervised Iraqis in editing students’ textbooks last summer; Julia Bergman, who resigned as a 10th grade world history teacher at Brooke Point High School in Stafford, Va., to help Iraqis with teacher training; Omar Altalib, a native of Iraq who just defended his doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago and is serving as an education specialist; and Lt. Laura Ropelis, who is coordinating education efforts with the U.S. military. Lt. Ropelis is expected to be stationed in Iraq through May 2005, but the other team members are expected to leave when the Iraqis gain sovereignty, according to Ms. Arsht.

On April 3, the provisional authority officially recognized the Iraqi Education Ministry as autonomous. (“Iraq Gets Approval to Control Destiny of School System,” April 14, 2004.)

Speaking by telephone from Amman, Jordan, on her trip back to the United States last week, Ms. Arsht reflected on her nine months in Iraq.

What really strikes her, she said, is how much progress the Education Ministry made during her stay. “I could not have imagined in July the level of civil discussion that occurred at the end of March around the curriculum-reform conference that was held in Baghdad,” she said.

Ms. Arsht said she didn’t think last week’s restrictions had hampered the work of the education team—and certainly not that of the Education Ministry, which is able to carry on without the team’s assistance.

“Because there have been these insurgency outbreaks, there has been some pulling in,” she said. “A few days where a safety precaution is put into effect is not going to have a long-term effect.”

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