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Population, Politics Grip Schools

Algerian teacher's sixth-grade class avoids ideological turmoil invading upper grades

AT first glance, there is nothing about Dalila Zait to suggest she is a veteran in the battle to educate the children of the world's developing countries.

Yet at just 28, Ms. Zait can already claim to have done her part: The dark brunette with shining eyes and a quick smile has been teaching up to 40 elementary-school children every day, six days a week, for 10 years here.

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"The important thing is to be able to arrive every morning knowing you are doing your best to help each child become someone with his place in the world," says Zait. "When I see my pupils and how they are doing, I have a tranquil conscience."

In her sixth-grade classroom, Zait adds energy to that tranquility. On a recent morning, she guided the 35 children present through two hours that started with Arabic grammar, continued through reading, and culminated in Islamic education - without once taking a seat. Except when writing furiously on the room's triptych-style blackboard, she never took her eyes off her students.

And they returned her evident enthusiasm in kind. Eager to respond to questions or read aloud, hands raised and fingers wriggling like fish freshly out of water, the children, when called on, would quickly stand at attention, hands behind their backs. Broad smiles of satisfaction followed commendations for a paragraph well read or an answer correctly given.

Later, as the children read silently from textbooks, Zait tacked up a chart, stuck to the back of a 1991 calendar, featuring photos of the 22 students who had good grades in the first quarter. "It's to encourage everybody in the second quarter," she whispered, double-checking that the chart was straight. "Even those who didn't make it will want to be up here next time."

From any classroom at the Abdelhalim Bensmaia Elementary School near the Algiers airport, one need only look out the windows for a hint of a central challenge facing Algeria's teachers. In the high-rise apartment buildings overlooking the school's asphalt play yard, almost all the balconies have been closed in to create one more bedroom for the large families who live there.

As Algeria's once largely rural population has shifted to the cities in recent years, living conditions like Zait's have become the norm: She shares a three-room apartment with her parents and eight brothers and sisters. Zait is single, but even if she were married, she would probably live there or with her husband's family for a while, given Algeria's chronic housing shortage.

In a country where nearly two-thirds of the population of 25 million is under 25, planners have had trouble keeping up with the booming numbers of school-children. The country's oil-and-gas-based economy has undergone difficult reform after decades of Soviet-style planning, and spending - while still increasing annually - has fallen behind demand.

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The number of children in Algeria's schools has doubled in 15 years, to 6.6 million. After a fast-paced school-construction program for more than two decades following independence in 1962, new construction has been cut back. The result is double sessions in many schools - including Bensmaia Elementary - and triple sessions in some.

If Zait already has 10 years' seniority, it's because she ran into Algeria's student boom when she graduated from high school. "I was supposed to have two-and-a-half years of study and training before entering the classroom, but the needs were too great," she says. "After just two months, I had my own class."

Now, having 37 students to look after and keep up with "doesn't bother me too much," says Zait with an apparently inherent optimism. "But I have to admit I think 30 would be ideal, while 40 is really impossible."

Bensmaia's director, Amar Kharchi, laments the effect Algeria's demographics has had on the country's schools. "The very basic essential is that we assure each child his 27 hours of instruction a week, and that we do," he says. "As for 'quality' education, we can't yet claim to have it, frankly," he adds. "We could have, without the enormous numbers, but how is it possible with 40 per class?"

With her school's double sessions, Zait teaches 22 hours a week, split between morning and afternoon sessions. Although another teacher is responsible for the children's five hours a week of French, Zait teaches Arabic, history, and geography, natural and physical sciences, math Practically the same math I learned in high school," she says - Islamic education, art, and sports. All for 4,260 Algerian dinars a month, or about $215.

'BEFORE, I was satisfied with it," says Zait of her salary. "But with the price increases we keep having, it's really not enough anymore."

She says she is relieved to be in an elementary school every time she hears fresh evidence of how Algeria's political and social turmoil - seen in the tug-of-war between partisans of a strict Islamic society and those aspiring to a Western-style democracy - is invading higher-grade schools.

"Here, we really don't have any of those problems," she says, gazing at the school's solid iron gate, shut as if to keep out the surrounding world.

"There are teachers who wear the hidjeb [Islamic veil] and those of us who don't, and there are no quarrels."

At Bensmaia Elementary, the classes remain coed, a practice not in line with strict Islamic law: Girls follow the same instruction as the boys; the two sexes play the same sports. Zait, who is Islamic but not "practicing," says the religion class she is required to give "sticks to basic principles," and she tries not to squelch independent thinking.

"It's more in the high schools that you have the problems: Boys who don't want women teachers, parents who don't want their daughters playing sports," she says, or teachers who put the boys in the front of the class and grade them more leniently.

Yet during Algeria's recent election campaign, Zait did expose her students to the electoral process and the major parties. "But after each presentation," she says, "I reminded them, 'We are all Algerians, and all these people in their way want the best for our country.

Algerian elementary teachers often follow their pupils to succeeding grades - thus, Zait is now in her sixth year with the same children.

"Admittedly, it can be a problem. If a teacher isn't good, a whole class can be lost," she says. "They lose the chance to catch up with a new teacher.

"But it can also be very positive, because you know their weaknesses and can work on them," she adds.

"You become close, like a parent. You don't start every year cold."

In June, Zait will say good-bye to the children she has taught since she was 22. And in September, she will meet the five- and six-year-olds whose education will be placed in her hands for the next six years.

* Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4, Nov. 18, Dec. 2, Dec. 16, Dec. 30, Jan. 21, and Feb. 3.

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