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DoD Employee Lauded for Improvements to Iraqi Education

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2005 – Good Housekeeping magazine has recognized a Defense Department employee for getting the Iraqi education system up and running.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Leslye Arsht accepts her Good Housekeeping Award for Women in Government at the Library of Congress on June 15. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Leslye Arsht's efforts in helping to reorganize, rebuild and return the education system to the Iraqis were recognized June 15 at the Library of Congress. The magazine presented Arsht, former senior adviser to the Iraqi education minister, with a $25,000 award as its grand prize in the Women in Government Award. Arsht currently heads a working group for the Military Severely Injured Joint Operations Center, but actually works for DoD's Military Community and Family Programs office.

In accepting her award, Arsht extended the honors bestowed upon her to the Iraqi people. "I accept this award for all the Iraqis who told me that before Saddam (Hussein), Iraqi Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together as friends and neighbors," she said, "and they wanted that Iraq back.

"I was really very pleased and, I must say, a little surprised to have been chosen," she said. "It gives me an opportunity now that I really haven't had to talk about what an amazing experience it was in Iraq and how important our work there, as Americans, has been."

Rebuilding the education system was not an easy task for Arsht and the team she worked with. The education ministry was in shambles, she said, describing it as "functioning, but crippled."

Under Saddam's regime, the education system had been a jobs program, she said. It was an extension of the Baathist party. This resulted in the top 50 leaders being removed. Those 50, she said, were the decision makers.

"So what you had left was about 1,500 career government workers," Arsht said. "They'd never worked anyplace else, ... and they were wary and confused and worried, very hesitant. I think that was the biggest personal obstacle for us to get over -- winning the trust of the people (and convincing them) that we really did want to help them re-determine what they wanted their Education Ministry to be."

The education system was the best in the Arab Middle East until the 1980s, Arsht said. Under Saddam's regime they lost their connection to the outside world and any support for additional training, she said.

The ministry and its educators had many big decisions to make. Everything was on the table, from the length of the school day and week to the curriculum and how to handle religion in the schools. The longer she was there, Arsht said, she realized there was not going to be separation of church and state the way there is in America.

"They wanted to teach tolerance and national unity as part of the message of school," Arsht said. "They wanted understanding between people. So what we hope for them, and what I think what they hope for themselves, is that they recognize the role that religion plays in their society and that what they really want is a more tolerant appreciation of other people when they share a different faith."

This is becoming more evident from talking to people on the streets, she said. "If you ask Iraqis, many of them today, if they're Shiia or Sunni, they will say, 'I am an Iraqi,'" she said.

While in Iraq from July 2003 to April 2004, Arsht participated in rebuilding 2,300 Iraqi schools, and training 3,000 supervisors and 32,000 teachers. This was in addition to working with the education minister to help reorganize the ministry. During her stay in Iraq, textbooks were also reprinted without Baathist propaganda and odes to Saddam.

Even with all of these efforts under way, it was only after meeting with tribal leaders near Balad, though, that the need for American assistance in Iraq was cemented in her mind.

Arsht and the team had been invited to a tribal village north of Baghdad in the deeply traditional Shiia-dominated area. It was a dangerous trip, but the payoff was huge.

"(What) this tribal community ... had invited us here for was to give a petition to the minister asking that Saddam's rules about girls going to school from the middle grades up be changed," Arsht said. "They had a mixed primary school, ... (but) because they didn't have a separate building, girls couldn't go to school from the ninth grade on."

Local leaders were seeking a mixed-gender middle school that started at the 7th grade.

"It was the beginning, for me, of understanding why Iraqis wanted self-government and why our being there was so important," she said. "They want their children to be educated to compete in the world even though they don't really know what that competition requires today. They want their children to be part of it, and education is the very foundation of that, not just for Iraqis, but for all countries."

As the grand prize winner of the 2005 Good Housekeeping Women in Government Award, Arsht is taking "about half" of the $25,000 award to establish a scholarship for an Iraqi student currently enrolled in Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire. The scholarship will cover what the student's scholarship from the college doesn't: room and board, books and fees.

Arsht spoke with officials at the college, and succeeded in making the scholarship permanent. It will supplement a full-tuition scholarship at Franklin Pierce for a student from a newly freed country every year.

The other major part of the award will go to "StandardsWork," an organization that Arsht helped found. StandardsWork works in America to help states, districts and schools improve student achievement and engage parents in quality education for their children.

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