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School Renovations Benefit Southern Iraqis

By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service

ERBIL, Iraq, Nov. 15, 2005 – Newscasts depict Iraqis facing so many hardships that one might wonder how $24 million could ever make an impact.

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Renovation made tasks such as book distribution easier in refurbished facilities at Shartstan, a school near Erbil, Iraq, where funding built a large assembly hall and three extra classrooms for students. Photo by Elaine Eliah

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With a mission to make an impact, the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence collaborated with U.S. contractor ECC International in May 2004 to renovate schools in southern Iraq. Task Order 011, which included an additional $6 million to renovate the Iraqi Ministry of Environment, targeted schools which had not received government or nongovernmental agency assistance in the previous 12 months.

Armed with a Ministry of Education priority list, a team of engineers set out to assess 466 schools in the governorates of Wassit, Muthana, Thi-Qar and Missan.

"When we went to the schools, the first things we looked at were health and safety," explained Vara Prasad, ECCI program manager. "Do they have clean bathrooms, clean drinking fountains? Are ceilings falling in? Doors falling off?" Program priorities included sanitary systems, safety, electrical/mechanical, security and cosmetics.

Schools were graded: Category 1 needed only cosmetic work, Category 2 needed little work to bring them back, Category 3 required major overhaul, and Category 4 were damaged beyond cost-effective renovation. Reports and photo documentation were sent to the Education Ministry and the Project Contracting Office. Of those assessed, 274 Category 2 and 3 schools were selected for renovation.

"(ECCI) met with contractors and tribal leaders to communicate the education reconstruction objectives and negotiated support agreements to enhance work force security during reconstruction," explained Liisa White, deputy sector lead for public buildings in the health and education sector. "They organized project coordination meetings in the governorates to clarify program objectives, establish renovation priorities and expedite the work."

To fulfill these requirements for the Southern Schools Project, four subcontractors were selected to cover the four governorates. "We made sure these four found local construction firms - small 'Mom and Pop' type companies - to actually do the work," said Prasad. At one point, 5,000 Iraqis were employed on the rebuilding efforts. "If the U.S. is spending $70,000 on a community school, we want it to benefit everyone, including the workers," Prasad noted.

"The goal was to renovate as many schools and to provide the best we possibly could with the money we had," added White. School renovation was not approached as a typical construction project; one significant objective was to give end users control and responsibility, to instill ownership, she said.

"It was their children's schools, so they took pride in what they were doing," Prasad said. "It took corruption out. It forced (subcontractors) to be honest or they would have no face in the community."

During construction, ECCI's local engineers, four for each of the four governorates, visited job sites at least once a week and expatriate quality-control engineers toured when feasible, depending upon regional security risk. Quality control became a matter of community pride.

"Our biggest challenge was to get local engineers to accept new ideas, new methods," explained Tom Gillis, ECCI quality-control supervisor. "There were no traps in sinks and toilets; no expansion joints in concrete. Structure would be very sound, but we got them to improve their finish work."

Instead of arguing that something didn't meet U.S. standards, often all QC people had to do was point out that a working parent might want something better for his own children. When engineers in one school thought a drinking fountain was a little too high, a child was brought over to demonstrate. No words were needed; the subcontractor could easily see that the boy could not reach.

"There were real funding constraints," White explained. "If we didn't get the money committed really fast, we would have lost the funding."

Air Force Maj. Thomas N. Williams, AFCEE Iraq commander, said ECCI helped to meet 2004 end-of-year construction starts by accelerating its schedule without sacrificing the quality of the projects.

"Liisa (White) is very passionate for schools and children," Prasad said, crediting her extensive communication with the directors general of Northern Iraq's three Kurdish governorates -- Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah -- in identifying the 45 most needy schools.

But White is quick to acknowledge the entire team's efforts from start to finish. "AFCEE expedited, streamlined the process and gave us tremendous flexibility with the project," she said. The results were obvious in September, when thousands of children reported to freshly renovated schools.

Wafae, a school for boys and girls in central Erbil, has more than 1,000 students. Plans already had been made to renovate the middle school when the director general requested the second school for younger children be included. Although the students must still attend classes in shifts, they now have a facility more conducive to education.

At Pirzin kindergarten, two buildings were joined together to make child supervision easier. A local artist painted murals on white walls, and durable carpeting turned concrete flooring into a comfortable play area.

By secondary level, gender segregation becomes the norm in Iraq, making it all the more significant that Shartstan was designated a priority. This model school for 13- to 18-year-old young women is so popular that its 1,500 students attend in morning or afternoon shifts.

"There were cracks in the walls," recalled Badria Abdulla Hamad, Shartstan headmistress for 14 years. "There was electricity only for the administration. Each class had about 50 students." In addition to overall repairs, AFCEE funding built a large assembly hall and three extra classrooms, one of which will become a scientific laboratory.

High in the Sulaymaniyah mountains, ECCI couldn't begin work until April 2005 at Penjwin Boys' Boarding School because the town was essentially snowed in. Forty-five minutes and a four-wheel drive vehicle are needed to traverse the dirt road leading to Wanderana, where contractors hauled materials up the mountain with donkeys to renovate a three-room school for the town's 68 children.

"In the past, when villagers saw a vehicle coming up the road, they would take what they could carry, run and hide," Gillis said. "Now, the people come out to greet us. It's really a positive step."

Prasad said AFCEE's flexibility was a key factor. "They said, 'We trust you guys to do the right things to reach our mutual goals and objectives,'" he said. This flexibility ended up saving money by using locally available materials, he explained, adding that saving money per school meant more schools could receive attention.

(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with contractor ECC International Baghdad.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA student uses a renovated fountain for handwashing and drinking at Wafae, a school for boys and girls in central Erbil, Iraq, with more than 1,000 students. Photo by Elaine Eliah  
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