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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Rebuilding a Sure Foundation

Jordan’s Orthodox schools regain their former standing

In 1998, Edward Eid was ready to resign.

A science teacher with 16 years of experience, Mr. Eid was fed up with his job at Patriarch Diodoros I School in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Operated by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the school had earned a bad reputation.

“It was a disaster,” Mr. Eid says. People saw the school as a place to get a cheap education rather than a quality one, he adds. Teachers were not paid competitive salaries, and families often enrolled their disobedient and unmotivated children as a last resort.

Mr. Eid, now 52, recalls acting as a kind of truant officer, visiting the homes of students cutting class and almost literally dragging them to school. Tall, broad-shouldered with a thick neck and big hands, Mr. Eid looks as if he might hold such a position. His easy smile even reveals ever-so-slightly chipped teeth, adding to his tough guy appeal.

But everything changed that day in 1998 when Mr. Eid met for the first time his new boss, Archimandrite Innokentios. The young priest had just taken charge of Jordan’s Orthodox schools with a mission to restore the high standards they long ago boasted. The two men hit it off at once.

“We chose each other,” Mr. Eid explains.

Today, Mr. Eid works directly under Archimandrite Innokentios, serving as the director of all patriarchal schools in Jordan. Not only have Jordan’s Orthodox schools regained their former high standing — a few are among the most reputable schools in the country — they have grown dramatically, tripling in size. The patriarchate’s 13 schools now provide an affordable and quality education to nearly 6,000 students and employ more than 640 people.

He is one of a kind,” says Mr. Eid about Archimandrite Innokentios. “He has told me many times: ‘In the end, I have nothing, no sons, no daughters, nothing. I want to do something important with my life; this something is the schools.’ So he sees the schools as his kids. He wants them to be the best, he helps support them — everything — just like what you do for your family.”

A short, cheerful man with a round face that is often split by an impish smile, the 59-year-old priest hardly looks the part of a visionary reformer.

Born in northern Greece, Archimandrite Innokentios first came to the Middle East as a teenager in 1964 to study at the patriarchal school in Jerusalem. As did many young men from Greece and Cyprus at the time, he came to the school for its excellent education. He returned to Greece after graduating and studied theology at the university. He later pursued graduate studies in Tel Aviv, where he decided to enter the priesthood.

“You can never know the will of God,” he says. “These are personal things. Sometimes they cannot be explained.”

After more than four decades of traveling between Greece and the Holy Land, he considers his life’s work the revitalization of Jordan’s Orthodox schools. It has been a task that has proved challenging.

“It’s not an easy job, running our schools — we don’t have some nice fellow coming and saying, ‘What’s your deficit?’ ” he says. “So the best thing is to reach a certain degree of financial independence and be self-contained and efficient. … This is thebest way: Stand firmly on your own feet.

“We’re not working for profit, just to cover the running costs of the schools,” continues the priest. “We try to offer a high-caliber academic education, with the minimum of tuition fees.”

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has run schools in what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for hundreds of years. Under the Ottoman Turks, the patriarchate was legally recognized as a millet, or self-governing community. “Thus, it had the right to open schools and educate the people here — by fully respecting the religious identity of every child,” explains Archimandrite Innokentios. This, he adds, is the origin of the church’s unique role in bringing together Christians and Muslims.

“We are the church that has lived in this land for the last 2,000 years, 1,400 of those years were with Muslims.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jerusalem patriarchate operated 32 schools in what is now Jordan and the West Bank.

“In every village we had a school where both Christians and Muslims used to send their children,” says the priest.

But these schools and other Orthodox institutions in the Middle East collapsed after the Ottoman and Russian empires dissolved at the end of World War I. Churches and schools of the Orthodox patriarchates of Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem had received significant subsidies from tsarist Russia, whose Orthodox tsar protected the Orthodox churches.

After the Bolsheviks assumed power in Russia, they severed the state’s ties to the Orthodox Church and confiscated its properties, the source of much of its wealth. Cut off from what was a lifeline, Orthodox patriarchates in the Middle East faced a massive financial crisis. Orthodox schools were forced to declare bankruptcy and all facilities were shuttered. When the patriarchate reopened its schools in the middle of the century, it could only afford to operate a few and at a fraction of their capacity. By 1998, eight schools, educating some 2,000 children, were active in Jordan.

Providing universal, quality education is among Jordan’s most significant challenges. According to the kingdom’s 2008 census, a third of the state’s 5.9 million people is between the ages of 5 and 15. The proportion of school-age children is not likely to decrease soon. Another 750,000 are under the age of 4.

The government is struggling to keep up. Building sufficient schools is only half the problem; staffing them with qualified teachers is the other. According to critics, government expenditure per student is low. The Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan estimates the government spent as little as $316 on each student in 2006. Government officials, however, claim it spent twice that amount.

International donors have pumped half a billion dollars into Jordan’s public school system, more than 90 percent of which was used to construct new schools. Still, many of Jordan’s public schools remain saddled with inadequate facilities, crowded classrooms and poorly trained teachers who emphasize rote memorization over writing and critical thinking.

Private education is huge business in Jordan. Thousands of private schools compete for students, ranging from tiny one-room schools charging as little as $100 a year to international preparatory facilities with annual tuition fees in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Today, many middle-class Jordanian families enroll their children in the schools of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem for their rigorous academic standards as well as their reputation for promoting respect among religious communities. While the schools maintain a Christian identity, they focus on providing students of all creeds with a well-rounded curriculum. As mandated by the ministry of education, the schools teach religion. For this requirement, Christian and Muslim students attend separate classes, where they learn more about their own faith.

Apart from religious instruction, the schools make no distinction between students. Christians and Muslims take the same courses while admissions and financial aid decisions are never based on religious identity. The schools enforce a “zero tolerance” policy for discrimination.

“If a Christian does anything to any Muslim student or any Muslim teacher, or vice versa, he’ll be out immediately. It’s open to all … This is very important,” Mr. Eid says.

“We don’t feel there is a difference, we are all the same,” says Hanan Salem Al-Warawreh, a Muslim science teacher at New Orthodox School in Madaba, a town south of Amman with a significant Christian community.

“I’m in a Christian school, but I wear my Muslim veil, and nobody asks me, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ It’s normal,” says Tyba Hardan, an Iraqi-born sophomore in her first year at Amman’s Patriarch Diodoros I School.

Most teachers and students say that preventing sectarianism is not a concern and that the schools remain places where people of different faiths build trust and respect.

“That respect develops when you work with children from kindergarten through high school. They sit together, Christians and Muslims, and they grow up together. This is our contribution,” Archimandrite Innokentios says, “teaching them, guiding them into this way of accepting one another.”

Adela Zghoul, a freshman at Diodoros I, said she came to the school because the Muslim school she previously attended focused too much on religion.

“Here, it concentrates on all subjects, not just one,” she says. “I like that here we can learn French and … you can find good teachers that explain everything very well.”

Archimandrite Innokentios ranks securing new resources as a top priority. He has reached out to Orthodox parishes and other benefactors worldwide, including CNEWA, and has raised substantial amounts to improve Jordan’s Orthodox schools.

Among the first areas in which the priest invested was human resources. He raised salaries, hired more qualified teachers and retrained teachers already on staff. At one school in Zerqa — a working-class city near Amman — he more than doubled teachers’ salaries.

He next turned his attention to strengthening the student body. School officials now interview potential students to ensure that, once enrolled, they will demonstrate good discipline and a readiness to learn. “Father Innokentios raised the standards,” says Sawsan Nasser, an English teacher at Patriarch Diodoros I School. “We used to accept a lot of weak students and we lacked discipline.”

One by one, the priest also assessed the schools’ facilities and needs and determined what upgrades were necessary and feasible. Most schools now offer the basics required for a quality education: clean, well-organized classrooms, modest libraries, computer labs and paved courtyards for sports. But even the system’s best schools, such as Patriarch Diodoros I School in Amman or New Orthodox School in Madaba, cannot compete with Jordan’s posh private academies, which often have athletic fields with professional turf, fully equipped theaters and art studios.

“We have weak facilities midclass facilities. But we are providing an education that competes with the top schools in Amman,” says Mr. Eid.

The patriarchal schools provide students with a rigorous and well-rounded academic curriculum that focuses on developing reading, writing and critical thinking skills. The schools also emphasize the development of marketable talents, such as computer and foreign language proficiencies.

Students agree. While some wish for more sports or after-school activities, most praise the quality of the education they are getting.

“The teachers are fun. They try to have some fun in the lesson, and let us like the lesson,” says Ms. Hardan. “This is very good, it allows us to learn easily.”

“They’re teaching us to study more, to be prepared for the tawjihi. We have to learn to make a daily schedule so we can arrange our time,” says Hamzeh Habboub, a tenth grader at Patriarch Diodoros I School.

The tawjihi is Jordan’s much-dreaded series of standardized tests at the end of high school. Students’ scores determine whether they will go to college and, if so, which one and which subject they will study.

“We have a bad point in Jordan,” says one senior at the Orthodox school in Fuheis. “We can’t study what we love, we have to study what we score well on in the tawjihi.” The senior hopes to study computer engineering, but he needs to score above the 80th percentile to do so.

For their part, the schools’ administrators and faculties do all they can to ready the students for the tawjihi, encouraging them to be active participants in their learning. Teachers invite students to ask questions — an approach that distinguishes Orthodox from public schools, where generally students remain silent. Teachers in the Orthodox schools also integrate group work in their lesson plans and offer students opportunities to shape their own program of study.

Once confident the patriarchal schools were offering students a rigorous and well-rounded education, Archimandrite Innokentios worked to ensure the system remained self-sufficient. He raised tuition fees at higher-performing schools in wealthier areas, without compromising the mission to remain an affordable alternative to public schools. The revenue collected from the wealthier schools helps support those that do not break even. It also subsidizes a systemwide financial aid program for needy students; each year, the patriarchal schools in Jordan award between $140,000 and $210,000 in financial aid, providing grants for up to 20 percent of the student body.

For example, Amman’s Diodoros I School is currently the most expensive in the system, charging $700 a year for a child to attend kindergarten and $2,100 for a senior — a fraction of the fees charged by comparable private schools in Amman.

By contrast, at some Orthodox schools,especially those in poor rural communities, tuition is markedly less. In Anjara, a small town in northern Jordan, the annual tuition at the local Orthodox school hovers around $140. Still, a disproportionately high number of the enrolled students require financial aid.

The most important thing in this school is to have rules, norms,” says Susha Kahwaji, principal of New Orthodox School in Madaba. “We cannot only teach math and Arabic, we must also teach values. How do we prepare children to contribute to society?”

A flagship of the Jerusalem patriarchate’s school system in Jordan, New Orthodox School has grown dramatically in the last decade and continues to lead in innovation. Before Archimandrite Innokentios’s reforms, the school was a disheveled, six-room affair.

Today, it includes three buildings and enrolls some 1,300 students from kindergarten through grade 12. Until grade 5, the school is coeducational and from grades 6 to 12, girls only. Half the students are Christian from various denominations; half are Muslim.

“If you see the pictures from the past, you will see nothing,” says Ms. Kahwaji. “Father Innokentios started everything here.”

Before he was charged with the administration of the entire system, the priest oversaw New Orthodox School, from when he was appointed the head of Madaba’s Greek Orthodox community in 1994.

One of the school’s innovative programs is a preparation course for the Cambridge University English Language Exam. Open to all members of the community, the program costs participants $500 — a fraction of what most language schools charge. The school keeps costs down by employing native-speaking volunteers, who work for housing and a small stipend. On average, 90 percent of those who complete the program and take the examination pass it.

Ms. Kahwaji does not dwell on the school’s accomplishments. “I see lots of things I want to develop,” she says.

Each week, she meets with teachers to discuss new teaching methods and ways to “develop the characters” of their students. Currently, she is trying to establish sports teams and other extracurricular activities.

Support from Archimandrite Innokentios and Mr. Eid has been invaluable, she adds. “They give me a space in order to work with creativity … without it you’re stuck in a box.”

She recalls one of the priest’s mantras: “If you want to change a society, or add to that society or culture, build a school.”

Contributors Nicholas Seeley and Joseph Zakarian live and work in Amman.

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