Population, Politics Grip Schools Algerian Teacher's Sixth-Grade Class Avoids Ideological Turmoil Invading Upper Grades

Article excerpt

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.

"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.

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. …