To Jordanian, American school is learning experience
Ibrahim Shhab is a school principal and administrator in Jordan. Photo by Ralph Stewart
For the past week, Ibrahim Shhab has been on the other side of the principal's desk, learning lessons on education and life in America from Island educators, students, and community members.
The principal of a basic school in the country of Jordan, Mr. Shhab also is an administrator for two high schools and one primary school. He is visiting the United States for the first time as one of ten Jordanian school administrators selected to participate in the Fulbright exchange program.
"I want to observe schools, how teachers and principals do their job, how the American education system works," said Mr. Shhab.
He and nine other Jordanian school administrators arrived in the United States on September 10 for a one-week orientation in Washington, D.C., followed by school site visits and a computer course there. On September 21, Mr. Shhab flew to Boston where Margaret Harris, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, met him for his trip to the Island.
Ms. Harris, a former Fulbright exchange participant herself, initiated Mr. Shhab's visit, applying on behalf of the Island's schools after getting the go-ahead from James Weiss, the superintendent of schools. She and her husband Jamie opened their home to Mr. Shhab for his week-long visit.
"I never saw a place like Martha's Vineyard. Sometimes I think I am dreaming — quiet, calm, comfortable," said Mr. Shhab, who added, "My country is also beautiful."
As the principal of Abu-thir A-gafari, a "basic school" which serves grades 6 to 8, Mr.Shhab oversees 270 students, ages 12 to 14. All of them are male, as are the 16 teachers. "This is a difficult age," he said. "Muslim parents prefer for the boys and girls to be separated."
Most classes average from 30 to 45 students, Mr. Shhab said, and classrooms are small.
Although students do not change classrooms for different subjects as they would in a middle school in the States, they do have separate computer and science labs. They attend school for six hours a day, five days a week, from August to June.
In addition to classes that include Arabic, English, social studies, and the arts, students study Islam three times a week, in keeping with the Jordanian national charter that states education of the young must be based on faith in God.
Mr. Shhab started in education as a teacher, which he was for 24 years. After obtaining a master's degree, he served as an assistant principal for one year before becoming a principal three years ago.
In arranging for Mr. Shhab's visit to the Island, Ms. Harris planned a well-thought-out itinerary that included visits to all of the Island's schools, meetings, receptions, and social events with business and community leaders, and some sightseeing time as well. Last Sunday, an informal community reception was held for Mr. Shhab at the Hebrew Center, with a community send-off reception open to everyone on Wednesday evening at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.
At his first school visit last Thursday to Oak Bluffs School, Mr. Shhab gave high marks to Laury Binney, school principal. "I observe something good. He's a good principal, with good staff, teachers and students," he said, with duties and daily activities comparable to his own.
However, when it came to comparing classroom behavior, the similarities ended. "Students in the U.S., as I observe, took more and more freedom, drinking in the classroom, moving seats. No similarity between Jordan teachers and students, who are very serious," said Mr. Shhab, but added diplomatically, "I don't know which is better!"
He envied the school's spaciousness. "In my opinion, every student needs space to move. We need suitable classes, not big, not small, just big enough for students to write and do homework."
Jordan's high population is projected to double by the year 2027, according to a report from USAID. War also has caused population increases, Mr. Shhab said, with refugees from Kuwait and Iraq seeking a new life in Jordan.
His government, though, is building many schools, he said. It is the policy of the Minister of Education, Khalid Touqan, to make sure that students from every village (similar to a neighborhood) can attend a school nearby. Mr. Shhab's school serves 8 to 10 villages.
Nearly one-third of the population in Jordan, a country slightly smaller in area than the state of Indiana, is students. The country's literacy rate, defined as those over age 15 who can read and write, is 91 percent of the total population, estimated at 5.7 million.
In 2003, Jordan's ruler, King Abdallah II, launched an ambitious education reform initiative, to which USAID will provide $14.2 million between 2004 and 2008. One of the areas addressed was professional development. "This visit to the United States is one of the steps to develop quality education in Jordan," Mr. Shhab pointed out. "The Minister of Education has encouraged teachers and administrators to visit tourist places, to know more about countries."
The Jordan Education Initiative, also started in 2003, equipped 95 percent of the country's schools with at least one computer lab. Contributing to the initiative were American companies such as Cisco Systems, Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft and Intel Corporation, to name a few.
Mr. Shhab said his school has a computer lab equipped with 14 to 15 computers. Teachers also are encouraged to receive computer training as part of their professional development, he said.
"I hope for my school and other schools in Jordan, they develop as American schools. Everything you want, you will find it," he marveled. "Gymnasium, grounds, gardens, labs, large classrooms, small class size."
Today, Mr. Shhab heads back to Washington, D.C., for the last few days of his Fulbright program. Then he plans to visit some relatives in California before heading home to his two daughters, two sons, and "a good wife, who is also beautiful."