Inside a living room in Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah fighter’s face lit up when he talked about his childhood education.
“It was like a prison for me for 14 years, but now I thank them,” said the 22-year-old alumnus of the Al-Mustafa School in Beirut’s southern suburb, one of a set of schools across the country that is owned and operated by Hezbollah. Now a student in a Lebanese university, he said he is thankful that his parents enrolled him in the school.
“The students graduating from Al-Mustafa are religious, disciplined and well-educated, especially for the ones who want their kids to be religious,” he said.
Parents and students are increasingly looking to private, sectarian institutions like the school in Dahiyeh, where the overall quality of education at the elementary and secondary levels exceeds that in the public school system. In some schools, academic quality increases with religious and political influence.
The Hezbollah fighter, who asked that NOW Lebanon not publish his name for security reasons, said every school day began with a prayer. The schedule was tight, with only two short breaks throughout the seven-hour day, packed with classes ranging from social studies to geography to philosophy.
But it was the dense academic program, combined with the quality of the teaching staff, that he attributed to the high rate of student academic success.
The school had around 2,000 students when he graduated in 2006, and has since built additions, he said.
At another school run by Hezbollah, enrollment is steadily increasing. The Al-Mahdi School in Baalbek, one of 13 such schools in Lebanon, opened in 1985 for kindergarten through third grade with fewer than 200 students enrolled at the time. It has since expanded to include all levels through grade 12, with total enrollment now exceeding 1,700 students. There are currently five kindergarten classes, with a sixth being added in the upcoming school year.
“There are two main reasons people come here,” said Principal Hussein Diab. In his office, a Hezbollah flag and a Lebanese national flag stood next to each other near his desk. “One is for academic improvement, and another is for moral and ethical instruction.”
That instruction comes with a strict set of rules. One of them is that girls must be veiled at age 9, beginning with a school-wide veiling ceremony held for the girls collectively. They wear white for the occasion to signify chastity.
Posters created by the Al-Mahdi Association hang on a hallway lined with fourth and fifth grade classrooms. One reads “Oh Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and all the faithful women to express their faith in their veils.” Down the hall is a room where students learn to read the Quran.
“Religion forms a big part of why people come here,” Diab said about the school, where all students are Shia Muslim.
Religion isn’t unique to Hezbollah schools. There are 49 Sunni Al-Makassad schools in Lebanon, for example, which teach three to four hours of Islam each week, according to Mohamad Machnouk, chairman of the Education Council of Makassad schools. The 35 schools of Saint Joseph, distributed throughout the country, follow the curriculum of the Catholic Church.
Diab also attributes increased enrollment at his school to the quality of education. The highest-scoring student on the 2008 state-mandated Brevet exams came from the Baalbek Al-Mahdi School, boosting the school’s reputation. Last year, the school had a student who ranked 17th in the country, Diab said.
Teachers are hired based on religious and academic qualifications, and the staff has a month of training each year following school closing. In addition, students are required to take exams in eighth grade in preparation for government exams the following year.
The schools also offer more resources and better infrastructure than many public schools in Lebanon. The school in Baalbek has two computer labs with a total of 60 PCs. A nearby public elementary school, Baalbek Al-Jadeeda the First, has only six computers. A public school in Arsal, outside Baalbek, has two. Neither of them work.
The contrast emphasizes the importance of funding. Diab said special projects such as libraries and computer labs are privately funded by Iran, Qatar and Malaysia. This also allows the school to give students scholarships to cover tuition fees, which average $765 per student per year. “If a student is the son of a martyr, for example, he comes for free,” Diab said, noting that additional scholarships are granted on an individual basis.
On a tour around the school, Vice-Principal Hussein Sadr stopped at a window in the stairwell. He pointed to a plot of land where construction will soon begin for a 1,500-seat auditorium that will cost $3 - 4 million to build. And looking at a two-story building, he said he hopes that within five years it will be just for kindergarten students. The building has 13 classrooms on the lower level alone.
In the school, there are signs of political life. A poem written by a student to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hangs on a classroom billboard. Down the hall is an advertisement for the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, the Hezbollah youth movement where children learn about military tactics and the principles of the Iranian Revolution. Sadr said some of the students are involved in the scouts, but did not provide exact figures. Inside classrooms, pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei add color to white-washed walls.
The Hezbollah fighter described how Hezbollah celebrates holidays within school confines, highlighting that students sang Hezbollah anthems at Martyrs’ Day celebrations.
He said teachers encouraged students to join Hezbollah if it came up in conversation. He joined when he was 13, but said it was not because of exterior pressure, but because he believed in the cause. “We had some teachers who were so close to Hezbollah, but they would say ‘don’t leave your studies’,” he said.
Sadr, however, said politics are not taught in the classroom, and that they follow the state-mandated curriculum. “We don’t teach politics,” Diab said as he walked past a picture of the assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyah stuck to a classroom door. “But all of the students are Nasrallah supporters anyway.”
The increase in student enrollment in institutions like the Al-Mahdi and Al-Mustafa schools, which make up only a small percentage of Lebanon’s private school system, reflect a larger reality. There was a five percent nation-wide increase in student enrollment in private schools from 2004 to 2009, and a seven percent increase in enrollment in private subsidized schools, according to the Ministry of Education. Public school enrollment dropped 15 percent over the same period.
“It is because of a failure in the public school system, especially in the elementary and intermediate levels, that students go to private schools,” said one high school teacher at a public school in Baalbek who asked that NOW Lebanon not publish her name. “Islamic schools have created a certain kind of educational reputation. Some people just believe in them.”