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A number of international dignitaries — including former President Bill Clinton — were on hand this week when the South Pacific island country of East Timor inaugurated its first president.

But in spite of the new nation's hard-won political freedom, its school children still lack proper classroom facilities, textbooks and other basic needs, says a Tennessee Tech University curriculum and instruction professor who recently visited the country.

"School districts in East Timor are facing problems today similar to those that Tennessee school districts encountered in the 1930s," said Maggie Phelps, director of TTU's Rural Education Research and Service Consortium.

The reason, she said, is because the small, mountainous nation located north of Australia is still largely an agrarian society — but the uncertainties associated with that condition have been compounded by recent civic unrest and revolution.

When East Timor declared its independence from a 25-year Indonesian dictatorship, for instance, pro-Indonesian militias organized a "scorched earth" campaign in the new nation.

"Textbooks, student desks and other classroom materials fueled the bonfires set by those resistance fighters. In many cases, the schools themselves — and many peoples' homes — were destroyed," Phelps said.

Thanks to a project funded by the U.S. State Department, administered by the Institute for International Education and hosted by the Timor Aid non-profit organization, however, Phelps is one of several Americans working to help rebuild the new nation's school system.

"Tennessee Tech received the invitation to go to East Timor because, as one of only five rural education centers in the nation endorsed by the National Rural Education Association, we are geographically and culturally the best match," she said, after her first visit to the country in 2000.

Although the nation's entire social order was still too disorganized for any training exercises during that initial visit, it helped pave the way for the project's future.

And Phelps — along with Macon County principal David Flynn, IIE representative Samantha Brandauer and Tord Roe of Counterpart Inc., a non-profit economic development agency — returned to East Timor this past April to conduct workshops for principals of the nation's rural primary schools (grades 1st through 6th).

"The purpose of the workshops was to teach the principals their roles in this new, emerging country's schools and to encourage the use of active learning strategies, and we were pleased to find that many of the principals whom we visited and spoke with on our first trip actually participated in the workshops this time," Phelps said.

In fact, she added, their response was very enthusiastic.

"Our program was very well-received by principals and East Timorese officials. Principals not selected for the workshops even wanted to know why they couldn't participate," she said.

Other significant signs of improvement in the young nation's school system include the rebuilding and refurbishing of many schools.

"There's now a roof over every teacher, and many of the classrooms again have student desks. That's a vast improvement to what we encountered last time," Phelps said.

But the school system still has quite a way to go until it returns to the standard that East Timorese children once knew. Because textbooks are still so few, for example, most teachers must still conduct lessons using only the knowledge inside their own minds.

Although Portugual — which colonized the Polynesian island in the 1600s — has promised to provide textbooks to East Timor, the only ones currently in use are Portuguese language texts for 1st and 2nd graders.

The nation's school system isn't the only institution having to be rebuilt, however. The pro-Indonesian forces also wreaked havoc on East Timor's road, water, electrical and communication systems — but the people have taken every challenge in stride, Phelps said.

Alex, the Timor Aid educator who served as interpreter during the trip and who now has the skills to replicate the workshops, provided her with the most intimate glimpse of the nation's public opinion, she said.

"In the many hours we spent traveling the country in cars, I rode with Alex, with whom I had many long, wonderful conversations," Phelps said. 

"One day, he told me that the quality of virtually everything is now inferior to what it had been before the revolution. But, he said, things like roads and schools can always be rebuilt, but there is no compensation for freedom," she continued.

While the workshops were obviously beneficial for the 60 East Timorese educators who participated, Phelps said her own experience with the project was just as worthwhile.

"Any experience like this changes your own perceptions. It's helpful for any discipline to be able to compare itself in different settings. By teaching TTU students about my own experiences, it helps them to learn to look at individual cultures differently and more objectively," she said.