By Richard Engel Chief foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/16/2004 7:15:21 PM ET 2004-03-17T00:15:21

A year after the war began, much the world’s attention has focused on the violence and reconstruction in Iraq, but a quiet, peaceful revolution is taking place that U.S. officials hope will lead to fundamental changes in Iraq, and it’s taking place in classrooms.

School days have changed a lot at Baghdad’s Al Hariri High School. The day still starts with a patriotic song, but the students no longer sing the praises of Saddam Hussein, as when NBC News first visited two years ago.

Deputy Principal Najla Abbass has swapped her assault rifle for a school bell. Sixteen-year-old Noura proudly raised the flag on the first day of school last September.

And the changes have continued.  “Everything has changed.… Before, all of the subjects were focused on Saddam. Now there’s more variety.  It’s better,” said Noura.

Abbass has learned new lessons, too. She’s one of 32,000 teachers in an American program aimed at broadening their outlook.

“How to be more engaging in the classroom, not just reciting to them the lessons, but hearing what children have to say,” said USAid Development Officer Jessica Jordan.

“Before, we would give the students a composition and say, ‘Write about the president.’ Now, they write what they want,” Abbass said through a translator.

One of 25,000 schools refurbished with American money, Al Hariri has new desks, blackboards and books free of Saddam’s dogma.

These kids won’t start learning from the new curriculum until next year. But there are already noticeable differences in how the children here are acting and thinking.

Noura said students were discouraged from expressing opinions before the war, but not now.  With Iraq’s new openness, there are also new ideas. “All the girls now want to wear necklaces and earrings — aren’t we free now?” Noura said.

For Abbass, this freedom has drawbacks: “The students have become rebellious,” she said.

A more serious concern, however, is security.  There are now armed guards to protect against bomb attacks and kidnappings.

Still, Abbass says she’s happy and earning 20 times more than under Saddam — when teachers often demanded students pay for extra help.

Dhergaham Aziz’s family couldn’t afford the bribes, so he dropped out of the first grade.  Now, at 16, he’s back in American-sponsored special education classes.

“I’m so happy. I can read street signs now,” Aziz said, adding, “Before, it was like I was blind.”

Noura and Abbass still disagree about how “free” students should be at school, but it’s clear Noura now wants to learn, and Abbass now feels free enough to let her.

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