BAKU, Azerbaijan — English teacher Gulsham Huseynli is grateful for the little things, such as projectors and wider hallways. For two years, she has been teaching in what was effectively a two-room schoolhouse — teachers took shifts offering classes from two kindergarten classrooms.
It wasn't always like this. The Mingachevir school was once one of the best-known elementary schools in Azerbaijan. But after a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, the school became a home for refugees. The overuse brought the once-beautiful building into disrepair.
When the school reopened, hundreds of students used the local kindergarten as a classroom. But thanks to a rebuilding project undertaken by the government, students returned this year to an entirely new campus. There is a big gym, some labs, even rooms for after-school activities like a chess club.
"It's easier," Huseynli said. "It's nice to have English languages center ... . Now we have our own room where we can do movie clubs and conversation clubs. We even have lessons with a projector or computer."
A former Soviet Republic nestled in the Caucasus Moutains, Azerbaijan is growing at breakneck speed thanks to profits from a recently-completed oil pipeline. The country's GDP is one of the fastest growing in the world, having doubled in the last seven years.
That wealth is trickling down to education in the rural regions, where half of Azerbaijan's population lives. As a result, small, dilapidated rural schools — some lack basics like heating, desks and books — are slowly getting a makeover.
Nonprofits including Save the Children and World Vision have banded with the Azeri government to rebuild or refurbish elementary and secondary schools throughout the country.
One such renovation took place in Garadog Sahil Qasabasi, where as many as 20,000 refugees live. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that borders Azerbaijan and Armenia, has left about 586,000 Azerbaijanis without a home, according to the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. This number includes about 230,000 children who have been born since the conflict started in 1988.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, many families still live in dilapidated public buildings or in permanent settlements located far from neighboring towns. This is true for some in Garadog. Families are crowded into rundown buildings, where ladders have replaced some broken stairwells and cardboard boxes may double as a roof.
In this neighborhood, the small school stands out for its newness. The once run-down building now stands two stories high. A brightly-painted map of Azerbaijan adorns the school's main hallway, and classrooms are adorned with holiday decorations and, in some cases, computers.
"We have been improved because of the government," said Headmistress Elmira Shukuzova. "They have given us everything."
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Shukuzova would like more: She dreams of a gym, a new coat of asphalt to cover the ruined road around the school and maybe even musical instruments.
"If someone could come and show their support, that would be better," she said. "But now, we are in a good place."
Other more pervasive challenges remain.
"The quality of education is not in place," said Seymour Yousfli, a project coordinator at Save the Children Azerbaijan. Many schools still lack basic equipment, such as chalk boards. Some students don't have even basic workbooks because their parents cannot afford to buy them.
"In local villages, some parents do not send children to school because of remoteness, bad conditions in the school, or lack of a heating system," said Barat Azizov, who runs World Vision Azerbaijan. Others may not attend school because they need to work to support their families.
Another challenge is teacher quality. Though the government is working to develop a new curriculum that emphasizes creative thinking and interactive teaching, many educators do not have the resources to execute it. This is especially true of rural instructors, who are much less likely to attend teacher trainings on interactive teaching methods.
This means that some good new ideas are going unpracticed.
"No matter how communicative your curriculum is, if you do not train the teachers, they will still employ old methods to use your newly developed curriculum," said Ragsana Mammadova, executive director of the Azerbaijan English Teachers' Association. "We have a very long way to go."