‘Everything in education is a pressing problem’, DepEd Secretary discovers

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The Aquino administration draws a bead on the Philippines’ daunting education problems.

HAVING PAID many an unexpected school visit in various cities, towns and islands in the country, the 49-year-old education secretary says he has seen places and faces that, for him, compensate for the ugly statistics.

Luistro cites teacher Lorna Pulalon who died shielding her students from the knife of a pardoned ex-convict in October last year at Talisayan Elementary School in Zamboanga City. She was the same teacher, he adds, who had the strength of character to refuse a bribe in a previous barangay election, even though she was the sole breadwinner for her large family.

A village thing

He talks of parents who, every year during Brigada Eskwela (BE) week, take leave from their jobs to help refurbish and ready their children’s schools for reopening. They bring their own materials, tools and food. “It’s a community effort,” Luistro says. The BE program proves that it does take a village to educate a child, he discloses.

He recalls with sadness the death of a construction worker from a bad fall. The man showed up at his kids’ school in San Pedro, Laguna, on BE week to help out. He was a single parent who never finished school himself, but was determined to give his two children an education.

“It is not right that individuals like him and the Mindanao teacher, ordinary people who struggle and do their share to better the education we give our kids, are lost in the big numbers and the bad news,” says Luistro, who lost his own parents at a young age, and was brought up by an educator grand-aunt.

For every complaint about a principal who orders students to pick coconuts from a tree so he will have money for beer, there is a principal who gives of her own money so a student can get a haircut. He has seen this with his own eyes, he says, and it’s an image far different from the one he has been presented.

So much with so little

“My experience is that our most creative principals, while they are lacking in basic things, are able to run their schools sometimes even better than in areas where there are lots of resources. I am surprised that, with so little, they can do so much,” says Luistro, who was himself a principal at La Salle Lipa for many years.

It may or may not have anything to do with his being a religious brother, but Luistro has attracted all sorts of assistance.

“The department has so many challenges but, at every instance, people come to help, without prodding. I call them angels,” he says.

More companies are earmarking their corporate social responsibility funds for education programs. Some give one-time donations through the Adopt-A-School, a program that dangles tax-deduction incentives to companies and individuals willing to bankroll donations of goods, services and funds to public schools. These include local high profile firms like Jollibee which dabbles in school-feeding and build-a-classroom projects, SM Foundation, scholarships and school-building program, and Bato-Balani Foundation, which maps the needs of the country’s public schools for easy reference.

The multisectoral 57-75 Movement has launched through the Children’s Hour the Bayanihang Pampaaralan, which is committed to building 10,000 classrooms.

Aklat Gabay at Aruga Tungo sa Pag-Angat at Pag-asa Foundation, under the leadership of Pinky Aquino Abellada, one of President Aquino’s sisters, is building 1,000 preschool classrooms, thanks to partnerships with such high-profile companies as Aboitiz and Belo Clinic.

Word of honor

Then there is Katsutoshi Shimizu, the Japanese businessman who had sought out Luistro and said he wanted to fund the building of new classrooms in the Philippines, which he considers his second home. Two weeks before finalizing the agreement, the tsunami happened in Japan. A month and a half after that disaster, Shimizu returned to see Luistro.

“I told him to direct his donation back to Japan because they have an emergency situation there,” recalls Luistro.

But Shimizu would not hear of it. He gave his word of honor, he said, and the sum of P7.4 million had been earmarked by his foundation for building and furnishing classrooms in towns in Batangas. Luistro says he will never forget Shimizu.

Textbook watch

The secretary also invited Antonio Calipjo-Go, a media-savvy school-owner who fancies himself a textbook watchdog, to a dialogue with all the DepEd textbook suppliers. Luistro says he asked the publishers one question: Do you want Mr. Go to critique your books before, or after they are published? Today, publishers are enjoined to give Go the proofs of textbooks prior to printing. If Go, who is saddled with legal cases as a result of his crusade, finds factual and grammatical errors, the publisher is reportedly asked to make corrections before going to press.

“In other instances, you would have to pay somebody to do that,” notes Luistro, who ostensibly trusts Go, despite the string of government and private sector lawsuits against him. “But here we have Mr. Go doing it for free because he cares.”

Today when he reads news that normally would leave him exasperated and depressed, says the Lasallian brother, “I know better, I know the situation is not hopeless.”

Three times a week, Luistro sits down with his executive team of four undersecretaries and three assistant secretaries. “I do not make decisions without their concurrence,” he says. “My management style is collaborative.”

Once a month, they have a meeting with regional DepEd officials. He says different advisory councils are also being formed to thresh out the concerns of specific sectors, including students with disabilities, indigenous people and street children.

All this may not be really good news to some people, he says, but unless he is able to connect to the people on the ground, the problems will seem to him too complicated to handle. For now, he doesn’t feel alone.

Here is an excerpt from the rest of the Inquirer’s interview with the DepEd secretary:

How are you doing so far in with regards to solving the shortage in classrooms, teachers and textbooks?

Shortages are a moving target, so we have to validate the shortages every year based on actual enrollment. By July, we will have actual figures from enrollment data for this school year.

I believe—based on initial figures of new construction plus commitments made by LGUs—that we would have substantially addressed a significant percentage of the shortage in classrooms, furniture and sanitation facilities. Within this school year, we will be able to identify new commitments from our partners that will give us hope of filling the previous years’ gaps.

The good news is that we will be able to supply, within this year, all textbook requirements in the five core subjects per grade level. But the actual delivery of textbooks to those schools with missing volumes will be delayed, maybe until October, due to requirements relating to bidding and printing.

We have hired the first batch of 10,000 teachers for the opening of classes. A second batch of up to 5,000 more will be processed.

We also have more than 12,000 classrooms lined up for construction this year.

The DepEd has signed agreements with the leagues of municipalities, cities and provinces for a 50-50 sharing in school construction. How will this impact the shortage of classrooms.

The total value of the counterpart funding for school building construction with the League of Municipalities, League of Cities and League of Provinces is P428.6 million. This means we are looking at some 612 new classrooms.

I had dinner recently with Congresswoman Marivic Alvarado (Bulacan, 1st District) who brought along her husband. He (Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado) is the governor of Bulacan. The province is willing to fund so many millions worth of new classroom construction if we give them the counterpart funding. It will be the fourth province after CamSur, Albay and Batangas to commit to working toward a zero backlog. Cities like Dipolog, Iligan and Ligao are also moving up-front with 50-50 funding.

What is the most pressing problem in public education today?

Let me first make a distinction between “pressing” and “critical.” The pressing problem has to be attended to immediately; the need is here and now. As it is, everything in DepEd seems to be a pressing problem. But the critical need is in the system itself. It may not seem as urgent but it is more essential that we deal with it. This is why I’ve been pushing for the K+12 program.

We can build all the classrooms we think we need, but if our vision is for kids to finish 10 years of basic education and then go to college, we will still be faced with the problem of poor-quality college graduates. We will still, as a people, have the mind-set that if we don’t go to college, we won’t be able to work. Many companies will still require even clerks to have gone to college. Why? We do not see our basic education system as providing all the basic learning that we need to be able to earn a living, have a meaningful life, etc. College preparation, that’s how we look at basic education.

The fact is, even in the most developed countries, only 20 to 30 percent of the population go on to college for degrees, because not everyone is cut out for the intellectual rigors of university studies. They recognize that higher education requires a whole different set of skills.

You’re saying students are forced to go to college because the elementary and high school education they receive is inadequate?

Yes and, consequently, the quality of our college graduates is also poor. Our students have to take a lot of remedial lessons in college instead of doing the real college work. This also explains the proliferation of diploma mills that cater to those who want a degree, even if they do not have the intellectual capacity for it.

College is an option for everybody, of course. But the government must provide the opportunity for all Filipinos to have the basic education that they need to be ready for work, ready for community engagement, ready for life—even if they don’t go to college.

But shouldn’t students be staying in school for longer hours instead of longer years?

The three shifts of classes are only true in schools in urban centers where, even if you have the money to build more classrooms, there is no land. In some provinces, we do not have a shortage of classrooms and teachers.

If you look at the national figures, the need is for more classrooms. But there is an underlying cause for this. We have been unable to provide opportunities in their hometowns so people are coming to the city. The parents come to the city looking for jobs. The best schools are perceived to be those in the cities.

If we want to reverse the situation, we must build schools everywhere that are at par with urban schools. That’s one part. We must also make sure that our curriculum, once the returned migration has happened, matches the development plans of the province.

My best discussions are at the provincial level. Governors have asked me what my plans are. I throw the question back at them: What are yours? Are you going to stay agricultural? Will you do food processing? Do you need employees for BPOs in the next five years? Whatever the case, we will tailor our high school program so we can supply you with the needed manpower.

What is the status of the public consultations on the K+12 proposal?

The K+12 Steering Committee held an education summit recently to update our major stakeholders, including our legislators, on the feedback on the K+12 proposal. There is majority support from the 17 regional consultations but we feel we need to cascade the information to our school divisions and, eventually, the 45,000 schools, within the first semester of this year. The legislators have given their support for the fast-tracking of the necessary amendments to allow us to fund the K+12 proposal.

Which expense has received the biggest chunk of the DepEd’s P207-billion budget this year?

Of the DepED budget, 80 percent goes to salaries of teachers and staff, so there is really very little left for capital outlay and maintenance. Our personnel services allocation (salaries and wages) of P165.4 billion has increased by 17 percent from 2010 due to additional teacher items and increases in salaries brought by the second tranche of the new government salary standard. An additional P2.26 billion is allocated for annual salaries for new teacher items.

What is the scope of the present DepEd feeding program?

A significant number of elementary schools, in partnership with the PTAs, LGUs or other industry partners, have included a feeding program in their campuses. This year, we would like to scale this up, but concentrate on the 40 divisions with 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program) beneficiaries. Eventually, we would like to pursue a school-based feeding program that is supplied by the vegetable gardens we will be launching this school year.

How does DepEd choose the sites for public schools?

As a general rule, we rely on the local government to provide the site, or on donations of land from private individuals.

We have thousands of cases where a property that was donated two generations ago is now being claimed back by the present generation because the area has prospered and the land value has increased. So now we have a section in the department that takes care of the titling of donated properties.

Some private schools that have been struggling financially, have approached us to offer use of their school buildings. We are looking at the legalities.

If you have a lot with a building and you allow us to use it, we will be happy to do so. What we are not allowed to do is to build a structure on land that has not been donated to us, or to repair a structure that we do not own.

What is the enrollment figure now for kindergarten students?

In January, early registration for kindergarten was at 1.2 million. We expect around 500,000 will enroll in private schools. If trends continue, we will have another 500,000 enrolling in our Summer Kinder program in the summer of 2012. The remaining 200,000 are the ones we would like to see enrolled in day-care centers, that will be used as extension kinder classrooms in the afternoon.

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