‘One chapter ends, a new one begins’
I met Br. Armin Luistro FSC formally in 2009, at one of the multisectoral meetings for World Teachers Day. Together with Chito Sobrepeña of the Metrobank Foundation and Mario Deriquito, who was with the Ayala Foundation’s Social Action Center at that time, Brother Armin invited a number of nonprofits and corporate foundations including the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Eggie Apostol Foundation to muster widespread support for a monthlong nationwide gesture of thanks for all teachers. The activity coincided with the global celebration of World Teachers Day on Oct. 5.
The man with the kind eyes who warmly welcomed me to the meeting that day was far from the image of the strident activist cleric seen by many on TV in the wake of the “Hello Garci” scandal in 2005. Instead, we saw a man who exuded the selfless and caring nature of a true servant leader.
Brother Armin agreed to serve as education secretary in 2010. He was extremely hesitant to take on the challenge of leading the Department of Education, the nation’s biggest and reputedly most crisis-ridden bureaucracy. After all, he already was president of the De La Salle University System, with all the distinction and prestige that came with the title. But he became a civil servant anyway, because he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving even one school-age child at a disadvantage, not if he could help it.
But things got real very quickly.
“At the start of my term, I was so stricken by the quixotic ideal to serve and change the system,” Brother Armin said in his farewell speech at the DepEd. “At times I would be driven with a messianic complex and seek to be the savior of 47,000+ schools. At one stage I thought it was about quick fixes, like replacing broken glass on battered windows or painting over vandalized walls. At another time I thought about substantial changes such as addressing the backlog of 66,800 classrooms, or even providing every learner with books they can actually bring home. It dawned on me after a while that I would end up disheartened if I even tried to single-handedly overhaul the educational system just so I can leave my imprint in the department.”
Without a doubt, however, Brother Armin’s term at the DepEd was pivotal for the cause of genuine and deep-seated education reform. During his watch, Br. Andrew Gonzalez’s Lingua Franca project, Edilberto de Jesus’ often misunderstood Bridge Program, Jesli Lapus’ “Edukasyon ang Solusyon,” and Florencio Abad’s Schools First Initiative all became a cohesive whole under the K-to-12 program, backed by Republic Act. No 10533.
Brother Armin observed that “providing classrooms and furniture, computers and equipment took on a whole new meaning. It was no longer just about filling the gaps and addressing the backlogs of the past. It was about knowing and touching the lives of 24 million learners and walking with them side by side to pursue their dreams. It was about taking care of my long-lost sister and my long-lost brother.”
His six years of continuous service as education secretary is also a milestone in itself. Before him, we had four secretaries within a five-year period: Gonzalez, Raul Roco, De Jesus and Abad. But perhaps, his ability to mobilize the private sector for the public good was his most admirable leadership trait. I saw this firsthand during the National Teachers Month steering committee meetings over which he presided. The atmosphere was very friendly, but always direct to the point. He wanted the representatives of the nonprofits and corporate foundations to know that he fully appreciated our time and effort.
During the emotional gathering on his last day of work, Brother Armin told his DepEd family: “The seeds we have planted need to be nurtured for years. We need patience and faith that underneath the dark loam, the seed is alive and is growing. We need to see it through before we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. I cannot bring myself to say goodbye to a family that I have learned to love and which has been my life the past six years. With you and for you, I have fallen deeply in love with the only country I know.
“For me as it is for you, one chapter has come to an end, but a new one is just about to begin. I am excited to see how much more you will be able to accomplish in the years to come. With everything that I hold dear in my heart, I will always remain, your brother.”
The new education secretary, Leonor Briones, will be meeting a set of challenges that are decidedly different. All the systemic changes that had been contemplated earlier are now realities, or poised to be so: mother-tongue-based multilingual education, institutionalized community engagement/empowerment, qualitative improvement of instruction through broader exposure to present and anticipated workplace realities, and, most of all, a 12-year basic education system like that in the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, Brother Armin has returned to being a private citizen again. He’ll take a one-year break and then he’ll be back doing what he loves most: living a life in Christ, dedicated to helping others learn to live in peace with one another.
Butch Hernandez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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