School opening blues
I’ve been hit by a wave of nostalgia for the past few days, espying in malls and markets hordes of parents, some with children in tow, shopping for school supplies and other things deemed necessary for school in these parts: uniforms, new shoes, socks and underwear, school bags and lunch boxes, and rolls and rolls of plastic for covering books and notebooks.
Strolling through a mall recently brought me back to those days when I shopped with my mother for school supplies for me and my siblings. For some years, my mother resisted the growing trend of plastic book covers, insisting we use “Manila” paper or the “waxed” variety, which was unwieldy and difficult to hold down with tape. In grade school, I was enamored with those magnetic pencil boxes that magically opened to reveal tiers for holding pencils, ball pens and erasers. But Mama, ever practical and stretching a household budget for the needs of nine children, insisted on the most rudimentary containers.
No wonder that when I became a mother of school-age children myself, I shopped as much to fulfill my childhood frustrations as to meet theirs. I gave in to my son’s fascination for complicated pencil boxes with super-hero themes, and my daughter’s love for wheeled school bags featuring whatever cartoon character was dominating her peer group at the time. Community of Learners, where they went to school, also required students to bring toiletry items (for face washing and brushing teeth after meals) to be kept in shoe boxes that they could decorate as they wished. My children had the time of their lives gussying up their shoe boxes, while I indulged my inner child shopping for fancy cups, toothbrushes in novel designs, and small colorful towels.
I looked with envy on the pairs of mothers (and some lolas) and children trolling the aisles and shelves of department stores for their school supplies, remembering both the chore and the thrill of those days. Hopefully, I have only a few years to wait before the cycle starts again with my grandchildren!
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But there is more to school opening this year than crisp new uniforms and shiny patent leather shoes. I didn’t envy Education Secretary Armin Luistro one bit during a recent dinner that a few journalists and I had with him as he discussed the wide-ranging reforms in education to be introduced via the new curricula for “K + 12,” a retooling of the entire educational system.
The program has met with both withering fire and soaring expectations. Critics say it will unduly burden parents who must wait two or more additional years before the children are finished with elementary and high school. This, even if the cost is to be borne by the government for children in public schools, and even in some private schools by way of scholarships and vouchers.
But if the program results in children better prepared to face modern-day challenges, why should and would parents complain? A basic reason for increasing the years of basic education is the desire to enable high school graduates to leave the educational system with enough learning and skills to earn a living and perhaps support a family, Luistro said.
The education secretary even spoke of the “ladderized” curriculum, where high school graduates could leave and join the workforce with their basic skills, then opt to return for college or further education with their high school equivalencies intact.
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Still, we might be facing more risks than we can presently anticipate. “K + 12” is no magic bullet, and while it brings the Philippine educational system up to par with most other countries, at least in the number of years spent in basic education, it does not address more serious and basic problems hounding our educational system.
In a past column, I wrote about efforts undertaken by the private sector to help the Department of Education with basic needs, especially in meeting the classroom gap. The reality is that the infrastructure of education still has many shortfalls, not just in classrooms and school houses, but also in qualified teachers, teaching materials and supplies. These are basic needs that have a direct impact on the quality of the education that children and youth would receive, no matter how many years they stay in school.
What we need is a combination of curriculum reform (of which “K + 12” is a good beginning) and logistical support, starting with greater fiscal commitment to education from both local and national governments.
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During our dinner, I asked Luistro about his stance regarding the need for a population policy, remarking that the educational system seemed to be perpetually under pressure from a growing number of school entrants, for which DepEd had to keep building more and more classrooms.
I knew that as a Catholic religious (he is a De La Salle brother), Luistro would have to temper his views on population and family planning—which was why I asked him about it, in the first place.
But the education secretary was undaunted. “If you would track the imbalance between population and school buildings nationwide,” he said, “you’ll notice that the imbalance is not national, but confined to a few urban centers. What we need to do is not to keep population growth down, but address the imbalance in population distribution.”
Still, as education secretary, Luistro cannot but be confronted each school year with the reality of population growth outpacing both government and private investment in education, and any improvements or gains we hope to see in the short term. Clearly, he believes the solution lies more in population management than in population limitation. But for the next few years, at least, he will be sorely tested and tried as we play a perpetual game of catch-up.
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