Keeping kids in school | Inquirer Opinion
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Keeping kids in school

I recently caught a TV journalist’s encounter with three boys hauling farm produce as she chanced upon them on a mountain trail. She asked them if they go to school at all, and the boys answered yes. But they had been absent for two days to earn some money for their family. I encountered a similar case first-hand a few years ago when my research team chanced upon a little girl selling delicacies at the passenger dock in Masbate as we awaited the ferry to Pilar, Sorsogon. We were on a field study on rural poverty, and decided to interview our young subject. Asked if she goes to school, she said yes. But she had to work on that particular day, she explained, as the family direly needed money. This scenario is played out every day all over the country.

In a remote village in South Cotabato, I once interviewed a mother on how a new bridge across a nearby river benefited her community. To her, what was most important was that her children could now go to school without having to wade and swim across the river daily. In the past, when the weather was bad and the river was treacherous, the children would have to forego attending school altogether.

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On a visit to the island barangay (village) of Malassa in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, former barangay captain Dastara Bakki proudly showed us a small schoolhouse he had built out of meager barangay funds. But he sadly admitted that the structure had been idle and rotting away. Alas, the Department of Education simply could not find a trained schoolteacher who would agree to work in their far-flung barangay. There was a volunteer parent from the community who would occasionally gather the children for informal “classes” when she felt like it. But for the children to get regular schooling, they would have to pay for a 30-minute boat ride to Bongao town proper. Naturally, hardly anyone did.

Much closer to home, in Barangay Bagong Silang on the slopes of Mt. Makiling in my hometown of Los Baños, Laguna, children basically have two options to go to school. They could walk two hours down the mountain to the Lopez Elementary School just outside the University of the Philippines campus. Or they could spend about the same time walking up a trail further up the mountain and then down again to a school in the neighboring town of Bay. Either way takes a tremendous physical toll on the children. Many simply forego schooling altogether.

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Some readers would probably know of even more extreme circumstances. In a country that is both archipelagic and mountainous while afflicted with prevalent and persistent poverty, attending school is not something to be taken for granted by too many school-aged Filipino children. Government has constantly targeted having a school in all 42,000-plus barangays around the country. But as the anecdotes above show, getting all Filipino children in school will take much more than building a schoolhouse in every village, a goal that has proven elusive through the years for one reason or another. It takes understanding various other impediments that keep kids out of school.

The above stories point to three types of such impediments (among others, I’m sure). An obvious one is the economic impediment: parents see sending their children to school as too costly, both because there are costs they must incur, and because they have to forego income their children’s work could possibly contribute. Free public school tuition up to high school helps address the former, even as there are other real costs to attending school beyond tuition itself. Conditional cash transfers (CCT) aim to address the latter issue, making up for income the children could have contributed so that parents will keep them in school. Does it work? Assessments of the CCT both here and abroad indicate so.

Another impediment is the physical accessibility of schools. Bridges certainly help where needed. Where the issue is physical distance or difficult topography, government should consider providing free transport assistance. If providing school bus service to all public school children who need it is routine in other countries, we should be able to provide school boats, school kariton or school habal-habal where it’s unrealistic to bring schools to far-flung barangays. (One organization has been providing “yellow boats” where bodies of water keep children from attending school.) Government would do well to subsidize such transport, creating additional community livelihoods (with accompanying multiplier effects) as it does.

Where the problem is attracting qualified teachers to work in a far-flung area (as in Tawi-Tawi’s Barangay Malassa), appropriate “carrots” to lure them there are in order. I’ve heard of a nongovernment initiative where good homes or living quarters were provided in a place where no teacher would otherwise wish to be assigned. The DepEd would do well to adopt this approach for such places. It could also come up with a mechanism for capacitating qualified local parents, such as that Malassa parent volunteer, to be hired as authorized learning facilitators or para-teachers where having an accredited teacher is not possible. For years, my wife has been working intimately with a model where families in the community run the school, and the community is in fact the school. She swears that it not only keeps children in school where they otherwise might not be; it also extends the life learning experience to the rest of the children’s families, and indeed their community as a whole.

It seems to me that with a little more creativity, imagination and out-of-the box thinking, we should be able to keep all of our kids in school.

E-mail: [email protected]

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