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Editorial

Going the distance

/ 12:24 AM March 29, 2014

NOWHERE DOES the song refrain “climb every mountain, ford every stream … till you find your dream” apply more literally, if a bit grimly, than to Filipino school-age children in the far-flung barangays.

As Inquirer columnist Cielito F. Habito wrote in “Keeping kids in school” (3/25/14), admirable are the grit and determination of kids who swim raging rivers in South Cotabato, brave treacherous terrain and mountains in Bay, Laguna, or trek for hours under blazing sun or soaking rain, to get to and from school. A recent TV news clip showed more schoolchildren making like trapeze artists on a rope strung between cliffs just to get to class.

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The risks that these youngsters take to get to school may help explain the Philippines’ 97.5-percent literacy rate, an indication of how education—as shown by that framed diploma in most Filipino homes—remains a source of pride and status.

Ironically, the same odds that bedevil these schoolchildren can help explain the sizeable dropout rates in our school system, proof that education, while an aching desire, is still a luxury for many Filipinos.

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In his 2012 State of Basic Education report, Education Secretary Armin Luistro described the dropout situation as a serious problem involving six percent of total elementary enrollment in the public school system and nearly eight percent in public high schools.

As Habito wrote, some schoolchildren are forced to drop out because of the need to supplement their parents’ meager income. On a school day, they may be hauling wood or harvesting produce instead of hitting the books. And while tuition is free in public schools until the high school level, school-related costs, like money for transport, put education out of the reach of many. The physical toll wrought by those long and dangerous treks also forces some kids to give up school altogether.

The problem then is not just the lack of classrooms or teachers (as education officials bemoan at the start of each schoolyear) but their very absence in remote areas. And even when resourceful barangay officials manage to scrape up funds to build a simple school building, the structure withers away unused, as very few teachers willingly take up such a hardship post.

Habito cited certain private initiatives, such as volunteer parents who gather school-age children for occasional informal classes. But more sustained efforts from the public and private sectors are urgently needed to keep the kids in school.

The government’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) can help, as it makes up for supplementary income lost when children who are unpaid family workers become full-time students. According to Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, an expanded CCT program can benefit 10.2 million high school students.

What about subsidized transport, probably from barangay funds, to ferry kids to and from school in remote areas? Providing teachers with concrete incentives through a program similar to the “Doctors to the Barrios” may help, too. Why not start with decent pay, adequate housing and further training that can advance their career?

Private firms and foundations may want to look as well into providing teacher-training and allowances to volunteer parents to encourage them to hold informal classes more regularly and competently. To supplement that, the Department of Education can administer an equivalency exam for the children at the end of every school year, to give structure and recognition to such a program.

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The DepEd can also promote alternative schemes to fill the needs of students in remote barangays. Aside from nationwide equivalency exams for high school for students forced to drop out, it can promote more aggressively its Open High School program that allows working students to go to school only once a week—a viable option similar to distance education or correspondence courses.

And, given the rapid strides in technology, the giant telcos may help out as well. With cell phones being ubiquitous even in remote areas and becoming the default provider of services including money remittances, news, entertainment, games, street directions and communications in lieu of postal carriers, an app or program may be developed to make daily lessons accessible to students nationwide. It’s an idea worth exploring given the Filipinos’ vaunted tech skills and the largely unused GAD (Gender and Development) component in local governments’ budget. Plus, consider the goodwill and CSR brownie points that telcos stand to gain.

Let’s go the distance. If many kids regularly do a tightrope act to get to school, how can their elders do less?

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TAGS: Cielito Habito, conditional cash transfer, education, Going the distance, literacy rate, Poverty
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