By Tarra Quismundo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:53:00 08/03/2008
THE MINUTE HE EXPERIENCED MAKING art with crayons on a clean sheet of paper, sixth-grader Rodel Candano started to dream about becoming an architect.
Though still in grade school at age 13, Mayka Rosaros learned she could aspire to be a doctor.
From their crowded regular classrooms, a select group of elementary school pupils from poor families has been chosen to take remedial instruction in a study center at the Baseco Compound in Manila. Here they learn to aim big with the help of two tutors who make up for what their regular schools lack.
Regarded as mentors more than tutors, Laarni Salanga and Ivy Espineli, graduates of the University of the Philippines, are providing a hands-on learning experience to a select group of Grade 5 and Grade 6 students in the port village.
Salanga and Espineli take turns teaching morning and afternoon tutorial sessions in English, Math and Science at the Edukasyong Kabalikat Para Sa Kaunlaran (EKK) learning center, a one-room facility established by Kabalikat, a Baseco people’s organization, and Urban Poor Associates, a nongovernment organization, with a P300,000 donation in 2003.
“Sometimes when we ask kids what they want to be, they say ‘I want to be a seaman, a porter, a vendor in Divisoria.’ They do not dream of bigger things. Nobody said ‘I want to be a doctor.’ But we tell them this is not all of the world. There’s a bigger world outside Baseco,” said the 25-year-old Espineli.
EKK’s thrice-weekly sessions (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) with 25 students per grade level are helping to bridge the learning gaps for low-performing students of Baseco’s public elementary schools.
“In school, they average 70 to 90 students per class, so only those in the front rows get to understand their lessons. If you’re in the back, you will be left behind. That’s what we notice. That’s why children lose enthusiasm for going to school,” said Salanga, 29, who finished English Studies at UP Diliman.
Tutoring pupils at the center has become a mission for Salanga and Espineli who have shunned better opportunities normally available to young people of their age and accomplishment.
Espineli, who majored in Social Science at UP Manila, started work at EKK three days after she graduated in April 2003.
Family obligations made Espineli, the third in a family of four children, take a three-year respite from EKK to take a teaching job in Thailand. She taught at an exclusive, all-girls school in southern Thailand and later became assistant director of the Thaksin University’s Institute for Foreign Languages.
“I had to go there to support my youngest sibling’s [nursing] studies. He graduated in March, that’s why I’m back. My obligation is over,” she said.
Salanga, who was looking for a part-time job to support her graduate studies, joined EKK the year that Espineli left. She said it was the kind of challenge she had long been looking for to escape a “boring” job at the family printing business in Caloocan.
“For an English Studies graduate like me, there are many opportunities. It’s easy for me to go but I do not feel like it. I feel like there’s no need for me to leave. And what’s good here is we get to express our creativity,” said Salanga.
They receive compensation that they regard as better than what other schools would pay, but they consider the experience of becoming more than a tutor to their students a far greater reward.
“We are able to provide individual attention and the child sees that the teacher is concerned. Once you get their trust, they will already share with you what’s happening in their homes, they will open up. They treat you as a friend,” said Espineli.
The center, which follows the regular school calendar, annually admits 25 of the poorest performers—or those with a grade average of 79 percent and below—in the last two grade levels whom they prepare to enter high school.
A token fee of P1 is charged for each session. The idea is for the students and the parents to have a “sense of ownership” of the program, said Espineli.
The job of selecting those that need help falls to the Baseco parents who identify barely passing elementary school pupils in the community and enroll them at EKK. Salanga and Espineli said they sometimes have to knock on doors to encourage participation.
The tutors hold three-hour sessions for each grade level, dividing the time among English, particularly reading and grammar, basic Math and Science. Fridays are reserved for art and music lessons which many of the kids enjoy the best.
And throughout the sessions, the pupils are taught to observe good manners.
Once, a student who came in 15 minutes late for a Friday afternoon session had to apologize to the group, to which a classmate replied in English: “Next time, come early.”
Encounters with Baseco kids have opened the tutors’ eyes to “realities” that are peculiar to the place.
In the port village, a former shantytown that had been dismantled many times before by fires and demolitions, sixth-graders often include students old enough for high school.
Finding the answer to 5 minus 4 is a stretch for fifth-graders, and graduating students struggle to read “run” or “fun.”
“You wonder whether there was a student who could read well,” said Salanga, adding that sessions at times had to go back to primary-level lessons.
Many also go to school with empty stomachs.
“You’d see that immediately in the child. You’d think he’s just not that smart but you realize that hunger is the reason why he performs poorly in school. It’s either they went to school without eating, or they were beaten by their parents,” said Salanga.
To enhance comprehension, the teachers would use the pupils’ experience to simplify the lesson.
“In addition or subtraction, we ask them how much will be left if you take P2 from P5. And most of them immediately understand because at times their parents make them hawk [items] in Divisoria,” Salanga said.
But what would prove to be useful in class was also a factor for pupils missing the sessions. The teachers note poor attendance in the months leading up to Christmas, traditionally the peak selling season for Divisoria.
“Sometimes, parents would rather that their kids sell plastic bags in Divisoria, at P5 for 100 pieces, than go to the center. Or they are made to sell vegetables, or take care of their siblings,” said Espineli.
To persuade the students to return, the tutors have to visit their homes and talk to the parents.
Despite the challenges, the young teachers are buoyed by the EKK’s successes.
Vanessa Vega, who was in the first batch of students at the center, graduated First Honorable Mention in 2004, after lagging behind in her class for a long time with 70-percent grades.
Roughly 90 percent of EKK “graduates” have also proceeded to high school, helping to cut the high elementary-to-high-school dropout rate among Baseco students.
The extracurricular activities at the EKK have helped to pull up Rodel Candano’s average by a point -- from 79 percent to 80 percent -- in the last school year.
“Here we get to draw, we sing and dance and go on field trips. We went to the Planetarium where I saw stars and Parks and Wildlife where we got to play in the open ground,” said Candano.
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