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Mountainous Task for Teachers

Families in mountain areas more concerned about where they will get their next meal than educating their children.
By Maria Congee
With its worn-out chairs and books, Bliugan primary school, in the mountains of the southern Philippines, is as basic and isolated as they come

This is the rugged Cotabato region, inhabited by the indigenous Teduray people, where villages and homesteads are linked only by muddy and deeply rutted tracks, and the school run for pupils can literally take hours.

Yet according to Bart and Jo Centina who teach at Bliugan, the daily trek to school is only one of countless challenges facing pupils in what passes for the education system here.

Bart, who is part Teduray, has a degree in elementary education from the University of Notre Dame in the city of Cotabato. A scholar who benefited from the National Integration Program, he was immediately assigned to Bliugan after passing his exams in 1996.

His wife Jo, who recently gave birth to a baby boy, graduated with a degree in home economics and after doing some teacher training took a holiday in South Upi, where she met Bart.

"Living in Upi was wonderful although my family was strongly against it,” said Jo. “My father even came here to try to convince me to come home. I was, at first, reluctant to resettle in Bliugan – having the dream of finding a job abroad. But the moment I saw children unable to read and write, I changed my mind and decided to give the mountain experience a try."

She applied to work as a teaching aide and taught for two years.

There are 135 student enrolled at Bliugan primary school this year – 20 up on last – and Bart is grateful to local elders for building the premises and encouraging the young to try and get an education.

But while the increase in numbers is impressive, Bart worries that not everybody will stay on until the end of the year.

As Bart and his wife see it, several factors impact mountain schools here and across the Philippines. A child’s performance is affected by geography, economy and family. Poverty, says Bart, is a major problem.

The district of Rifao and other Upi villages, deemed to be below the poverty line, are populated by people who are more concerned with where they will find their next meal than on ensuring their children go to school.

“The majority of parents here have not gone to school which makes it difficult for them to appreciate the importance of sending their kids here,” said Bart.

A typical family here will have eight to 12 children and livelihoods are largely based on slash-and-burn agriculture, cash-crops and part-time farm jobs during the harvest season.

Mothers usually stay home to do household chores; older children watch over their younger siblings; while elder brothers go hunting for part-time jobs.

Bart often climbs on his motorbike to visit his students at home and ask them to return to school. And while he says many parents understand his argument that in the long run it is much better for them to get an education, the short-term draw of money is usually overwhelming.

As a result, while the number of children enrolled in school is increasing, the number of dropouts is actually higher.

Depending on the weather, children can spend a large part of the day traveling to and from class. The tortuous muddy paths up and down the mountains are potentially dangerous – especially after dusk which is why classes are dismissed 30 minutes earlier than normal.

"The children usually reach home late at night too tired to open their notebooks,” said Bart. “Because the family scrimps on kerosene, gas lamps are normally put out after supper.”

And parents are unable to help their children with their homework because they can neither read nor write themselves.

“In the morning when you might expect children to be attentive, they are already sleepy,” said Bart. “Many have not yet eaten and have just arrived here after a long journey.”

The school which is located on an eight-hectare reservation has not benefited from any maintenance since it was built over 40 years ago. Its spacious classroom has no flooring; the ceiling is worn-out and the roof is festooned with holes.

The Centinas draw from their own meagre salaries to help equip the school with supplies as best they can. The flashcards, rulers, pencils, notebooks and a box of chalk have all been bought by them.

Bart asks parents to make a desk each for every child enrolled in class. The school has 25 substandard classroom chairs. And all children are taught from the same four text books regardless of their age.

When Bart pushed the education department of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, ARMM, to explain why it could not provide more resources for the school, he says he was told Bliugan was being treated no better or worse than any other village primary school.

For her part, Jo says her first year at Bliugan bordered between frustration and depression. "There is no pre-school therefore I had to start from nothing,” she said. “I taught them how to read, write, recognise colors, draw patterns and speak confidently in Filipino and English.

“There was no specific teaching method I could use as the majority of them are slow-learners. It could be rote learning and boring at times so I had to be a bit creative. I feel Bart and I have this gargantuan responsibility to nurture the children to prepare them for a bright future."

Bart said hearing their students recite a poem in English, read a book aloud, write evenly and solve basic maths problems were sufficient to make them feel like they are in “heaven”.

"Jo and I remain inspired by the inadequacies of Bliugan," explained Bart. "We always believe that the best weapon against poverty is education. The odds – both man-made and natural – may be stacked against these children and that may leave us heart-broken, yet we always remember our responsibility is to try and help educate others, so they might lead better lives someday.”

Maria Congee S Gomez is a freelance journalist.