SHARIFF KABUNSUAN, Philippines - Bliugan Primary School is as basic and isolated as they come: the wooden school house was built in 1960 with the help of Teduray elders.
Pupils aged between seven and 14 come from as far afield as Ranao Tenge, four kilometers away, whereas their older siblings are forced to trek to Ranao Elementary School six kilometers from Bliugan.
The distances are far enough for children to travel each day on flat paved roads. Here in this mountainous region of the southern Philippines where villages and homesteads are linked only by muddy and deeply rutted tracks, 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 Cotabato. A scholar who benefited from the National Integration Program, he was immediately assigned to Bliugan after passing his exams in 1996.
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 Grade Four for two years.
There are 135 student enrolled at Bliugan Primary School this year --20 up on last -- and Bart is grateful for the Teduray elders for building the school 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 one. The district of Rifao and other Upi villages classified below the poverty line have populations more concerned with where they will find the 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,” says Bart.
The Tedurays are an indigenous group of people who inhabit the vast Cotabato mountain ranges. While some anthropology studies classify them as ‘Tirurays,’ the elders themselves insist on the term Teduray.
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 stay behind to watch over their younger siblings, while their older brothers go hunting for part-time jobs.
The Centinas readily admit that education is not much of a priority here. During the harvest time in particular, parents are far more concerned with how much the family can make and store away for the lean months in between. Children skip school to take on part time jobs and when the cash comes in Bart finds it hard to convince his pupils to focus on their studies.
He 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 from the fields is usually overwhelming and children never return.
As a result, while the number of children enrolled in school is increasing, the number of dropouts is actually higher.
Rifao district is bisected by gradually inclining muddy roads. Topography means it is often raining at all times of the day. The school is 12 kilometers from the main highway and travel time to and from school on the local form of public transport –the habal-habal motorcycle is both time-consuming and very costly.
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,” says 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,” Bart said. “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 decorated by holes. Books caught by the rain are left to dry out on plastic rice sacks. There are no cabinets to keep them dry and the blackboards are well overdue for replacing.
The Centinas draw from their own meager 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 customarily asks parents to make a desk each for every child enrolled in class. The school has 25 substandard classroom chairs – one for every five children enrolled. All children are taught from the same four text books regardless of their age. The books include Mathematics for Everyday Life and Growing with Science and Health and they were bought through the Elementary Education Project launched four years ago by the education department of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
When Bart pushed the ARMM’s Department of Education 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, recognize 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 have 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."
Devising ways to make teaching easier for Jo was another story. She had to classify students into slow-, fast-learners, and "frustration" level. While the fast-learners account only 10 percent of the classroom population, Jo felt this was necessary so she and Bart could devote time to others -- particularly those in the slow-paced bracket. "A two-day learning module takes a week for us to finish, as we have to closely monitor the progress each student had made. I am particularly concerned how each had learned cursive writing, so they would be able to write their names properly," Jo said.
This, however, has not sapped the creativity and teaching energies out of the Centinas. Bart said the rewards may not immediately come but hearing their students recite a poem in English, reading a book aloud, writing evenly on lines, and solving basic Math problems were sufficient to make them feel like they are in “heaven.”
"Jo and I remain inspired by the inadequacies of Bliugan," explains 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, Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project)