Saving private high schools

This is my column today.

High school can be the most exciting or the most trying period in one’s life. It’s around then when everything seems to happen, and worse, seemingly all at the same time.

To begin with, one has to contend with the many physical changes happening to one’s body. I was barely 11 when I became a frosh so my growth spurt, including an embarrassing bout with acne, all happened when I was in high school. Then there are the emotional challenges and entanglements magnified by inexperience and confusion such as falling in love for the first time, or (arrgh!) having one’s young heart broken. It’s the time when hormones are going haywire; the time when parents become such a royal pain in the posterior with their restrictions and their seeming insensitivity to the needs and concerns of adolescents grappling with growing up issues.
And as if these weren’t enough, there are the serious athletic and academic requirements that one has to hurdle as well. It’s in high school when one comes face to face with the mind-boggling equations in chemistry, or the migraine-inducing dilemmas in trigonometry or physics.

Martial Law was in effect all throughout the time I was in high school and this meant serious military training that involved bivouacs and marching under the intense heat of the sun while lugging around a heavy wooden rifle. Marcos and his much-ballyhooed New Society movement imposed more requirements such as mandatory tree planting and a specified number of hours spent in community service under the Youth Community Action Program. I understand high school kids today have it easier insofar as the physical challenges are concerned although I have no doubt that the pressures on their generation are just as overwhelming, probably even more.

It’s in high school when one learns the fundamental skills that would eventually come in handy in dealing with life’s major challenges. It’s also in high school when lifetime friendships are formed. The common experience of going through the same torment is powerful glue that binds people for life.

High school can be tough; but it can be fun and empowering as well. It’s a critical period in anyone’s life. It’s a laboratory that can make or unmake a person. Thus, a secondary learning institution must be more than just a collection of classrooms and facilities. It must be an environment that empowers, enables, and ennobles.

This is why I have great admiration for parents who take pains in choosing the learning institution where they send their kids to for high school. They are aware of the strategic value that an empowering high school experience has in their children’s lives. This is why I have even greater respect for academic institutions, particularly private high schools in third-class municipalities that valiantly try to stay alive and operational despite year-on-year losses.

The sad reality is that while we have a wide network of public schools all over the country, there are very few municipalities where there is a national high school run by the government. Elementary pupils are assured of free education. It’s a different story altogether for high school students. And in places where there is a national high school, these are often pitifully unable to meet the demand. Thus, providing the backbone of the secondary educational system are learning institutions run by private individuals and religious communities such as the Oblates of Notre Dame.

Usually run by families, these institutions perpetually teeter on the edge of bankruptcy earning barely enough to pay the salaries of their teaching staff. Forget about upgrading facilities or acquiring academic technology. Increasing tuition is not an option as most of the students don’t even have lunch money and many walk kilometers just to come to school. The sorry lack of facilities has never been a hindrance in delivering quality education though. The classrooms may be basic and spartan but the lack in facilities is made up for with old-fashioned selfless dedication and commitment on the part of the owners and teachers. Perhaps because there is very little else to get distracted with, teachers and students spend most time on productive learning activities. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Anyway. What got me writing about the sorry state of private high schools in our towns were two incidents that happened recently.

I was invited to give a talk on “opinion writing” in a journalism seminar for high school students conducted at an exclusive school in Manila the other weekend. It was a task I readily accepted and actually looked forward to because interacting with high school students has always given me a different kind of high. The seminar went well and I guess my session went just as well, too, given the very animated discussion that happened during and after my talk. We broke off for lunch and a workshop. I came back after a couple of hours to help critique the output. That’s when the experience became a nightmare. Sitting on the panel were four “advisers” whose critique tossed me off the wall.

At the risk of being called an ungrateful guest, let me summarize by saying that most of the critique focused on content and bordered on censorship of ideas rather than on form and style.

The advisers seemed stuck in some paradigm on what high school students should be writing about and generally pooh-poohed attempts to dissect national events and issues outside the students’ academic environment.

Having profound respect for the minds of young people, I was aghast to find out that there are high school teachers and consequently, high school institutions, whose idea of “nurturing minds” and “protecting students” translate into suppressing their students’ ability to think for themselves. I expressed the opinion that students should be allowed to write about whatever they wanted to write about and that advisers should focus on helping students keep within the bounds of ethics and the law, i.e., provide advise on how students can assert themselves without committing libel or getting expelled. It looked like I was talking to a wall because the advisers were utterly convinced that their primary role was to serve as some moral compass. I left the venue wondering what kind of grown ups those students would turn out to be given the kind of environment they had to contend with as high school journalists. These kids had access to state-of-the-art learning technology, carried laptops and I-pods, and held classes in air-conditioned classrooms but I wonder if their learning environment produces real learning, the kind that helps students think for themselves and prepare them for life.

I couldn’t help reminiscing about how my high school teachers actually encouraged us to think for ourselves, even going as far as to organize symposia that featured a wide range of points of views on the raging issues of the day.

This brings me to the second reason that got me thinking about high school life. I had the occasion to be home during the weekend to attend to a family matter. The alumni association of my high school (Abuyog Academy) sought me out to invite me to this year’s grand alumni homecoming on the 21st of this month, at which (ahem!) I would be receiving an award for distinction in the field of banking and finance. (It’s an honor I accept, even if I am not really a banker, strictly speaking).

During our very brief conversation, the alumni association president talked about the difficulties of getting other alumni to “care” about our high school alma mater. Abuyog Academy is a private institution that’s run by a family whose main motivation in sustaining the school is to keep alive the vision of its founder who happens to be their clan’s patriarch. The alumni association wants to “save” the great institution that is part of our town’s history and which has made many individuals successful. I will save you the sob story about the state of the school’s facilities. I am sure though that the current condition of the Abuyog Academy is not altogether unique as it probably is reflective of many other private learning institutions in the country, institutions that are caught up in the moral dilemma between selling out and being completely commercial in the process being out of the reach of poor students or keeping its traditions intact but remaining poor.

If anyone out there can point the alumni association to generous benefactors, I’d be grateful for the help. In the meantime, alumni of the school are invited to come home for the grand alumni homecoming on Dec. 21 and to be part of the efforts to bring the Abuyog Academy back to its old glory.


pinoyusa said…
It seems we are in the same era. I was in high school at Assumption Academy in Tanauan, Leyte when Martial Law was proclaimed. Anyway, I am totally in agreement with your article. As with any schools here in the States, the strength of the school lies on its Alumni for support. Assumption Academy is suffering the same fate and the Grand Alumni Homecoming done annually helps the school in one way to discuss to the community the importance and the need for the school's existence. Hence, the community is informed and the parents are doing the very best they could to send their kids to private high school even if it meant tightening their belts and modifying their lifestyles.

Again I thank you for writing this article and I will pass this along to some of my friends in Tanauan.
High Schools said…
This article is great and encouraging for students of high schools. This presents so many aspects of these schools and environment at these schools.

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