For the 194 students of Rizal National High School, going to school even under normal circumstances involves daily hardship as they trudge through mud and up rugged hills.
Some students live as far as 5 kilometers away and spend an hour walking to school. Once inside, they exchange their muddy rubber slipons for proper shoes, which they do not want to ruin in the mud outside.
As many are the children of poor farmers, malnourishment is widespread. The school boosts attendance through a daily feeding program where parents take turns bringing a simple lunch for the entire school. This way, students will not have to leave school at lunchtime or drop out because of hunger.
Their daily grind is not helped by living in one of the 10 most disaster-prone provinces in the Philippines—Southern Leyte. A landslide disaster that hit the province in February 2006 was the worst in a decade, killing more than 1,000 residents, and causing the relocation of about 5,700 families and damage estimated at more than $3 million, including abandonment of 52 school buildings.
Yet, despite these hardships and just 1 week after the landslide disaster, this school topped the league in the National Achievement Test (NAT). The province was also home to the top three finishes at freshman level in the NAT while eight of its national high schools were in the top 30.
Rizal National High School teacher-in-charge Margarita Badeo says she initially thought it was a school in Metro Manila with the same name that topped the exam. "I was shocked. I did not expect it," Badeo says, feeling happy at their achievement but overwhelmed by the responsibility of now keeping up with people's high expectations.
Helping create such success has been the dedication and hard work of the students, staff, and education establishment in the province. In addition, an ADB project approved in 1998 has been working in the province to boost access to and quality of education.
The Secondary Education Development and Improvement Project (SEDIP), backed by an ADB loan of $53 million, has helped a million high school students in 26 of the country's poorest provinces with low enrollment, completion, and student performance levels.
"SEDIP played a very significant role in influencing learning," says Southern Leyte schools division superintendent Violeta Alocilja. "It has revitalized learning in the classroom."
Alocilja adds that the project has significantly developed the competence of head teachers to lead the schools and has ensured teachers are properly trained.
Under the project, school heads have been trained in planning and management while teachers were trained in their subject and teaching skills. The project has provided textbooks for all students in core subjects. To keep the children going to school, innovative schemes had to be developed, including the school feeding systems, such as the one in use at Rizal.
Under the project's secondary schooling alternatives component, students at risk of dropping out are assisted. Some principals and teachers adopt their own "scholars," generally with funds from their own pocket. For some of those that could not attend school regularly, the project designed an alternative secondary education program.
In second-place Marayag National High School, a beachfront establishment a few meters from the sea in San Francisco town, students face different challenges of access to those of the Rizal students. Children cannot wear shoes to go to school because it makes their feet swell when walking through the sand. Some wake up at 4 a.m. every day to catch the school bus.
The school nonetheless has many best practices, not just in the scholastic field with its conducive learning atmosphere but also in the arts as well. It has classes in painting, pottery, and bonsai gardening.
"We are very happy that we got second place because our hard work in the daily reviews did not go to waste," says Marayag second year high school student Daryl Aure, who was one of the students who took the NAT.
For the exams, teachers and students pumped in months of intense review and extra school hours that spilled over into the weekends. When the landslide occurred, then Education Secretary Fe Hidalgo gave the district the option to cancel the exams but the teachers decided to go through with the exam.
Students started reviews as early as the previous July for the exam, which was held in March. "By doing this preparation, we can improve more ... move higher," says Rico Amper, principal of third-placed Pintuyan National High School, which is located on a hill in the heart of Pintuyan town, overlooking the sea. The last time the school placed high in a national exam was the 1990s when he was still a young teacher.
Parents and students at Pintuyan sign a learning contract where they vow not to let the children miss school, even the special weekend classes when they are supposed to be farming, fishing, or doing household chores. Parents and students seem to accept the extended school days since they know it is for their children's sake.
"Parents should also spend time with their children so that their children will be guided during study hours, ideally after dinner at least 1 hour a day, doing their assignments," says Indalecia A. Sumulat, school principal of Marayag National High School. "Because education starts at home, parents play a major role."
With an average ratio of 40 to 50 students in a class in this province, teachers are actually better off than in many areas of the Philippines, where class size can be double that number.
A few years ago, the Southern Leyte schools ranked second to last in the region. But within a year of Alocilja's appointment to Southern Leyte in 2003, the area climbed up the list of SEDIPschools to number 3 in the whole region. By 2005, it already ranked 1 among SED IP divisions in the Eastern Visayas region.
The school heads attribute their schools' performance to the hands-on supervision of their division superintendent. "Her words are very powerful," Badeo says of Alocilja who, despite recovering from multiple strokes, has a reputation for being strict. Sumulat also cites the superintendent's guidance and motivation. "She is always telling us to review, review, and make strategies to sustain and maintain that rank."
But for her part, Alocilja is quick to give credit to her teachers and school heads. "I really got the best of them all," she says.
The superintendent emphasizes the need for students to develop good communication skills. "If you are weak in English, you are weak in all subjects," she says. "You can't compete in the world if you're not well-grounded in English and reading. It opens up a whole world of adventure, building the confidence of children to face the world and meet its challenges."