The search is on for the worst-performing students

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Silid Aralan is an after-school “self-empowerment program” that teaches learners more soft skills rather than textbook knowledge. Photo courtesy of SILID ARALAN

A grade of 75 is pasang awa (barely passing) for most students educated in the Philippines.

But non-profit organization Silid Aralan, Inc. (SAI) has recently announced that they are on the lookout for the country's 75 worst performing students whose grades are under 75, in their nationwide search called "75 Under 75." The winners of the search will join their Ground Zero Program, the NGO's 13-year-old method that focuses on experiential learning rather than textbook learning; on teaching soft skills rather than hard skills; and on customizing the children's education according to their passions, hobbies, and learning styles.

Their learning venues are usually located just a few meters away from the nearby public school — but compared to a typical classroom, the chairs are mostly replaced by mats and pillows on the floor. Arcie Mallari, founder and CEO of Silid Aralan explains that this is similar to how the children learn inside their homes. “Marami sa kanila [ang] natututo nakadapa o nakahiga kasi sa bahay nila ay ganoon. So we bring that inside the room,” he says. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, just as with in-person classes in schools, Silid Aralan's after-school sessions also shifted online.

Silid Aralan, Inc. reaches out to academically challenged public school students and aims to develop their love for learning. Photo courtesy of SILID ARALAN

The program aims to help the majority of students in public schools — 80% of whom get an average grade of 79 or lower, says Mallari in a call with CNN Philippines Life.

“Maraming organization na nagtu-tutor [at] tumutulong pero doon lang sa mga magagaling.”

In contrast, the kids who need the most help don’t learn what they need to be learning. Mallari recalls the time when he first moved to a settlement in Payatas back in 2002 and encountered third-year high school students who could barely read, if at all. “Nagtaka ako. If they're Grade 9 or Grade 10, [bakit] hindi marunong magbasa o nahihirapan sa pagbabasa?” he says. “Paano sila nakapasa at nakarating sa high school?”

It starts at home

To get some answers, public-school teacher Bonifel Sahagun of Kasiglahan Village Elementary School in Rodriguez, Rizal says that public schools are starting to visit the homes of their students who are failing. Everything from the student's tardiness; lack of interest in studying, motivation, self-confidence, and perseverance; and poor self-esteem are all rooted in problems at home, such as the family’s financial problems, their community's environment, poor nourishment, or sadly even child labor.

Sahagun acknowledges that their interventions are probably not enough; the least they can do is adjust timelines to ensure that the student accomplishes their academic requirements.

Silid Aralan takes the learners out of the classroom because they believe experiential learning is as valuable in the formation of the child’s growth and development. Photo courtesy of SILID ARALAN

Mallari, who founded Silid Aralan in 2007, also credits the failing grades partly to the typical mindset that people have about referring to one’s grades to identify their level of intelligence. “Again, ang basehan ng magaling: grades.”

“Every day pumapasok ka sa school at alam mo na sinasabihan ka ng teacher mo na hindi ka magaling o bobo ka o mahina ka. Pagdating mo sa bahay, ganoon din. So nare-reprogram talaga iyon sa utak ng bata at nagma-manifest ‘yung behavior niya dahil sa mga naririnig niya.”

But Mallari notes, different students have different ways of learning. He shares that most of the students they mentored in Silid Aralan are the kind of students who learn by doing, and not merely sitting down and listening to the teacher. “Kaya hindi mataas ang grades nila eh,” he explains. “Sila ‘yung pagkakinig nila, ‘Gawin na natin!’ Natututo sila hindi dahil sa lecture; natututo sila kasi ang daming beses silang nagkakamali, pero resilient sila. Kapag nagkakamali sila, gagawin pa rin nila hanggang matutunan nila.”

Different types of intelligence

Mallari is quick to point out that what they’re doing is not merely an academic tutoring program. They don’t teach English, math, or science, but they teach soft skills, manners (even bringing the kids to hotels and fast food joints to learn the proper way of holding a spoon and fork) and building up self-esteem. “Pinapataas namin ‘yung dignidad at ‘yung pagtingin ng mismong learner sa sarili niya — na hindi dahil mahirap siya ay bobo siya, na hindi dahil basurero siya ay hanggang doon lang siya.”

Silid Aralan Alumna Elisha Barrunuevo, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in information technology and now works as the team leader of encoders in a distribution services company, can attest to this. "Ang pinaka-valuable life lesson na natutunan ko sa SAI ay 'Walang batang bobo,'" she says. "Kung dati ay panay palakol ang grade ko, nagkaroon na ako ng line of eight at nine [na grades] at napasama pa ako sa top 10 ng aming section.”

Silid Aralan also involves the children in a lot of play, dance, singing and the arts, in order to engage their bodily-kinesthetics and technical intelligence.

Some of Silid Aralan’s learners during a trip to the grocery, one of their common activities that attempts to teach the learners soft skills as simple as falling in line, computing expenses, and basic manners with fellow customers. Photo courtesy of SILID ARALAN

This is how Kent Ian Vargas, who with his family was relocated from an informal settlement in Quezon City to Montalban, Rizal, experienced a lot of firsts. "First time ko ma-experience ang air-conditioned na room. Dito ako unang nakakita ng mga colored na libro; nakakita at nakagamit ng computer; natutong kumanta, sumayaw at mag-drawing; makapunta sa zoo at iba't ibang lugar," he recalls. "Unti-unti, hindi ko namalayan na nagkakaroon na ako ng confidence at nae-enjoy ko na pala ang pag-aaral. Nakakapag-recite na rin ako sa klase at nagiging leader na rin sa group activities."

From grades in the line of seven during third grade, he started getting a line of nine and graduated top two of his class in the sixth grade. Now Vargas is a public-school teacher, a master's student at Philippine Normal University, and a donor and member of Silid Aralan's Board of Trustees.

Passing it on

A donor shells out ₱10,800 annually for the next 10 years to support the learner's membership to Silid Aralan. When Mallari’s team did their computations comparing the donor’s monetary donation from the learner’s post-Silid Aralan success, they found that there is an immediate SROI (or the social return on investment).

“Kunwari naging public school teacher ang isang learner. Kung inisponsoran siya ni Donor ng ₱108,000 sa buong 10 years, we found na more or less ay nasa ₱222,025 ang SROI niya sa unang taon pa lang pagka-graduate ng learner,” says Mallari. This is computed based on a variety of factors, including their contributions to SSS, PhilHealth, and Pag-IBIG (or, generally, their contributions to the economy); their monthly salary and support to their families; and their donations to Silid Aralan, their public schools, and the church, among many others. “Kinompute din namin ito: kung hindi sila napunta sa Silid Aralan, ano sila ngayon? Baka maraming tambay, kasi tinignan din namin [iyong] mga kaklase nila na katulad nila dati na ngayon ay tambay.”

Mallari has high hopes not just for Silid Aralan but, ultimately, the Philippine education system; he hopes that Silid Aralan’s “fewer lectures, more experiential learning” mentoring model will soon be adopted by the country’s public schools. After all, it is now institutionalized in many developed countries such as Finland, Japan, and Singapore.

“My hope is, eventually, matatanggal na tayo doon sa academic na point-of-view na [ang] magagaling na bata ay ‘yung magagaling lang magkabisa, magaling sa math, science, and English,” he says, “dahil lahat ng bata, may kaniya-kaniyang galing.”


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