MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines' education sector has seen quite a number of changes in the past 6 years, but none of them were as dramatic and controversial as the shift from a 10-year to a 12-year basic education cycle.
The Department of Education (DepEd) started preparations for the additional two years of high school as soon as the Enhanced Basic Education Act was signed in 2013.
To the mind of education officials, learners are at the center of this education reform. By the end of 12-year basic education, high school graduates are expected to have the basic skills needed in the workforce.
The ideal scenario is that every student who completes Grade 10 – 4th year high school in the old cycle – will continue studying in Grade 11.
But in 2015, Senator Antonio "Sonny" Trillanes IV – one of the program's staunchest critics – said dropout rates will soar because of the additional expenses that come with two more years of high school.
Early estimates from groups resisting K to 12 pegged the additional cost at P20,000 for two years, but the Kabataan party list recently claimed additional expenses for two years could actually go over P100,000.
Days before the nationwide rollout of senior high school's Grade 11, the Philippine Star reported there were only 432,000 enrollees in the senior high school program.
Education Secretary Armin Luistro is not worried about these figures. He expects a "more solid" report on enrollment after the first week of classes.
Even local education officials are expecting higher enrollment after the opening of classes, since some schools have yet to encode their enrollment into the DepEd's Learner Information System.
But other DepEd officials admit their biggest challenge right now is making sure every student who completes Grade 10 pursues senior high school.
As it is, the Philippines' Education for All 2015 National Review showed that survival of children until they reach the final year (cohort survival rate) has been improving over the years.
In school year 2012 to 2013, the cohort survival rate for secondary school was at 78% – still a 20%-difference from the target of 100%.
"There are 8,000 public junior high schools, and out of 8,000, only 5,700 will offer Grade 11," Elvin Uy, DepEd assistant secretary for curriculum and instruction, told Rappler.
"So you have students from about 2,000 schools [who] need to transfer, and anytime kids need to transfer to another school, you anticipate some friction – whether they transfer to another public school which is free, or they go into private school or [state universities and colleges] via the voucher," he added.
As of June 2, around 5,998 DepEd-run public schools and 5,031 non-DepEd schools will offer senior high school to 1.5 million students. At least 191 of public senior high schools are considered stand-alone.
Non-DepEd schools consist of private schools, private higher education institutions, public HEIs (local and state universities and colleges), and technical-vocational institutions.
"Supposedly, [transferring] should be as hassle-free as we can design it, but I think in actuality, that's where you will have problems in terms of students competing for limited slots, or certain private schools imposing additional admission requirements that might deter our students and parents from enrolling in those programs," Uy admitted.
From public to private
In an ideal world, the distribution of 1.5 million students to 11,029 senior high schools translates to 136 students per school.
"Pero sa totoong buhay hindi ganyan (But in reality, that's not the case)," Jesus Mateo, DepEd assistant secretary for governance and operations, told Rappler.
Even if every city and municipality has at least one senior high school, Mateo said the population in one area still varies from another.
"That is our current arrangement – high schools are not in all barangays, unlike elementary schools. These are already older students, they are the ones supposed to go to college, so they are more mobile. These are not children," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Take the case of the schools division in Laguna. Erma Valenzuela, the division's senior high school coordinator, said one school in Alaminos has an enrollee from Batangas.
In Felicisimo T. San Luis National High School – one of the 3 DepEd-run senior high schools in Sta Cruz, Laguna – most of the Grade 10 completers or around 290 students transferred schools, while only 60 stayed to take either the sports track, or the general academic strand.
Benjie Valbuena, the national chair of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers-Philippines (ACT-Philippines), said a poor student could reconsider going to senior high school because of the limited offerings in DepEd-run schools near them.
"Some students from public schools, especially those in urban poor areas, they can't decide on a track. They're hesitant to commit because of their economic status, and arrangements for the voucher system are not yet clear," he told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.
Aside from limited offerings, it appears many students who transfer to non-DepEd schools want a "change of environment."
"There are instances when the student wants to get out of the public system, since they've been here for 4 years, so they want a different environment. But if the time comes and they change their mind, we still have slots here in public school," Valbuena said in a mix of English and Filipino.
ACT-Philippines is one of the groups that filed petitions before the Supreme Court (SC) seeking the suspension of the K to 12 program. The High Court has yet to decide on the consolidated petition against the law.
"Senior high school is not for free but for sale, that's clear. [It's a] privatization in education, which is a violation of our Constitution, because in the Constitution, education is free in elementary and high school," Valbuena said in a mix of English and Filipino.
DepEd's senior high school voucher program offers an alternative for students who want to pursue Grade 11 in non-DepEd schools. For critics, however, the value of the voucher, which ranges from P8,750 to P22,500, is not enough to sustain a student's private education.
Uy admitted that some arrangements in private schools might surprise parents who initially thought they wouldn't have to shell out a single centavo upon availing of the senior high school voucher.
"Some private schools would ask the students to pay first and then they would be reimbursed once the school receives the payment from government. That is allowed, but if the parents or students don't agree [or they really can't pay], they can choose not to enroll in those schools," he added.
The DepEd has already instructed local education officials to help public school students find schools where they will not be charged more than the value of their voucher.
But political analyst Nelson Cainghog from the University of the Philippines Diliman told Rappler that one of the missed opportunities in basic education is actually the voucher program.
"The voucher program, while free, did not address the additional expenses that will be incurred by the parents for two years, [which were] non-existent previously," he added.
In Sta Cruz, Laguna, teachers are getting reports of students already enrolled in private senior high schools who want to go back to public schools after realizing the cost of private education.
For transferees of Felicisimo T. San Luis National High School who want to go back, the school has prepared buffer rooms for last-minute enrollees.
But the school's 4-story building for senior high is still under construction, leaving the school with no choice but to apply double shifting in junior high school to free up classrooms for senior high school students.
Uy admitted they could have started the construction of classrooms much sooner, but the delays were due to "organizational challenges and constraints."
"As early as the 2014 budget, we had provisions for the senior high school classrooms, but what prevented us from starting the construction sooner was because of [Super Typhoon] Yolanda, government had to redesign its specifications for facilities, and DepEd had to take part in doing calamity-resilient classrooms and facilities," he explained.
"So we ended up starting the 2014 construction late in 2014 or early 2015. And that kind of delay also affected the 2015 construction, which now affects the 2016 construction."
The education department hopes to catch up with the delays, especially since their 2016 budget has an allocation for the construction of 30,000 more classrooms.
The full implementation of the K to 12 program coincides with the transition period of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte's administration.
For the possible dropouts, Briones is looking at increasing the budget of the education department's Alternative Learning System (ALS) – a module-based, non-formal way to learn, designed for learners who cannot afford to go through formal schooling.
Cainghog said this is a step in the right direction. ALS, he said, should be given attention to so that students who might end up not going to senior high will still be able to get back on track.
"They need to focus on access," Cainghog said. "The reform might not be perfect but it is on the right track with proper support."
How many students will actually drop out of school because of senior high school remains to be seen.
Fearing the worst, critics have not wavered in their calls to suspend the K to 12 program.
But the education department is hoping for the best. After all, the years of preparation will go to waste if the reform meant to produce the country's best learners will end up leaving many of them behind. – Rappler.com
Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.