What we can learn from Brigada Eskwela

Every Filipino deserves to have an education.

The country's forefathers who penned the 1987 Constitution strongly understood this fundamental need that they wrote Article II Section 17 on the pages of the highest law of the land – clear proof of the Filipino people’s belief that education is indispensable to the growth of a nation.

The Department of Education (DepEd) is married to the burden of fulfilling this commitment. Throughout the years, it has devised countless ways to deliver quality education to every Filipino.

But like any other government agency with flaws and shortcomings, the DepEd is not always met with favorable feedback. Most common among the issues thrown at them is the seeming lack of priority for education in the country, as reflected in the deficiency of resources for public schools.

Year after year, we hear news about the shortage of classrooms, overcrowded classes, and schools being not ready for the upcoming school year.

DepEd addressed this issue through the Adopt-a-School Program (ASP) in 1998. This initiative allowed a partnership with other stakeholders who are willing to share resources to improve the country's public school education. In a few years, the spirit of volunteerism reached 200 partners and generated P6 billion worth of programs and interventions.

In order to reach even more people, DepEd brought the program to the communities in 2003 through Brigada Eskwela (School Brigade).

A brand new outlook

Brigada Eskwela, also known as the “Bayanihan Para sa Paaralan (Working Together for Schools)", added a new meaning to the Filipino concept of unity. From the image of barrio men bearing together the weight of a bahay kubo (nipa hut) on their shoulders to the image of volunteers braving storms and floods to help calamity-stricken communities, Brigada Eskwela brings to us a picture of people from different sectors of society repainting walls and blackboards, cleaning windows and doors, or repairing fences.

One of the public school students who grew up in the culture of Brigada Eskwela is Russell de Guzman, a student leader at Makati High School. Since he was in elementary, he has been taking part in this activity.

“When I was in elementary, I would do it because it was a requirement for officers, and I had nothing to do during the summer vacation,” he shared. “But as I kept on doing it every year, I realized it was also my responsibility to help.”

De Guzman explained that it was a challenge for both public school teachers and students to put up with blackboards that have become too rough to write on, chairs with broken armrests or uneven legs, and electric fans that do not work. “It can really make you lose focus on the lesson sometimes.”

He knew there is a need to alleviate these challenges, and understood that as a student, he has a part to play. By being a volunteer in Brigada Eskwela, he saw that no effort is too small to make a difference.

As its name suggests, Brigada Eskwela assembles an army of volunteers to repair and prepare classrooms in time for the opening of classes. This year, it ran from May 18 to 23 under the theme "Tayo para sa Kalinisan, Kaligtasan, at Kahandaan ng Ating mga Paaralan (Stand for the Cleanliness, Safety, and Preparedness of our Schools)."

The success of its implementation lies in the collaborative effort of school heads, private partners, local government units, and the community members, including parents and students.

Through the initiative of the school heads, private partners are given the opportunity to contribute resources for the effort. And in honor of their goodwill, private partners are offered tax incentives of up to 150%. Local government units and community members mostly provide manpower and volunteer services during this week-long activity.

Partners from private companies not only donate cash and resources to the cause. Some of them also send their employees to schools to help. Representatives from religious groups and members of local government units (LGU) such as policemen, firefighters, and bantay bayan also take part in putting up new donated blackboards, painting school fences, and mounting bulletin boards. Parents, teachers, and students from different school organizations also offer their help.

“Everyone works from 8 am to 5 pm with very little supervision from the officers of the student government. We all follow the schedule prescribed since day one,” De Guzman explained.

Throughout the years, the spirit of volunteerism in Brigada Eskwela has reached more people in the communities. In 2007 alone, it has generated more than P2.5 billion worth of support-in-kind and countless volunteer man-hours.

“More and more people from different sectors of the society extend help to our school every year,” De Guzman affirmed.

Repairs and replacements

Every summer for 12 years now, Brigada Eskwela has been transforming public schools into a venue where people from the community get the chance to be directly involved in an endeavor with the government.

People from surrounding barangays who spare their time to volunteer or donate money and resources get the rare opportunity of collaborating with teachers and the members of the LGUs. Seeing them work together paint a picture of shared goals and responsibilities between the school and the community it serves.

De Guzman shared that Brigada Eskwela made him realize that while the government has a duty to its citizens, the citizens also have a duty to the government. “The government cannot do everything for us. We have to do what we can to help each other, too.”

Critics of the program often say that local governments should be the one to fund the maintenance of public schools, and schools should not have to generate resources from private companies or individuals.

In fact, during their solicitations around the community, De Guzman’s group received mixed reactions. Some questioned the need to raise funds for a project that should be funded by the government, while others willingly donated money or materials upon learning of Brigada Eskwela's purpose.

“The highest donation from a single individual was P1,000. The lowest was 25 centavos. We see any amount as a big help,” De Guzman said.

The DepEd explains that one of Brigada Eskwela's goals is to foster understanding among all sectors of society that the education of the Filipino people is the responsibility of everyone.

The government which provides free education for the Filipino youth, the community where they grow, and the private sector who will eventually employ them are all stakeholders of education. Their cooperation is significant to the success of every student’s education.

Not many of us realize our role as partners of the government in creating positive change in society. More often than not, we are quick to point out the diseases of our country, yet we only wait for the government to act on them. We either fail to recognize the opportunities we have to contribute to the cure of these diseases, or we turn a blind eye on them because taking part involves change that may inconvenience us.

De Guzman shared that even some of his schoolmates do not fully understand the program, and complain that they only go to school to study, not to make repairs or clean the campus. “If they will take part in the activity, they will realize a lot of things that will change their outlook.”

Brigada Eskwela also forces us to evaluate our willingness as members of the community to serve when we are called for. With the opportunity it provides us – to be a part of the solution to the challenges of the education system in the country – we realize how we see ourselves and our duty to the community and the country in general.

It allows us to understand that, if we are willing, we can become a part of the change we want to see.

Improved perspectives

Brigada Eskwela was borne out of the need to address the challenges of public school education in the Philippines. It started with the simple mission of cleaning up and beautifying public schools to prepare for the opening of classes. But by allowing everyone to contribute, big or small, to this worthy endeavor, it has also opened multiple doors for learning and reflection.

From the outside, Brigada Eskwela might only count as one of DepEd’s mandates for public schools, a project that generates funds to beautify the campus. But scratching the surface will reveal an effective model of public-private partnership that creates ripples of impact among the different sectors of society by revolutionizing the Filipino trait of bayanihan.

It shows that volunteerism is still abundant in our country, and that there are a lot of people who are willing to cooperate with the government’s worthwhile endeavors if given the chance.

Members of the Makati High School Supreme Student Government flash their pearly whites after the successful week-long event

The positive changes that it creates – both on the physical appearance of the schools and the outlook of the people that take part in it – are sources of great pride for the DepEd family. The Brigada is proof that an effective partnership between the government and citizens is possible.

The whole experience influenced De Guzman as a student leader. He shared that despite the exhausting door-to-door solicitation that he and fellow leaders had to do, they never questioned the value of what they were doing. Despite collecting only a considerable amount of donations each day, they always chose to spend their own money for lunch or snacks.

As they went through the process, they allowed it to mold them into young leaders with integrity. "It was a very tiring experience, but its fruits are fulfilling," he said. – Rappler.com

Lilio Tuares Carreon Jr. writes essays and poems when he is not in the classroom teaching English or coaching debate. Currently, he is serving the students of Makati High School.