Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tutoring for grade school students

Inquirer Opinion / Columns

Commentary : Tutoring for grade school students

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: July 13, 2008

MANILA, Philippines—My 7-year-old niece who studies in Mater Carmeli School in Novaliches heard her father talking about high prices and told him: "Don't worry, Papa, I can stop schooling. Anyway, I finished Grade 1." Her parents assured her there was enough money for school and that there was much more to learn. When they tell the story, people laugh.

In the Baseco urban poor area at the mouth of the Pasig River, hundreds of poor children drop out each year from the Hermenigildo J. Atienza Elementary School. Some 918 children began Grade 1 in June 2007, but before the end of the school year, 101 had dropped out: 11 percent of the class. Nobody was laughing. These are 6- or 7-year-old children who are now finished for good with school and thrust into a highly competitive world where even factories require a high school diploma, and fast-food shops require some college education. Some years the figures were worse: in June 2006 the first-grade class began with 943 children, but only 702 finished the year, a dropout rate of 25 percent.

In June this year, 378 children finished elementary school in Baseco. There were 715 when they began in Grade 1 in June 2002. Over the six years of schooling, 47 percent of the children dropped out.

The children drop out for many different reasons. Parents can't afford the school expenses, or they need the children to work to make money, for example, by scavenging, or the children feel they don't fit in or can't keep up with the studies, or the parents just don't care. As a result of all this, almost half the children of Baseco will wind up illiterate, which is equivalent to a life-long sentence to poverty.

No one blames the principal or teachers. There are classes in Baseco with 91 and sometimes more children in the room. How can a teacher handle such a number? Just to keep a modicum of civilization is quite a work. There are two children for every textbook (government figure). There are children so bright they do well despite all the obstacles, but most children are average and below average and these children wind up in the 5th and 6th grades unable to read with any ease in English or Tagalog, and unable to do simple math. If you ask a 6th grade boy or girl in Baseco, how much is 29 plus 15, they will most likely go into some sort of abacus on their fingers. Fingers may be useful for simple addition and subtraction, but not for the math needed to deal with credit cards, bank accounts, bills from utility companies, tax forms and the like. The children will be numerically illiterate.

What to do? The usual suggestions for a bigger education budget, higher salaries for teachers, smaller class size, etc. are all good, but what to do now?

A small tutoring venture in Baseco called Edukasyong Kabalikat para sa Kaunlaran (EKK) has had some success and, in the process, came upon what may be the prime missing ingredient in the present overcrowded school system, namely, the lack of any individual care. It's not a new discovery, of course: good teachers have always known the importance of individual attention to children.

EKK is a small tutoring effort run by the parents of Kabalikat, a people's organization in Baseco, that takes children for six hours a week (two hours a day, three times a week) after regular school. There are classes for 5th and 6th grade boys and girls and first graders. The program only takes students whose academic averages are under 80 percent: the very bright students don't need tutoring and the very slow won't benefit. It is a difficult triage for kids to undergo. Mayette Betasolo is in charge of the EKK committee of parents.

The program focuses on reading (English and Tagalog), math, science and religious values. The classes always have less than 25 students, allowing the young teacher to give some individual time to each student. This individual attention makes a great difference in children's progress. In individual instruction, the teacher can discover what prevents the children from doing their best. The problem may be a serious one, dyslexia, for example, or a much more common one, lack of confidence, shyness, or the inability to form certain sounds. Sometimes it's enough to move a child who has trouble hearing from the last row in a class to the front where he or she can hear the teacher. A good teacher or a good part-time tutor can solve most problems.

Ivy Espineli and Lala Salanga, two young women, both UP graduates, have been EKK's main teachers. They have been successful. All 96 children who finished the 6th grade tutoring over the past four years have passed the government exam for entering high school. All were average students. Of the 96 who have gone to high school, all but five are still in high school or have graduated. EKK is now into its 5th year. The usual percentage for finishing high school is about 20 percent. EKK's graduates may reach a 90 percent graduation rate if present trends continue.

Ivy has given up a well-paying work in Thailand and Makati to tutor in Baseco. Lala is getting her master's at UP.

The Baseco parents who run EKK say there are three reasons for the success EKK has had: one, it focuses on reading, math, science and values and stays away from the other subjects that crowd children's days in school; it gives time for individual attention; and, finally, there is the commitment of the young teachers.

How can we provide similar tutoring for many other children? It need not be six hours a week. If there are only two or three children in a class, maybe two hours a week would be enough. Maybe one hour a week with one child would do. We have thousands of children who need tutoring. We have potential tutors in our college students, young professionals, retired elderly people, the children's parents themselves and older students in the urban poor areas. How do we put students and tutors together? Is there some person(s) with the calling to do this?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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