[PHOTO AT LEFT - FIRST DAY HIGH: Tens of thousands of students of Rizal High School in Pasig City, one of the most highly populated high schools in Asia, welcome the first day of school yesterday with excitement amid reports of classroom shortages nationwide.]

MANILA, June 6, 2006 (STAR) As some 20 million students trooped back to school yesterday, President Arroyo acknowledged there were "perennial problems" facing the country’s education system but said the government was fixing them.

"It will indeed take time before we could fix the perennial problems in our education system, but we will get there through the cooperation of all our institutions," she said in a statement.

Mrs. Arroyo’s statement comes a week after acting Education Secretary Fe Hidalgo pointed out that classrooms in the country were grossly overcrowded. The President admonished Hidalgo on national television for making the comments.

Yesterday, primary school children crammed many public schools in Metro Manila, some of them housed in gymnasiums while others were being taught in open spaces, reports said.

According to the Department of Education (DepEd), 17.8 million students this year were enrolled in government-run elementary and high schools, up five percent over last year. About 2.2 million will go to private schools, most of which start next week.

DepEd also said it needs to hire more than 10,000 new teachers.

Schools in the Philippines are among the most congested in the world. One of them, the Commonwealth Elementary School, has a record 12,755 students in 85 classrooms — amounting to an average of 150 pupils per room.

Dilapidated buildings also proved to be a problem, with some pupils in one Metro Manila school using umbrellas inside the classroom because of leaking roofs.

Hidalgo told dzMM radio that some students had to be transferred from schools that had been declared unsafe. The "retrofitting" of these unsafe schools may take one to three months.

She also warned that striking teachers would be reprimanded.

During a press conference yesterday, Hidalgo said the DepEd has finished constructing 2,901 classrooms to reduce the classroom shortage of 6,832 reported earlier.

About 1,800 more classrooms will be finished by September, while the rest will be done by the end of this year, she said.

Hidalgo said that according to the DepEd’s planning division, the shortage she reported to Mrs. Arroyo was the projected figure at the beginning of fiscal year 2006 and was based on a 1:100 class-student ratio using the "double shift" scheme — 50 students in the morning and 50 more in the afternoon using the same classroom.

She said while the "double shift" scheme should have solved the classroom shortage based on the overall picture, the situation was not the same for the 42,000 public schools across the country.

Some schools suffer from acute classroom shortages while others actually have excess classrooms, Hidalgo said.

The classroom shortage in some schools is caused by population growth, the transfer of students from private to public schools, or from one public school to another, as well as students transferring residence.

Hidalgo said they have not received reports about shortages in tables, chairs or textbooks, though they have yet to hear from the DepEd Action Center if any such problems were reported in these areas.

Not learning enough

The non-government Kaakbay CDI, which is working to reverse the worsening public school situation, warned that many students were not learning enough to be able to go to college and that many teachers were incompetent.

It said that one in every seven students lacked a classroom and that one in every three lacked a single textbook.

Kaakbay urged the government and the private sector to invest more in education and to overhaul the management of the bureaucracy that runs public schools.

Public school teachers from the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) held a rally at the Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila yesterday to demand more funds for the education sector and a higher salary for educators.

ACT chairman Antonio Tinio said they took to the streets on the first day of classes to call Mrs. Arroyo’s attention to the administration’s failure to address the deterioration of the country’s educational system.

"Under Mrs. Arroyo’s watch, more children are out of school, and teacher and classroom shortages have worsened. Teachers’ salaries have remained stagnant while their workload has increased, and student achievement levels have plummeted," he said.

They also called on Congress to act on proposed legislation for a P3,000 across-the-board monthly salary increase for government employees.

Quezon City Public School Teachers’ Association president Tess Busadre said Malacañang can draw on its discretionary funds to augment the P2 billion allocation for classroom construction.

Increased DepEd budget

The agreement between the House of Representatives and the Senate to increase the budget of the DepEd by P2.6 billion will mean 6,500 to 7,000 new classrooms for this school year.

Sen. Manuel Roxas II said the DepEd budget, in its present form, already has P2 billion allocated for the construction of around 3,300 classrooms.

The P2.6-billion increase will double the number of classrooms for construction, he said, noting that the actual amount added to the DepEd budget could go even higher.

"For every classroom that will be restored, the corresponding teacher, seats and other paraphernalia will also come along so we don’t end up with shells of classrooms that don’t have seats or teachers with no classrooms or classrooms without teachers," Roxas said.

Roxas said the present budget has a provision for hiring 10,000 new teachers but under the comprehensive approach, the number of new teachers could be even higher.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said the budget increase for the DepEd could be derived from items removed by the Senate from the proposed 2006 national budget.

He said the funds could be taken from the P3-billion Kalayaan Barangay Program Fund or the P3.6-billion Kilos Asenso Support Fund, which "are not infrastructure projects. These are lump-sum appropriations."

The two programs were described by several senators as the President’s pork barrel fund.— Sandy Araneta, Marvin Sy, AFP, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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