By Ida Anita Q. del Mundo (Cover photo by Walter Bollozos)

Manila, Philippines - With the opening of classes last month, the Department of Education, led by Brother Armin Luistro, has been busy attending to the needs of students, faculty, and staff of schools all over the country.

“If you look around you, everybody is talking about education,” says Luistro. “Whether they are talking about shortages or the Enhanced K-to-12 Basic Education (K+12) program, I think that’s a very good sign because what we want is a community sincerely interested in and aware of what the needs are and who are willing to be part of the solution, willing to do their share.”

Many of the problems and issues still relevant today – shortages in classrooms, textbooks and other resources, and qualified teachers – are those that have plagued the education system for years. “The twin targets of access and quality must be solved at the same time,” says Luistro.

The problems in education that the country has to face, Luistro points out, do not only concern budget, but are an urban problem as a whole. “The problem really is of congestion, zoning, lack of urban planning. They cannot be solved by building, but by an innovation in the curriculum itself.”

Aside from forging strong partnerships with local government units as well as corporations, the secretary is taking a progressive approach to solving these age-old problems.

“I don’t think we could solve the problems of access and quality if we keep doing more of the same,” says Luistro. “That’s why we are aggressively pushing the use of technology, connecting all our schools, making sure there is a cheap way of having access through digitizing our resources via the Internet for learning purposes.”

Among the department’s programs are those involving technology and developing the curriculum to decongest classrooms. “We are mapping the competencies students can learn without a face-to-face encounter with the teacher,” says Luistro. The hybrid program will combine computer-aided instruction done outside the classroom with traditional classroom teaching sessions.

“There is no room for hopelessness,” says Luistro. “In fact, a lot of the shortages that we have identified are being addressed as we speak by various groups,” he says, citing the expanding community support of Brigada Eskwela as an example.

Another major program that has been much talked about recently is the K+12 program, which Luistro says is “our way of pooling together all the reforms.” One of the aims of the program is to elevate the curriculum of basic education to bring it beyond a preparatory level for college.

[PHOTO Secretary Armin Luistro visits students of Bagong Ilog Elementary School, Pasig City (top and middle) and inspects public schools in Alaminos City.]

“There are so many reforms. We have a lot of partners and many small programs that have been pilot tested in different areas. I feel that for the department to move forward, we have to concentrate on maybe the top five or top ten reforms and scale these up in all the schools,” says Luistro. “All these reforms we’ve tried to weave together in the K+12 proposal. The K+12 includes both addressing the shortage in infrastructure, teacher training, and resources, including digitizing our resources. It addresses as well the complaint of error-filled books. We want to make sure to develop a curriculum that will allow high school graduates of our basic education program to be ready for life.”

K+12 is proposed to be a comprehensive program for basic education, enabling those who graduate from high school to work after finishing the 12-year program, while offering an option to go to college. “College should not be a requirement for a high salary,” says the secretary. Rather, those who take basic education should be equipped with the skills and professional competence to work in their chosen field.

“We want specialized high schools – arts, sports academies, schools for peace and order,” says Luistro. “They should all be able to use their high school training to hone their special skills which they could use for a living.”

[PHOTO -As university president of La Salle, Luistro presents a certificate to former president Corazon Aquino]

Luistro’s approach to leading the department is certainly influenced by his experience of leading De La Salle University as its president. “In private education, you’re pushed by an urgency to finish things right away,” says Luistro adding, “In La Salle, the most exciting projects I have been a part of are the ones with zero budget. I think one of the most important aspects of leadership is coming together and putting up a good idea. When you have a good idea, money should come.”

He employs the same formula when it comes to developing projects of DepEd. “Create a concept of where we want to go, engage stakeholders so they begin to own the project. Students, faculty members, staff should be able to say ‘I’m a part of that,’ so they naturally lend their support, invest in it, and own the project. We need the whole community to feel that this project is important.”

Making the leap from heading a private university to becoming DepEd secretary has entailed many adjustments for Luistro. While La Salle’s trimestral system might have gotten him used to a fast-paced schedule, the secretary says it is even more hectic now. “For every invitation I say yes to, I say no to 15 or 20 others. That happens when you have 45,000 schools and 510,000 teachers.”

[PHOTO - Luistro meets Pope Benedict XVI.]

Luistro says he accepted the position of Education secretary out of a sense of responsibility. “Our mission is to make sure that whatever I have been doing in La Salle to promote the cause of education is this time expanded to the 7,100 islands of the Philippines. I think it’s essentially the same mission. I don’t feel it’s really different from my vocation as a Lasallian brother.”

He remembers another Lasallian brother, Andrew Gonzales, who was his predecessor both as university president and DepEd secretary. “He used to say that if we really want to help the poor, we have to work in public schools and that is what I feel I am doing.”

Accepting the post of DepEd secretary meant that Luistro had to leave the institution he had been serving just before La Salle’s centennial celebration. “I miss it more than anything else,” he says, though he notes that a lot of the La Salle community have offered their help, services and networks for the benefit of the DepEd.

In his speech during the opening ceremony of La Salle’s centennial celebration, President Aquino – after some obligatory Ateneo-La Salle jokes – praised his rival school’s long tradition of high quality education that nourishes the desire to serve the country, adding, “Kaya naman ngayon, marami sa ating mga kabalikat sa pagtitimon ng bayan ay produkto ng La Salle. Andiyan na nga po ang ating kalihim ng Edukasyon, Brother Armin Luistro, na talagang hinugot natin mula sa pagiging university president dahil alam nating mapapakinabangan ng mas maraming Pilipino ang mga inobasyon at repormang ginawa niya sa DLSU (That is why there are many graduates of La Salle who join us now in serving the country. One of them is Education secretary Brother Armin Luistro, who we really pulled out of being university president because we knew that many more Filipinos can benefit from the innovations and reforms he has done in DLSU).”

[PHOTO - President Aquino addresses educators during the World Teacher’s Day celebration as Luistro, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Health Secretary Enrique Ona look on (below).Photo by gil nartea/Malacanang Photo Bureau]

Aquino also mentioned in his speech other La Salle alumni including Justice secretary Leila De Lima, spokesman Edwin Lacierda, Agrarian Reform secretary Gil delos Reyes, Tourism secretary Alberto Lim, Finance secretary Cesar Purisima, DILG secretary Jesse Robredo and NEDA director-general Cayetano Paderanga, Jr.

The President also noted how Lasallians have played an active part in history, housing NAMFREL during the time of Corazon Aquino and, more recently, giving much needed support and protection to NBN-ZTE whistleblower Jun Lozada.

Still housed at the DLSU-Manila campus, Luistro says, “Every morning, from my room, I look at the centennial building rising. That was something I was very excited about, but now I can only witness this. But that’s part of the joy – to see something we had been working on before I left now slowly rising.”

On seeing many of the centennial projects come into fruition – most of which were planned during his term – Luistro says he has mixed emotions. “On one hand, I say, ‘This is the year that I left and these are the things that I cannot be fully part of.’ On the other hand, I am happy that many of the things that we planned are still continuing without me. It’s a testament to the strength of the community… it shows that it’s the project of the community, not mine.”

He has similar sentiments when it comes to the projects of the DepEd: “One of the first things I told the regional directors is that when I go around the schools, I don’t want my picture on tarpaulins and I don’t want my picture in every classroom. I’m serious about that.”

Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, Luistro, Sen. Edgardo Angara and Health Secretary Enrique Ona kick off the “Oh My Gulay!” campaign.

Further, Luistro says he is not keen on leaving a personal legacy as Education secretary. “I don’t think it’s just one man’s job. The work of the department is not done by one person, much less the secretary. The real work happens in the classrooms. The key person is the principal. I’m serious about making sure that the programs of the department are not just a personal advocacy.”

Involving the whole community in building a stronger education system, Luistro says that for those who would like to become involved, “The first task is to know one school – who are the people there, what are their needs. Awareness hopefully brings about concern… I think any human being who sincerely gets to know what are the needs of one school will be encouraged to look for ways to become involved.”

Luistro adds, “I think the most important thing is to make sure that we provide what the Filipino students deserve with the creativity and commitment that is required of a father of a family.” But he quickly rethinks his analogy: “I’m happy to be called a brother.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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