Dream School: Early Childhood Education in Puerto Princesa

Children enjoy the out-of-the-box activities in Scholaris.

It’s Friday morning, a school day.  About 25 kids, from maybe ages 4 to 7, are playing

on the beach in front of Microtel. Five children are in a small boat in shallow water, being pulled around by one of the fathers. Six or seven others are gathered around a young woman on the beach; they are all examining the sea creatures they have collected into a bilao. Another child runs up to the group, gently carrying a sand crab.

This is school this morning, but not just any school. This is Scholaris, Palawan’s dream school, the progressive, nature-oriented school, conceived and birthed by Ms. Luisita Suarez. Of course the children aren’t always at the beach, but they are often outside, and the school has truly nurtured love of and respect for nature in these young children. And that’s one of the governing principles of the school, bringing children into experiences with nature that stimulate their curiosity, their respect, and their love for the natural world.

I was privileged to sit down with school founders Sita and Rene Suarez one afternoon in Microtel. (Full disclosure: Rene is the General Manager (GM) of Microtel Puerto Princesa, and thus this is an ideal site for some school activities!)

I wanted to hear about the process, about how they decided to start the school and how they were able to realize this dream.  Rene responded immediately: “Serendipity. There was a lot of serendipity.”

Sita had always thought she would want to be a pre-school teacher, even back when she was working as a District Manager for Starbucks. They had educators in their family too.  Sita’s sister was a scientist and taught at U.P. and Rene’s sister was a primary school educator and administrator, and Sita’s sister in law was a preschool teacher. In the developmental process of Scholaris, these people jumped in exactly when they were needed.

Before they moved to Palawan from Manila, when their own children were very young, Rene and Sita belonged to a volunteer parents organization called EduChild. This organization carried out discussions through case studies, so they had heard and thought about many childraising scenarios. One mantra of the group was the simple truth that children don’t come with manuals. They didn’t think they needed a manual for their first child, Elise, who was just an easy child to deal with!  But through this group they realized some of the many complications of parenting in the modern world.

They moved here to Palawan when Elise was ready for grade one, and Sita decided to homeschool both Elise and her younger brother Nacho. She and the children spent a lot of time at Microtel, so the beach became their classroom. At first Nacho was afraid of sand but he soon got over that and the children learned inductively from the seashore, the creatures in the sea, the weather, the plants, the people they met, and of course books and conversations with their parents.

Rene and Sita made many friends quickly in Puerto Princesa, as did their two charming children. Many people were very impressed with Elise and Nacho and the fact that they were home-schooled. When Sita explained the progressive approach of experiential learning  which she was using, they began to suggest that she open a school.

Sita and Rene could see the need for such a school in Puerto Princesa and they knew they could parent such a venture – so they decided to take the plunge. Serendipity was strongest then when they met Marlyn Lopez and Lovela Sayas, who had been running Live and Learn, a preschool in Quezon City, and who were more than happy to help set up this new school.  They had the time and the passion to do it, and this was the deciding factor to go ahead and purchase the house in Alta Homes.  Without their initial presence, the school would not have happened.  They coached Sita on early childhood learning, curriculum development and teacher training.

Sita had also been strongly influenced by Esther Esteban’s Family and Child Development course at UA&P and Bev Bo’s Community Preschool in California.

The school opened in September 2014 and is now entering year 4. There are 31 students including 3 toddlers who just come for an hour a day with their moms. When parents come to inquire about enrolling children, teachers conduct an assessment on all areas of development – psychomotor, socio-emotional, and cognitive skills, and then place them in the class that suits them – whether toddler, junior or senior class.  Age-appropriate placement begins at kindergarten as required by the DepEd. The school has a student teacher ratio of 7 to 1 max: there are up to 14 students in a class with two teachers.

Some of the children spend significant time outside of Puerto Princesa with their parents, and attend when they are in town. Sita feels that parents should be the prime educators of their children, so this situation is fine with her. She is also looking at options to be of help to people home-schooling their children – perhaps options that include learning specific skills or meeting for certain activities in school.

It was also serendipitous that when Lorie decided to take a break from U.P, she came over to help Sita with the DepEd requirements

There are basic skills in math, science, and English that children do need to learn, and which Scholaris does address. But the school uses themes, situations, and exposure to nature to develop conversation and ability to verbalize, empathy with others and the world, and confidence building above all else. Classes have mixed ages for socio-emotional benefits. Children often work together collaboratively.

The school serves healthy snacks to the children – the kids sometimes make these!

Art materials and such are also provided, all part of the tuition.

Back at the beach, it is time to go home now, and share the experiences of the morning with siblings and parents. And teachers may be planning how to make use of these experiences in class on Monday. Happy weekend!

Scholaris is located in Alta Homes off the San Jose – Sta Monica Road

Facebook: Scholaris Learning and Development Center.

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