(This story was produced with the support of Oxfam Pilipinas.)
A sixteen-year-old Grade 4 elementary student, Roxanne Bagarang, used to traverse around four kilometers every day just to attend classes. She is a member of the Batak community, one of the three remaining groups of indigenous people [Batak, Tagbanua, and Palaw’an] in Puerto Princesa City.
The educational system across the country migrated to a remote learning modality as a measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). After the schools were closed in mid-March 2020, Roxanne, who lives in the Batak village in Sitio Kalakwasan in Barangay Tanabag, no longer needed to cross the Tanabag River ten times on a daily basis to go to school.
For Roxanne, it means an hour and 30 minutes of daily hike to and from school was removed off her back. The immediate shift to distance learning, however, highlighted the inequalities in access to education, which was already challenging for the Bataks even before the pandemic struck.
In the Batak community, men generally work to sustain the family’s needs. One popular source of income is by going up to the mountain for several days to gather almaciga resin or “bagtik”, a derivative of varnish, and selling it outside the village.
One sack of almaciga is priced at around P2,000, which is enough to last a Batak family for the whole week. However, this is not a stable livelihood as it is dependent on the harvest of the resin. Gathering other natural resources from the forest, such as rattan and honey, is also considered a family business.
To make up for the income deficit, women also make handicrafts such as woven items, flower pots, beaded necklaces, and some indigenous items like baskets and necklaces, which they sell for a profit.
Although elementary education is free, the poverty incidence in IP communities remained as a challenge to accessing better learning, such as the availability of materials, which were usually bridged by the modules personally prepared by the teachers.
However, education is not at the top of the list of priorities for the Batak. When push comes to shove, Batak parents would even require their children to skip classes and help in gathering resources to generate income.
Charlene Magbanua, a public school teacher at Tanabag Elementary School in Brgy. Tanabag, Puerto Princesa City, has been teaching Batak students for five years.
Teacher Charlene, although patient and understanding of the family needs of her students, expressed concern about the circumstances as a product of the poverty cycle.
“Nakaka-apekto [ito] kapag mag-absent sila, lalo na pag panahon na need nila mag-help mag-bagtik sa parents nila. May case din dati halos weeks na hindi pumapasok. Sabi ng ibang mga Batak ayaw na raw silang pagaralin at tumulong na lang sa magulang nila,” she said.
Based on the latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), in 2018, the poverty threshold in the Palawan province was P6,786. This means that a family with at least five members needs to earn the said amount, on average, to meet both basic food and non-food needs in a month.
For many Batak families who are relying on unstable sources of income, the cycle of poverty seems to be unending, with their children’s education at the far end of the priority list in order to survive.
IP education budget
Teacher Charlene handles 26 Grade 4 students, 11 of whom were Bataks. As of February 2022, there are 72 Batak students enrolled in their school from Kindergarten to Grade 6.
Throughout the city, there are 20 elementary schools implementing the IPed program in the Schools Division of Puerto Princesa City of the Department of Education. As of 2021 data, there are about 2,020 IP students across the 75 elementary schools here.
Imelda Oblan, public schools district supervisor, said that programs were set in place to help the Batak young Batak learners, providing all printed modules and scheduled visitations. However, government-led programs continued to operate on a shoestring budget.
In 2020, the IP Education (IPed) Program of the City DepEd was only allocated around P200,000. This was increased to more than P344,000 in 2021, but was easily spent on training the teachers alone.
“Sobrang liit lang talaga ng pondo. Nakaraan ‘yong pondo nasa P200,000 plus lang tapos napunta lang sa training. Magkano lang kasi ang binibigay na assistance kaya kung committed talaga ‘yong mga teachers nagfi-field work talaga,” Oblan said.
For teacher Charlene, one of the most difficult aspects of teaching the IPs is the language barrier, which is primarily dependent on the child’s ability to understand basic subjects such as English, Math, and Science.
“Challenging sa language barrier kasi Batak sila and may mga words tayo na hindi nila naiintindihan pero same lang ‘yong method of teaching o ‘yong atake ng pagtuturo sa kanila. Although kapag nag a-activity kami, naka-depende sa capablity ng bata,” Teacher Charlene said.
Oblan said this was being addressed by applying contextualized storybooks for Batak and Tagbanua learners (CONSTABATA), which translates some learning materials from English or Filipino to the IPs’ mother tongue.
“Dalawang groups lang ang sini-serve natin sa Puerto Princesa, Batak at Tagbanua. ‘Yong plan namin this 2022, lalapatan namin ‘yong book ng Tinagbanua or Binatak kung saan ito galing na community,” Oblan said.
The language barrier, according to Teacher Charlene, is usually overcome by prolonged exposures to conversations and technical assistance with the struggling students.
“‘Yong language barrier na-cope up din naman ‘yon nong nagtagal na nakakasalamuha sila. May iba lang na kailangan pa rin ng technical assistance tsaka marunong na rin sila makipag cooperate at nae-enjoy na nila ‘yong mga activities sa school noong nasanay na sila,” Teacher Charlene added.
IPs helping other IPs
During the pre-pandemic in-person classes, the learning of the struggling IP students was augmented by other differentiated instructions. When the Tanabag Elementary School shifted to distance learning, heavily relying on modules, students were left on their own as their uneducated parents were also unable to help with their studies.
“Sa face to face noon, wala kaming maraming problema kasi puwedeng differentiated instruction. Puwedeng gamitin ‘yong iba’t ibang methods pero sa ngayon wala talaga kaming ibang interaction. Nagkakaroon lang ng interaction kapag nagvi-visit si teacher. Kung si teacher ay hindi mag-penetrate doon, bahala si parent. So kung walang kakayahan si parent, male-left behind ang bata,”Oblan said.
Teacher Charlene, who schedules her visits monthly, said a neighboring Tagbanua is also helping the Batak in their modules.
“Sabi sa akin ng co-teacher ko, may isang Tagbanua na tumutulong sa mga Batak sa mga modules nila from kindergarten to high school. Kahit pag fill-up ng mga forms sa mga parents, ‘yong Tagbanua na ‘yon ang tumutulong,” Teacher Charlene said.
As the old adage goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” In Batak, it means an entire community of people interacting with children for them to grow and learn in a safe and healthy environment.
“’Yong mga Batak eager to learn talaga ‘yan sila. Marurunong talaga yan sila, kailangan lang tutukan ‘yong iba. Since ‘yong parents ay lack of education, ‘yong strategy na ginagawa ay ‘yong mas nakakatanda nilang kapatid na high school na literate, sila ‘yong naghe-help sa paga-answer ng modules sa mga kapatid nila,” Teacher Charlene added.