Written by Nicolo Nathan O. Macoy

“Nakamata na bitaw sila.” 

This was how teacher Lourdes Eribal described her students’ interest in “pagiging kusa” (their own volition) to enroll and learn in the Alternative Learning System (ALS) Program of the Department of Education. 

The learners’ unwavering interest and her growing love for education are what ultimately motivated her to keep teaching the out-of-school youth in Siocon District, Zamboanga del Norte, much of which she finds happiness in. 

But just like many forms of love, her teaching journey has faced its own problems.

As access to education remains a pressing problem, the ALS Program that Eribal is part of, strives to map and identify learners who remain unaware of how they can be afforded the education they ought to have the right to. 

Eribal is one of the 130 ALS implementers trained under the Power for Youth Program, an initiative by Ateneo de Zamboanga University’s SUGPAT program in partnership with UNICEF and ING, along with the support of DepEd-ALS. 

SUGPAT has long been in the advocacy of aiding the Filipino Youth to attain better quality of living not just with regards to oneself but within their communities as well.

In an interview with SUGPAT’s Assistant Training Officer Abmel Immid, Eribal highlights that her 27 years of service has always been fulfilling and full of love, but what sets the alternative education apart for her was that ALS education had an immediate impact on the life of her learners.

This is illustrated by Eribal as she narrates the life of her student-turned-fellow-teacher, Amelita Entes, who has opened better chapters in pursuit of education. 

“Ma’am, unsa’y naa dire? Pwede ko maminaw?” (Ma’am, what goes on here? Can I listen in?) was Entes’ first words to Eribal, she said, recalling bringing two of her children in one of Eribal’s classes. 

What began as a simple inquiry from Entes led to Eribal’s continued support for her students’ education. Eribal has then become a guiding instrument to the successes of Entes and the countless number of students Entes has grown fond of.

“Mahirap naman” 

When she was first introduced to ALS by her fellow teacher in Tibangao Elementary School in the same Siocon District, Eribal admitted that it was difficult. On her end, she initially found it hard to teach in an unfamiliar setting where children and adults are grouped depending on assessed levels.

Her initial altruism had also been challenged as she considered the lack of ALS Community Learning Centers and inasmuch as Eribal wanted to keep teaching, she worried that her immobility caused by old age would add to her pile of worries. 

In a recent interview with Eribal, she emphasizes on a new wave of problems in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of pre-existing challenges. The global health crisis has taken a toll on Eribal as ALS has become more uncertain in lieu of the difficulty in lesson delivery and the indefinite postponement of the Accreditation and Equivalency Exam, a nationalized test ALS learners have to take in order to continue education.

With the lack of resources from her student’s end, Eribal still wishes to be able to conduct online learning similar to that of current formal education methods. This is after seeing her students being unable to explain the lessons. Here, she stresses the importance of a teacher’s live presence, virtual or in person. 

Despite these, what came to a surprise for Eribal was the unexpected 25 to 35% increase in ALS enrollees during this pandemic. Upon asking them, she found out that working students of her ALS class find modular learning convenient given that modules could easily be accessed during or beyond these students’ working hours. 

Yet because ALS operates on limited resources, Eribal could only refuse. 

These, among many hidden layers of struggles, has always made education incrementally harder to reach for ALS prospects. But in the eyes of Eribal, she knows the potential of ALS to change her students’ lives.

Nakita ko talaga ko yung product ko kung ano ang kanilang buhay noon, i-compare ko ngayon,” she said. “Nabago talaga ang buhay nila.”

(I’ve seen my products myself, what their lives were before and how I compare it to now. Their lives did change.

Online training for ALS implementers opens doors of possibilities

Eribal’s dreams for her ALS students are simplified into these three well wishes: to graduate, to work, and to have a good life. As a teacher, she says that her students’ dreams are hers as well and always goes back to two primary reasons: love and passion.

To make these dreams a reality, her love and passion for teaching has further materialized through the help of SUGPAT as the program trained Eribal along with more than 300 ALS implementers on sessions such as UPSKILL, an accelerated online training held from September 1 to 15, 2020, to equip teachers in non-formal education on the delivery of modular lessons amidst community quarantines.

Among other initiatives under SUGPAT’s Power of Youth project is the Educational Leadership and Management Course (ELMC) held late January of this year. The course solidified the managerial knowledge of 45 ALS implementers, specifically district coordinators, to continue innovation and envision more for the system and the learners.

In the words of Ma’am Eribal, “Ang SUGPAT at Ateneo de Zamboanga talaga ang nagbigay ng knowledge kung ano ang gagawin namin sa mga learners, mga strategy, at sa mga [estudyanteng] walang signal.”

(SUGPAT and Ateneo de Zamboanga gave us the knowledge on what to do with the learners, the strategies, and what to do with those students without signal.)

SUGPAT has also been at the frontline of networking ALS Implementers to significant stakeholders. One of them is Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, author of the ALS Act, profound in saying, “Through the ALS, we’re not only reaching out to the young generation, we are also providing each Filipino student who couldn’t enroll to have a second chance in education,” as per Manila Bulletin’s report on the ALS Act

The recently passed ALS Act aims to reinstate the discontinued Bureau of Alternative Education to provide Community Learning Centers for ALS, to increase the existing 10,214 ALS implementers and cater to the 738,929 enrollees in hopes to balance out the 1:74 teacher-student ratio.

Their demands continue to be the same. ALS has yet to see Community Learning Centers especially in far-flung rural areas of Siocon District, Zamboanga del Norte. On Eribal’s part, she wishes for ALS to have an increased allocated budget for learning materials as they continuously depend on limited budget, personal funds, and benefactors.

It may be true that in ALS, much has been done in the past. But in prospect, Eribal believes there is still much to be done. The challenge for ALS implementers like Eribal doesn’t end with one student’s success. It is in finding another dream hidden in difficult circumstances. 

In all her teaching glory, and as a final lesson, Lourdes Eribal would like to teach us to be three things: passionate, genuine, and unconditional in love.

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