Giving significant help to a few students and serving as model school

News & Features Philippines Jun 12, 2015 at 3:54 pm
From left: Revelyn Tria-Siasoyco, Principal, Mano Amiga Academy Inc.; Lynn Pinugu, Co-founder and Executive Director;  Fr. Luis Garza, LC., Mano Amiga Board member

From left: Revelyn Tria-Siasoyco, Principal, Mano Amiga Academy Inc.; Lynn Pinugu, Co-founder and Executive Director;
Fr. Luis Garza, LC., Mano Amiga Board member

Mano Amiga Academy’s unique concept of education

By Mila Astorga-Garcia

In Taguig City, Philippines, there’s a school called Mano Amiga Academy, whose students mostly come from poor families in the surrounding slum area.

The school’s mission is “to provide education and development services tailored to the needs of the Filipino community that would empower each family to transform their lives and break out from poverty.”

Mano Amiga is the first school of its kind to be established outside South America, where its concept first took root, specifically Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela.

MA_P1000288The school is creating a buzz in media and education circles because of its unique way of providing quality education for children from poor families, who otherwise would not be able to afford it. At the same time parents, many of them unschooled, are given the opportunity to be involved with the school through volunteer work, training and even some skills-learning and job-creating activities.

A friend accompanied me to visit the school area where our van had to traverse a narrow road. On one side was a row of dilapidated patched up houses, made of various kinds of scrap materials, with worn-out rubber tires littered all over the place. This was home to most of the kids in the school, I was told.

The school was right across a modest Habitat for Humanity housing where some of the students lived with their families.

At the school entrance, students were on the way home, some being fetched by their mothers. I approached them for a photo, and they willingly obliged. One bright-eyed boy, who said he was in Grade 1, helped me carry my camera case and a huge bag. He asked where I was going and when I said we had an appointment at the office, he pointed me to a second floor room. He also offered to carry my things upstairs.

At the office was Lynn Pinugu, co-founder and executive director. A missionary who formerly lived in Mexico, she co-established Mano Amiga Inc. with friends, and tailored it to the needs of Filipinos, using the best practices learned from the South American experience.

With her were Revelyn Tria-Siasoyco, Principal, Mano Amiga Academy Inc. and Father Luis Garza, LC., member of the school’s Board of Directors.

To make the concept work, “we had to tailor it according to the needs here,” Pinugu said. We believe we could provide the international-level education – or education at par with international standards, with an enhanced version of the Department of Education curriculum,” to produce students that would become leaders of their communities and the country, she added.

With limited resources and a big goal of providing education described by some to be even of higher standard than expensive Philippine private schools, organizers chose to do it with “a lot of help for a few, not a little help for many.” That, in a capsule, is Mano Amiga’s strategy towards the kind of education and social development that they offer.

While critics consider it a very limited pathway to social development, proponents of this reformist idea of transformation say they work with one poor community at a time, hoping to duplicate the concept in other places, as opportunities and resources allow.
The school – which offers classes from kinder to Grade 5 — teaches young children to focus not only on what they know, but in what they can do, so as to be always motivated and engaged in school work and activities.

Mano Amiga mothers waiting for their kids

Mano Amiga mothers waiting for their kids

From the start — from the process of choosing the students — the school makes sure the parents will also be involved in their children’s education.

“We do regular home visits to understand the situation at home, in cases when students are not performing as well as expected. And since parents themselves need help, through training, we teach them how to assist their children in doing their homework,” Pinugu said.

Parents are also encouraged to volunteer, such as in cooking nutritious food for school activities. They also get mentorship in other areas of work from companies Mano Amiga has established partnership with.

Most families earn about P8,000 a year, far below the minimum wage earners, of P12,000. They pay $50 per month for a placement of each child in Mano Amiga, a relatively small portion of their income. It nevertheless entices parents to strive harder in their income generating efforts and make good their commitment to help their children and the school. Encouraged all the time to volunteer in school-related events, they get mentored in various skills, with some of them getting employed in a cafeteria the school has recently put up, called “Bistro 3846,” staffed by the parents, the proceeds of which help finance the school’s activities in a self-sustaining way.

As for the students, staff give them personal attention to make sure each one is “being focused, excelling and developing to be a competent leader.” By competence, it means not just being good at what one does, but developing a moral leadership, one with integrity,” Pinugu emphasized.

How does the school inculcate such values on the young minds?

By Apolostolic transformation, Father Garza said, which basically means exposing them to the needs of people less fortunate than they are; and making them want to contribute to the community.

When Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck, the students and parents launched a food and clothes drive for the victims. School-organized visits were made to places as the Philippine General Hospital so that students would be aware of the situation of sick children of destitute families, and in some cases, even help cheer them up and give them hope.

The slum area where some of the Mano Amiga students live. (PHOTOS: MAG)

The slum area where some of the Mano Amiga students live. (PHOTOS: MAG)

Although Mano Amiga is a Catholic school, it also has non-Catholic students, recognizing that good education provides a foundation for universal virtues and values, no matter what one’s religion is.

While excellence is expected of the students, so is competence expected of Mano Amiga’s teachers. Teachers undergo training so that they become “good facilitators” so they can impart knowledge “without much lecturing,” so that “children learn on their own,” said the principal, Tria-Siasoyco.

“A lot of our teaching is on the application of knowledge,” she adds, emphasizing that teachers, almost all of them with masters degrees, are expected to “teach like a champion.” While they inculcate in their students a culture of excellence, they also teach that “failure is part of the learning process.” Hence, early on, students develop a mature attitude to mistakes and learning from them, said to be an important part of achieving success.

Apparently, the Mano Amiga education is paying off, with the kind of students the school has produced – “enthusiastic,” “motivated,” “hard-working,” and “engaged,” according to staff. School retention is very high at 95 per cent, meaning students stay in school, except for a few, whose families have to move to another place of residence.

A brief visit to one of the Grade 2 classrooms revealed bright-eyed students who eagerly greeted this writer upon introduction. Looking more like well-groomed kids in their neat uniforms in an exclusive private school, rather than poor kids living in shanties, it was difficult for this writer to think that some of them were from the row of slum dwellings seen by the road side. If the look on their faces and the cheerfulness in their voices were any indication at all, they were certainly a vibrant bunch, animated, active and enthusiastic, rather than listless and bored students on that hot afternoon.

Mano Amiga supporters and volunteers are proud with what the school has accomplished in terms of developing students with far excellent educational skills than their counterparts in the public school and even in some private school systems. “A Grade One student in Mano Amiga was able to tutor a Grade 5 student in a public school,” says Eric Lacanlale, a retired UNDP executive and one of the avid supporters of the school. That is the kind of high-level education that the school produces, he says.

However, the school is faced with one big problem: although it now has land not far from its present location, thanks to generous donors, Mano Amiga still lacks enough resources to build a structure that can properly house its students and staff, and allow it to accommodate higher grades, and more students on the waiting list. At present, the modest school building is located in a Habitat for Humanity compound, where classrooms can accommodate students only up to Grade 5.

“Right now we only have 110 students because we are doing shifts in three classrooms. We’ve been turning down applicants because we have no space for them in the campus.

“When we build the new campus, the objective is for us to accommodate at least 800 students. Currently, we have reached 75% of our fundraising target through generous donations of donors namely: Western Union foundation, Metropacific investments Inc and UNILAB Foundation. Our goal is to move in to our new campus by August 2016,” Pinugu said.

For now, “we need funds from donors, and people who can connect us to those who would like to invest in our kind our education,” she said. “Eventually, the goal is to become a self-sustaining enterprise, that everyone, including donors and supporters can be proud of,” she added.

For this reason, avid Mano Amiga supporters like Lacanlale and his family, are doing their best to connect the school to resources that would eventually support this goal, and allow the school to continue its overall mission of not only helping students thrive, but also empowering parents and families to uplift their lives, one poor community at a time.