April - May 2008
2015 or bust?

Naga City’s class act

NAGA CITY, CAMARINES SUR — If one were to put local governments in a classroom setting, the executive body of this thriving city southwest of Metro Manila would be the overachieving nerd, the one guaranteed to garner the most medals at the end of each term.

So when Naga City received a failing grade in one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — achieving universal primary education — local officials characteristically lost no time in dreaming up a program aimed at improving its score. It’s a situation made even more challenging by the city’s demographics: one out of every three Nagueño is of school age. But as Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo put it, “We need to address the continuing inability of our school system to ensure that no child is left behind.”

Launched in May last year, the Quality Universal Elementary Education in Naga (QUEEN) initiative is said to be a “more focused and decisive intervention” of the city government to ensure that every Nagueño child gets all the opportunities to complete primary school. Although it is a multisectoral effort, a key participant in the initiative is the school board, which helps assure funding support for the miscellaneous school fees that have to be paid by all students attending public schools.

BICOL’S model city is trying its best to address its ‘weakest link’ in achieving the Millennium Development Goals: keeping schoolchildren in class to complete elementary education. [photo courtesy of Bob Ursua/NCSB]

Naga City Planning Coordinator Wilfredo Prilles Jr. says that one main reason why school-age children are not showing up in class is because public education, despite a constitutional provision that guarantees free schooling up to high school, is not really free. He points out, “Parents need to pay PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) fees and other charges meant to defray the school’s operating expenses, which the national government cannot fully support.”

Obviously, though, the scheme will still not work if parents do not see to it that their children attend classes regularly. Thus, the program requires them to refrain from sending their children to work or to do errands that will force them to drop out of school. Obligated as well to be active in school activities and concerns, they have recently been organized into QUEEN parents’ associations.

It all sounds very simple, but if Naga pulls this off, it could be quite a feat. Attaining universal primary education, after all, is Goal Number 2 among the eight MDGs that are part of a global initiative to eradicate extreme poverty. The Philippines is among the 189 countries committed to achieve these goals seven years from now, but midway to the deadline, the government has admitted that it may have difficulty meeting MDG No. 2.

Location map of Naga City courtesy of Wikipedia

For an interactive map of the city, click HERE.

Indeed, even perennial achiever Naga City has been forced to recognize the same goal as its “weakest link” among the MDGs, given its not-so-good performance in two indicators: cohort survival, or percentage of grade one enrollees who reach the final elementary grade; and primary completion, or the ratio of elementary school graduates in a given schoolyear to the total number of children of official graduation age in the population.

As of schoolyear 2004-2005, Naga had a cohort survival rate of 77 percent, which meant that eight out of 10 schoolchildren who enrolled in Grade I five years prior were able to reach Grade VI. Its completion rate of 66.6 percent, meanwhile, indicated that only seven out of 10 went on to finish elementary level — a figure significantly lower than the 78 percent the city registered 16 years ago.

NATIONAL ECONOMIC and Development Authority (NEDA) data on the Bicol region also found Naga City with a low probability of meeting the 100-percent participation rate in primary education, as it managed only 79.8 percent in this measure in 2004. In previous years, Naga used to consistently hit full enrolment of all school-age children, even registering participation rates of as high as 120 percent between 1998 and 2001.

Table 1: Goal 2 — Achieve Universal Primary Education
Target: Achieve universal access to primary education by 2015
Indicator: Participation rate in primary education

Albay 90.01 83.83 100 3.33 Low
Camarines Norte 87.93 84.75 100 6.10 Low
Camarines Sur 86.47 83.98 100 8.19 Low
Catanduanes 88.58 86.64 100 8.76 Low
Masbate 74.98 90.30 100 0.81 High
Sorsogon 87.24 82.74 100 4.88 Low
Iriga 88.18 72.51 100 1.91 Medium
Legazpi 91.72 72.45 100 1.56 Medium
Naga 88.20 79.80 100 2.62 Low
REGION V 85.81 85.07 100 25.68 Low

NEDA says that Bicol as a region managed to improve its education performance, even registering a 13-percentage point turnaround in cohort survival between 1990 and 2005. Yet NEDA believes that Bicol still has a low probability of meeting the 100-percent participation rate target, in large part because its net enrollment rate slipped to 85.07 percent in 2004 from 85.81 percent in 1990.

As can be expected, such news is cold comfort to Naga City, which is just not used to being among the classroom laggards. Indeed, for more than two decades, the city has been winning one award after another, mostly for exemplary and pioneering governance under the stewardship of its equally multi-awarded mayor, Robredo. Yet what probably annoys the city all the more about its education MDG red mark is the fact that in October 2006, it was hailed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Galing Pook Foundation as having one of only nine local governments in the country with excellent localization efforts to meet the MDGs.

THE Naga City School Board has prioritized investments in information technology like the Computer Literacy and Instructional Center for Kids (CLICK) that provided computer hardware to elementary schools. [photo courtesy of Bob Ursua/NCSB]

Earning the city a particular distinction was its Productivity Improvement Program, which aimed to professionalize the local government workforce by streamlining, eradicating red tape, and giving incentives to city hall employees — an undertaking that generated a 6.5-percent annual growth in the local economy and attracted P612 million worth of investments from 2001 to 2003.

In his 2007 State of the City report, Robredo had also highlighted the fact that Naga has achieved most of the MDG targets way ahead of schedule, basing his remarks on the draft NEDA regional progress report on the state of the MDGs in Bicol’s six provinces (Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Masbate, and Sorsogon) and three cities (Naga, Iriga, and Legazpi). This, however, could not erase the city’s dismal score on education, so QUEEN was created.

INAUGURATED AT the height of the campaign period for the 2007 polls, the project has not escaped the intrigues of electoral politics. Robredo’s political rivals, in fact, immediately criticized it as a ploy to boost the incumbent mayor’s reelection bid. Camarines Sur Representative Luis Villafuerte, running for reelection in the province’s first district that includes voters from Naga, even had his own scholarship program called “Vlessed” to match QUEEN.

It’s still too early to have a real assessment of QUEEN’s impact, but local officials are already waiting for this school year’s enrolment figures to see if the program has made a difference even just after one full year of implementation. “We should at least see more than 70 percent of those in Grade I moving to Grade II this year,” says Prilles, anticipating an incremental improvement of at least two percentage points.

Table 2: Goal 2 — Achieve Universal Primary Education
Target: Achieve universal access to primary education by 2015
Indicator: Cohort survival rate in primary education
Source: NEDA Region V MDGs Report, 2005

Albay 72.93 81.97 100 2.18 Low
Camarines Norte 80.38 91.21 100 0.89 High
Camarines Sur 68.67 75.36 100 4.02 Low
Catanduanes 72.18 90.98 100 0.52 High
Masbate 47.37 70.53 100 1.39 High
Sorsogon 65.01 82.54 100 1.09 High
Iriga 77.23 82.99 100 3.22 Low
Legazpi 86.06 84.01 100 8.51 Low
Naga 80.67 76.95 100 6.76 Low
REGION V 66.68 79.45 100 1.76 Medium

For QUEEN’s initial year, the school board had allocated P3 million, an amount that enabled Naga City to cover a maximum of 6,000 pupils, or 25 percent of the city’s elementary enrolment last year. This translated to a maximum budget of P500 per student, or equivalent to a 75-percent subsidy in school fees.

For this year, the allocation has been increased to P9 million to accommodate 60 to 70 percent of about 18,000 elementary school students, or two out of every three enrolled students. The Naga school board budget allocation for pupil/student development actually increased by 243 percent, largely driven by the institutionalization of the QUEEN and QUEEN Plus (the same program targeting high school students) initiatives with the passage of City Ordinance 2007-045 last year.

It helps that “Good Schools” is one of the 12 key result areas or milestones that the city government aims to achieve as part of its An Maogmang Lugar (A Happy Place) vision for Naga. The active involvement in the planning and budgeting process of the Naga City People’s Council (NCPC) — the city-level federation of over a hundred local NGOs and people’s organizations co-governing Naga since 1995 — also ensures that the budgetary allocations are aligned with the city’s vision-mission statements and scorecards to which the MDGs have been incorporated.

NAGA has achieved a 1:1 textbook to student ratio in science, mathematics, and English for both elementary and secondary levels, as well as in supplementary materials as workbooks and SRA (Science Research Associates) materials for the elementary level. [photo courtesy of Bob Ursua/NCSB]

Consultation has been part and parcel of Naga City’s way of doing things under Robredo. The current three-year education plan, for instance, was actually the result of the school board’s consultations with local communities, including parents, teachers, and school officials, way back in 2002 regarding the state of the public school system in Naga. The plan was completed and launched in 2005.

Already a priority in previous years, education has all the more become a top concern for the Naga city government after NEDA’s assessment of its MDG performance. Thus, the city’s education budget — which is sourced primarily from the school board-managed Special Education Fund (SEF) from the one percent tax levied on real property — almost doubled to P50 million from only P28.5 million in 2006 this year. Though a big chunk (36 percent) of the budget goes to personal services (particularly to salaries of 116 teaching and 12 non-teaching staff), allocations for instructional materials, pupil/student development, information technology, and special programs and projects (including new initiatives like a summer enrichment program for teachers) have all gained substantial increases. Five new school buildings are also to be built within the year.

On top of the school board-managed SEF, the city has set aside P9 million from the executive budget for other education-related initiatives, including a P4-million allocation to the Sanggawadan Program. This is an offshoot of the Street and Urban Working Children Project (SUWCP) funded by the Australian Aid Agency (AusAid) in 2000 to provide school children with rice subsidies as a way of improving their school attendance.

The AusAid initiative was implemented in Naga and 24 other pilot cities. Naga, however, continued with the project even after funding from AusAid ran out in 2001. The city’s social welfare and development office adopted the project, rebranding it as Sanggawadan — which in Bikol loosely means “to help raise up” — to extend not only rice incentives to the families of 1,596 indigent school children, but also to cover their basic entrance school fees and school supplies.

Seeing what Prilles calls its strong educational orientation, the Naga City School Board decided to support Sanggawadan with regular funding allocation from its annual budget starting in 2006. As a result, some 2,000 school children have been added as beneficiaries.

LAST YEAR, the school board also began funding Nutri-Dunong, an in-school focused feeding program introduced by the city government after an “Operation Timbang” survey revealed that one out of five public-school children to be underweight. For its pilot implementation, the feeding program targeted five big public schools with the highest incidence of malnutrition among elementary students.

Noting a 65-percent improvement in school children’s weights, the school board this year has expanded Nutri-Dunong’s coverage to all of Naga’s 29 public elementary schools, more than doubling its funding support for the program from P500,000 to P1.2 million.

Table 3: Goal 1 — Eradicate Extreme Poverty & Hunger
Target: Half the proportion of underweight among 0-5 year old children
Indicator: Proportion of underweight among 0-5 year old children based on IRS
Source: NEDA Region V MDGs Report, 2005

Albay 40.5 23.1 20.25 0.01 High
Camarines Norte 21.2 17.5 10.6 0.17 High
Camarines Sur 41.4 26.5 20.7 0.04 High
Catanduanes 34.9 23.8 17.45 0.05 High
Masbate 35.5 24.4 17.75 0.05 High
Sorsogon 21.8 20.8 10.9 0.90 High
Iriga 10.4 9.8 5.2 0.70 High
Legazpi 25.6 16.0 12.8 0.03 High
Naga 6.7 5.6 3.35 0.19 High
REGION V 33.6 22.6 16.8 0.05 High

Nutri-Dunong is actually only one of several hunger-mitigation measures instituted by the City Population and Nutrition Office. Other programs like Nutri-Nanay and Nutri-Ataman (“to take care” in Bikol) have been in existence for close to two decades now. The former provides free medical check-ups (every other Sunday) and food assistance in the form of milk and cereals, to pregnant and lactating mothers, while the latter conducts feeding programs to preschoolers, especially those with severe malnutrition cases.

These days, Naga’s malnutrition rate among children aged five and below is the lowest in the region, and even for the rest of the country. From an already low 5.6 percent in 2004, the proportion of underweight children had been further reduced to 4.2 percent in 2006, surpassing this particular target for the MDG to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger 10 years ahead of schedule. Naga has also already achieved the target to cut by half its poverty incidence, which stood at one of every five households living below the poverty line, also the lowest in the region that is the fourth poorest in the country.

FOR ALL these, even preschool enrolment is posing a serious challenge for Naga City officials, as only 55 out of every 100 preschool-age children are enrolled in both public and private day-care centers. This is even though the city government runs 72 Educare Centers citywide as part of its mandate under the Early Childhood Care Development (ECCD) Act, and is able to serve four out of every 10 enrolled preschoolers.

What seems to have happened was that years ago, Naga City fell behind in the education sector even as it racked up a strong and consistent performance in other areas. This was revealed in a series of surveys conducted by the school board in the last quarter of 2001. According to the surveys, while the city’s students were able to score high in national and regional achievement tests, overall student performance was in decline. This was traced to an alarmingly high student-to-teacher and student-to-textbook ratios, as well as rising student-to-desk/chair ratios. Moreover, the surveys showed, the city’s top priorities did not reflect the education needs expressed by teachers and parents.

Naga City has been playing catch-up since. By 2005, or a year after NEDA gathered the data for its Bicol report, tangible accomplishments from the new arrangement included a 1:1 textbook to student ratio in science, mathematics, and English for both elementary and secondary levels, as well as in supplementary materials as workbooks and SRA (Science Research Associates) materials for the elementary level.

For grade school teachers, the quality of instruction in English, science and mathematics was standardized through printed lesson plans, which unburdened them of the daily task of writing these.

Out of the annual school board’s budget was taken the salaries of 89 newly hired teachers for the elementary and secondary levels. Today one out of 10 public-school teachers is funded by the city government, the increased number of teachers helping reduce the average class size from 55 to about 40 students.

In terms of facilities, the classroom to class ratio improved to 1.5:1, resulting in at least seven elementary schools with excess classrooms. The school board’s annual P2 million outlay for repair and maintenance also helped rehabilitate schools and other facilities damaged by recent typhoons, the worst being Reming, which hit Camarines Sur and Albay the hardest in November 2006.

Plus, all public elementary and high schools began receiving an annual P100,000-allocation from the School Empowerment Fund to support locally identified school-level development initiatives, and another P250,000 for staff development to enable teachers to participate in regional and national training events. The Fund, however, has been withheld this year subject to further improvements in achievement test scores, particularly at the national and division levels, as the performance of Naga elementary schools have slipped in the last two years.

NCPC representative to the school board Eliseo Lachica says he has no doubt at all that Naga will be able to improve its education record. That’s because, says the 74-year-old retired school administrator, the city — despite its past fumbles — has a strong bias for education.

As for QUEEN, city planning coordinator Prilles says it is sustainable since “the Naga City School Board has the money required (to implement it).” But he adds, “(The) problem of Philippine education is not just about money. Parents must especially do their part, and schools, too…(QUEEN) is actually community work aimed at ensuring all kids are able to finish Grade VI.”

Besides the commitment to achieving the MDGs, though, Mayor Robredo says that Naga’s investments and innovations in education are also because of the long-term implications. He says, “(Q)uality basic education is the best way of securing Naga’s future, and in ensuring whatever advances we have made in participative governance and in building a more livable city will not go to waste.”