Dilemmas on the 'Different'

The Gifted Give Back

Second of Three Parts

THE MOMENT they stepped into the campus of the Philippine High School for the Arts or PHSA in 1988, Roselle Pineda says that she and the other freshmen were made aware they were being trained to be the country’s future cultural leaders.

“Medyo mayabang pakinggan (It may sound like I’m bragging),” says Pineda, now 34 and teaching at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, “but this makes you realize at the start that you are scholars of the people, the cream of the crop, and therefore you have the duty to give back something to the people.”

Then again, PHSA is no ordinary school. As its name implies, it specializes in the arts, and it takes as students only those who are deemed gifted in writing or in either performing or visual arts. It is, in fact, the creative counterpart of the older Philippine Science High School or Pisay, which caters to youths with “high aptitude for sciences and math.”

PHSA graduate Roselle Pineda now teaches at UP.

PHSA graduate Roselle Pineda now teaches at UP Diliman. Photo courtesy of Roselle Pineda.

Both schools are government-run, but they are certainly what most public high schools are not. Both boast of the latest equipment, well-trained staff and solid faculty lineup, and a healthy teacher-student ratio. There are no overcrowded classes in either school, and if there is a class that is held under a tree, it would be because teacher and students suddenly felt the urge to commune with nature or take in fresh air, rather than because of a missing roof or, worse, the sheer inexistence of a school building.  Aside from free tuition, free board and lodging are available. Each student gets a monthly stipend as well.

No wonder then that the select few who get to attend Pisay and PHSA are taught early on that they are expected to contribute to “nation-building and development.” In other words, they need to put the education they receive into good use.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that all graduates of Pisay and PHSA would fulfill such expectations – and it’s not as if the government would demand its money back from those who do not. Yet while there is never any certainty where the youths who finish from these schools would end up, there is no doubt that they leave Pisay and PHSA armed with the skills and values that could only help them realize their potential.

THE PHILIPPINE Association for the Gifted, Inc. (PAG) estimates that about two percent of the country’s population is gifted, meaning they “exhibit at least above average general intellectual ability, and… (demonstrate) superior achievement and/or special ability in any of the following areas: Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence; Logical/Mathematical; Body Kinesthetic; Musical/Rhythmic; and Leadership.”

Fortunately for those endowed with extraordinary aptitude in math and science, there are now actually eight campuses in the Philippine Science High School system, including the original one in Quezon City that was established in 1963.  The seven other campuses are found in the provinces, among them two in Mindanao. But the Quezon City school remains the star of the system, and it is the one being referred to when people talk of “Pisay.”

The minimum expectation for a Pisay graduate is that he or she would later pursue a career in the sciences, engineering, or mathematics. After all, Pisay’s core curriculum comprises advanced science and math subjects that help students maximize their “potential intellectual skills.” But the school itself says that some 30 percent of its alumni wind up in other fields, including journalism, law, the military, and even religious ministry.  Indeed, the diverse paths Pisay grads take can be gleaned from a cursory reading of a list of the school’s more famous alumni: Rosalia Mercado-Simmon, one of the world’s leading researchers in the biology of reproduction, as well as former National Economic and Development Agency chief Cielito Habito, Army General Hermogenes Esperon, United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Chairperson Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, writers Jose ‘Butch’ Dalisay and Jessica Zafra, and film maker Auraeus Solito.

In any case, first-year Pisay students combine general subjects like English, History, Values Education, Integrated Sciences and Elementary Algebra. From second year onwards, students take Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate subjects. Computer Science is taken in all year levels.

Pisay grads Sophia Cirujales and Hazel Ann Fajardo

Pisay grads Sophia Cirujales and Hazel Ann Fajardo. Photo by Rorie Fajardo.

Pisay students also take electives that allow students to follow either the science or technology stream. Electives during first year, for instance, include the subjects Drafting, Earth Science, and Technology Preparation. In the second year, students can choose among these electives: Art Appreciation or Environmental Sciences for the Science Elective, and Technology Skills and Drafting using Computer-Aided Design for the Technology Elective.

“I was so shocked with the academics,” recalls Hazel Fajardo, who came to Pisay in 2002, fresh from a Catholic school. “I didn’t know many things there which were taught us. Eventually, I was pressured to catch up and excel.”

Her batchmate Sophia Cirujales meanwhile still can’t forget the figures that she says underlined just how privileged they were to be in Pisay: .02, the percentage of the applicants to the school who get in each year, and P75,000, the amount the government was then spending on each Pisay student annually.

Pisay keeps its batches small compared to other public high schools,  with the number of students per year around 240. At 27 to 30 students, each section is even just about two-thirds the size of its private school counterpart.

PHSA batches, however, are even smaller. According to respected playwright and character actor Fernando ‘Nanding’ Josef, who was the school’s executive director between 1995 and 2001, and again in 2008 to 2009, a batch would start with 30 to 40 students. But he says, “The number dwindles in time when some students are dismissed due to failing grades or disciplinary action, or voluntary leave for some reason.”

NESTLED IN the heart of mystical Mt. Makiling and surrounded by rainforests, the PHSA campus can be said to be the perfect setting for creative souls. It was built in 1977 through Presidential Decree 1287 “to develop artistically gifted and talented students” through the use of special secondary curriculum and support programs.  By 1990, under Executive Order 420, PHSA was converted to a regular government agency attached to the Department of Education and consults with the Cultural Center of the Philippines in the implementing its programs.

Similar to Pisay, PHSA offers basic high school subjects prescribed by the education department, plus a special curriculum designed to nurture the talents of young artists and leaders toward the “preservation, enhancement and promotion of the Filipino heritage through culture and arts.”

The art education in PHSA’s curriculum involves the following disciplines:

  • Creative Writing – Fiction, Poetry, Playwriting, and Journalism in English and Filipino
  • Dance – Classical Ballet, Modern Dance, Philippine Folk Dance, Dance Composition and Staging
  • Music – Solo Voice/Solo Instrument, Theory, Composition, and Ensemble Classes (Chorus and Chamber)
  • Theater Arts — Acting, Production Management, Technical Theater, History of the Theater, Theater Theory and Directing
  • Visual Arts  — Visual Perception, Sculpture, Art Appreciation, Studio Painting, Materials and Techniques, Figuration, Pottery and Printmaking

PHSA also offers elective courses every semester, among them Computer Graphics, Photography, Ethnic Ensemble, Rondalla, Music for Non-Music Major, Music for Dancers, Basic Journalism, Ballroom Dance, Basic Acting for Non-Theater Arts Major, Philippine Folk Dance fir Ballet Major, Ballet for Philippine Folk Dance Major, Research in the Arts, and Community Service.

The government spends about P500,000 per student for a “four-year construct” at PHSA. And while many people usually perceive arts-oriented schools as rather loose with rules, PHSA Philippine folk dance mentor Victor Flor says, “We apply the pangaral-pamalo style of training.  There are no shortcuts because art is very process-oriented. We always tell the students, ‘Lumusong ka, ‘wag ka lang magtampisaw (Immerse yourself, don’t just play with the water)’.”

Josef estimates that 85 percent of PHSA graduates eventually pursue careers in the arts, among them singer Grace Nono, film maker Raymond Red, and concert pianist Rowena Arrieta. “Only a few do not wind up productive after PHSA,” says Josef.

Flor also clarifies, “They may not pursue arts as a full-time career, but in one way or another must use it to help people.”

HE MAY well be talking about Pineda, who was a theatre arts major during her high school years. These days, she juggles her time between teaching at the country’s premier state university and her work with Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP), a progressive group that helps organize communities and young artists for human rights, anti-poverty and other socio-political work.

Pineda’s CAP activities has her visiting rural communities, training budding artists in the barrios, and helping conceptualize and put up street plays and other performances during political rallies in Manila and elsewhere. It’s obviously not work that yields significant financial benefits for Pineda, but money is also obviously not the reason why she is into it. She even sees herself doing her “activist work” many years from now because she believes it is one way she can repay the people for the public – but privileged — education she received.

PHSA graduate Diwa de Leon

PHSA graduate Diwa de Leon. Photo by Rorie Fajardo.

For sure, though, making one’s work count as a societal contribution need not always involve politics. Diwa de Leon,  for example, believes he is doing his bit when he composes songs or performs in watering holes in his trademark cowboy hat and black pants and shirt. Reasons the valedictorian of PHSA Batch ’97 (major in visual arts):  “The artist’s role is to keep people sane. Imagine our lives without music or art.”

But he also says that among the things he learned at PHSA was that exercising his freedom to create comes with a “responsibility for your audience.” Perhaps that is why he says discipline as a must for any professional musician. It could also be why one of his most recent works is an album that combines the indigenous string instrument hegalong with sequence music.

“I want to make our hegalong a globally recognized music icon,” says de Leon,  who is a co-founder of the Makiling Ensemble, which plays world music.

Pisay grads Fajardo and Cirujales, for their part, both say the urge to be involved in something that has societal relevance stems from their awareness that they were government scholars.  Now barely a year away from getting their degrees in chemical engineering at UP Diliman, both girls are already drawing up plans on what they want to do after college.

Fajardo, for one, believes she can use her being a chemical engineer to promote environmental protection, arguing that the sciences and engineering can be called the “story behind” certain events that have an impact on a community or even country.  She also emphasizes that she has no plans of leaving the Philippines, the better to repay what she apparently considers a debt for life.

As for Cirujales, her game plan is to use whatever she will earn from chemical engineering to put up a tutorial center for public school students.

“I realized that I was so privileged in high school, getting a premier education without paying a single cent,” says Cirujales, who like Fajardo actually has an older sibling who also graduated from Pisay. “I want to give back by helping the public school students hone their potentials and be competent.” – PCIJ, January 2011