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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Schooling Dilemma in the Philippines

Feb. 27, 2017

The Philippines is moving to reform its education system to help more students graduate and find better jobs, but the effort is facing challenges.

The Southeast Asian country has a population of about 100 million, where 4 in 10 of residents are aged 19 or under. Since the 1940s, public schooling has lasted for 10 years due to budgetary constraints. Last June, the period of basic education was extended by 2 years, which meant that 6,000 new public high schools were needed across the country.

Extending public schooling by 2 more years was the brainchild of former President Benigno Aquino.

"He had the vision, at that time, he was still the president, of bringing back the Filipino workers back home to the Philippines," says University of the Philippines professor Virgilio Manzano, who helped craft the reform. "They can be entrepreneurs, they could start their own businesses, and therefore they could develop their livelihood activities here in the Philippines."

In 2015, 2.4 million Filipinos were working overseas. One in 3 of them was unskilled, employed as household helpers or cleaners.

Cauayan is a small city in the country's north with a population of 130,000. After the reform, a school there started offering high school education with free tuition.

There are separate tracks for learning. One is an academic track for those who want to enter university. It includes subjects that prepare them for higher education, such as humanities, sciences and management.

Another is a vocational track, where the curriculum is tailored to students who intend to join the workforce right after graduation as, for example, computer programmers, caregivers or chefs. Instructors from a wide range of vocations teach their respective courses.

"I want to be a chef in the future. I want to discover new foods," says a female student at the school.

"My dream is to have my own business even if it is small. I want to save my family from poverty," says a male student.

However, the reform has been facing roadblocks. Construction on some school buildings is far behind schedule, such as at a high school in metropolitan Manila. The delay has forced the school to partition off junior high school classrooms so that high school students have a place to study.

But there are even more serious issues. Nearly 360 students enrolled in the high school when it opened but after only 6 months, one in 5 had left. In most cases, it was because the parents could no longer afford to send their children to school.

"Things got more difficult financially and it became impossible to continue," says Errol, who dropped out of high school after 4 months.

He is one of 4 brothers and sisters. His younger sister is in the fourth year of elementary school, and a younger brother is in the second year. His twin brother, Erick, still goes to the same high school that Errol used to attend.

"My husband is currently unemployed, so it is really tough," his mother explains.

"The twins had a discussion about which one should quit. In the end, they decided that Errol should be the one to leave school for a while and work," his father says.

Erick, Errol's twin brother, attends high school roughly 1.5 kilometers away from his home. He usually walks to school, but it still costs money. He has to cross a river by using a toll bridge. The return charge is around 10 pesos, or about 20 cents. If he decides to walk to school without crossing the bridge, it's 4-times as far.

Although there are no tuition fees at his school, there is a cost of around 2 dollars per day for lunch, educational materials, and other expenses.

"I’m sad my brother quit school while I continue. But I think it's right for me to carry on. If I graduate, I can get a job," Erick says.

Some schools are taking steps to keep students like Errol from dropping out. Teachers in the city of Cauayan have started visiting the homes of students with poor attendance to see how they can help.

"In the senior high school department, we were able to identify 22 students at risk of dropping out," says a local school principal there.

They created printouts for each subject so that students can use them to study at home. Students only need to come to school if they want extra help, or have to take a test.

One student used to have good grades, but often skips school to work at the paddy fields to support his family. His teacher, Mr. Morales, recently paid him a home visit.

"I’ve got some good news. We’ve created new class materials. With them, you don’t have to come to school every day. You can just come in for tests. So I hope you’ll both do your best for your son," Morales says.

The new educational system in the Philippines is at a critical juncture as efforts continue to help young people build a brighter future.