By Dom Galeon and Hanah Tabios
In 2015, two years after the law mandating a K-12 education system was signed by then-President Benigno Aquino III, schools had their first batch of senior high school students.
From a secondary education that only had four years, it was changed into six, divided into junior and senior high school.
This change, the Department of Education and proponents of the K-12 system said, was necessary to create a more competitive workforce and to subscribe to the requirements of the ASEAN integration initiative, i.e., that member countries have at least 13 years of primary and secondary education.
Filipinos were split over this decision to add more years to basic education.
Some said that an extension of a couple of years would mean a couple more years of expenses—not in tuition fees because basic education is free in the country, but in incidental expenditures.
Others said that the additional two years would mean graduates who are more prepared to enter college or, and this is the hope of DepEd, to immediately qualify for employment.
Fast forward to today. The first couple of batches who completed the K-12 have graduated. It remains to be seen whether the additional two years have had their intended effect.
DepEd and the Philippine Statistics Office (PSO) report graduation rates in the country, across the primary and secondary levels, are up at 92 to 97 percent.
According to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), there were around 2.9 million college enrollees for the school year 2017-2018. In the whole ASEAN region, the Philippines ranks second in terms of the number of college enrollees, next only to Indonesia and followed by Vietnam.
Still, despite this high graduation rates in primary and secondary levels across the country and the high enrollment numbers noted by CHED, getting quality education remains a challenge, one that many upcoming graduates from this school year have successfully achieved against all odds.
One of these inspiring stories is about an octogenarian who will receive her high school diploma this April. Salvacion Nacario, or Lola Sally as she is called by her relatives and classmates at the Fort Bonifacio High School in Makati City, returned to school in 2016 after recovering from a mild stroke.
As the oldest student from that school, Lola Sally would often be accompanied by her grandchild Rose.
Out of concern for Lola Sally, who in her advanced years relentlessly pursued her studies, officials from Bonifacio High School had made it part of their standard procedure to hail a cab to bring the 82-year-old home after classes.
Lola Sally had wanted to become a military nurse when she was younger.
It was a career she never had the chance to pursue because of poverty.
But the years that passed didn’t dampen Lola Sally’s dreams.
The cliché is true in her case: Age does not matter.
Another inspiring story comes from Manila High School.
From its graduating Grade 10 students, those moving from junior to senior high school, five boys and three girls are deaf.
Instead of being part of a special class, these students are in the regular junior high school class, according to Manila High School Grade 10 curriculum coordinator Nina Magalong.
While there are schools dedicated to students with special needs, there are also others like Manila High School that follow a different approach, incorporating SPED students into normal classes.
And as these eight deaf students show, it is possible to excel even amid challenging circumstances.
These challenging circumstances are familiar to any parent who works hard to get their children into and through college.
Priscilla Ramos knew this very well.
The 58-year-old mother of three from Tondo had to work really hard to support her only son and youngest child, Jervis Allen, who recently graduated at the top of his class at the Philippine National Police Academy.
After her husband died in 2009, Priscilla told The Manila Bulletin that she had to endure a great deal of hardship just to make ends meet, just to make sure that her three children finished school.
Before her eldest daughter graduated, Priscilla had to sustain her family by selling merienda in their small neighborhood in Tondo.
Now a police lieutenant, Jervis Allen Ramos is grateful for the sacrifices of both his parents.
“It seems like a dream that a simple child honed by the realities of life in Tondo was given a chance to stand and speak before thousands of Filipino people now,” he said in valedictory speech at the graduation rites of the PNPA, where he was also awarded the Presidential Kampilan Award (which he received from President Rodrigo Roa Duterte who attended the ceremony), the Chief PNP Kampilan Award, Best in Forensic Science, Best in Thesis, and Plaque of Merit.
“Pa, thank you for your sacrifices,” Ramos added. “You and mom are my rock, my inspiration. I offer this feat to the both of you.” (With reports from Martin Sadongdong)