A Discussion with Anne Candelaria, Former Managing Director of the Ateneo Center for Educational Development in the Philippines

July 1, 2010

Background: As part of the Education and Global Social Justice Project, in July 2010 undergraduate student Brian Dillon interviewed Anne Candelaria, former managing director of the Ateneo Center for Educational Development (ACED). In this interview Candelaria discusses the shift in the center's work from solely teacher training to integrated initiatives throughout a school system. She also stressed the importance of connecting with and respecting local political leadership, as well as the challenges posed by poverty and migration among public school students.

Can you tell me about your journey working with ACED?

I started in 1997 as the ACED program assistant. Father [Bienvenido] Nebres [president of Ateneo de Manila University] has gotten several people together to talk about Ateneo as an institution dedicated to social change, specifically within public schools. This group took several best practices from their own groups that worked in the public schools, and created ACED to manage all this work at the university. The [Department of Education, DepEd] has always been a partner with Ateneo, but this partnership had been case-by-case with one person taking on each assignment.

I came when the center was five months old, a fresh, optimistic Ateneo graduate to work with the director, who had come from Xavier School. For the first three or four years, ACED was essentially a training center, a demand-driven project that followed requests from the Department of Education. I coordinated university resources and logistics, as we needed faculty from different disciplines to provide programs for the public school teachers we served. In 1999 the program was at a crossroads. At this point, we were training hundreds of teachers each year, especially during the summer, when Ateneo teachers could participate in outreach work in the province. But, when we asked ourselves, “What is our impact doing these trainings?” we couldn’t answer it.

So we sat back down with Father Ben and the board of advisors who had created ACED, and we thought about measuring that impact, considering Ateneo’s role as an institution was ending poverty through education. In 2000, Father Ben spoke with advocates in the private sector, Washington Sycip and Alfredo Velayo, and their conversation led to funding an experimental project, [Sectoral Support for Public Elementary Education, SSPEEd] in Payatas. It was led by a social psychologist who saw public education from a background in grassroots community work. ACED managed the project, and I became the bridge between ACED and SSPEEd. The three-year project ended in 2004, and though it still hadn’t answered the question, the results ushered in a new way of looking at things.

At the end of SSPEEd I became the ACED managing director and began to look at how we could put together all we’ve learned. This was a sort of turning point for ACED. At the end of the day, we realized that for impact to be measurable, we must improve the school as a whole system (not just improving one or two teachers at a time) and engage the community into the development work we were doing. My job was to put these challenges into a working framework.

SSPEEd established ACED as a partner in Payatas [an urban poor barangay in Quezon City where most of its residents earn their income through scavenging in the nearby dumpsite], and it was crucial that I wasn’t seen as an outsider but as someone who was known to the schools and community leaders. I had already taken the first step, gaining the trust and respect of the community, but I had to convince leaders that they needed to take an inventory of what they had, what they really needed, and not just ask for more stuff. Recently, and especially with the growing importance of information technology, a lot of reforming public education has been donor-driven, focused on World Bank/IMF sort of development grants. But this approach doesn’t really ask, “Could the poor public school even manage these resources?” We realized we had to transform the mentality in communities—that they could help themselves by managing what they already have instead of just searching for more. This was radical in a way, as I said to leaders, “Ateneo isn’t just here to give you stuff—it’s tough with no shiny, new gifts—but will help you find partners if you take responsibility for your own improvement.” They had to trust in going through the right process of change.

At this point, ACED transformed from a service provider to a facilitator and enabler that provided time and expertise to help school management and plans for development. I was stubbornly determined, looking for ways to convince schools and the community members to sit down and talk about education together. The first thing we did in the community was take inventory, of everything from equipment and classrooms, nutrition of children, reading readiness to the teachers, their age, degrees, and recent enrichment and training work. The schools just weren’t conscious of data-driven, transparent, and participatory planning. Planning was something a principal and his clerk did by cutting and pasting last year’s strategic plan, with no worry about it being read by the central office. A three-day planning workshop with all school stakeholders in the barangay and its school, at Ateneo, was Ateneo’s only original financial investment in these schools’ developments. The leaders really thought about their priorities and how they could move forward using their initiative and without depending heavily on others. It was difficult for them, because they just weren’t used to the methodology, let alone the thought of improving their schools through their own efforts.

This planning weekend produced a matrix where the community could see its stake in education and use it to understand that they must rely on their own capability to get better. They could see where resources could come from—the barangay, the community, city, and private sector—and everybody understood how important it would be to dig deep into their own pockets to make this work. In the beginning the communities were saying, “We’re poor. How do you expect us to contribute?” I said, “Your commitment is really about dedicating your time, analyzing your priorities and going to school meetings rather than spending afternoons drinking, gambling, etc.” A lot of adult time was wasted, and we had to get them to understand they could donate even just one peso to the school, rather than buying an extra pack of cigarettes. It is really important to speak to people in their language; I worked more like a community organizer than a center director giving direction from the phone. It’s important to work on the ground and do the dirty work. We realized that the teacher training might be a much lower priority when a community needs water and sanitation so children can go to school more often. After all, what is the use of having excellent teachers in a classroom full of hungry and sickly children?

After the planning, and now fully understanding ACED’s role as a facilitator rather than service provider, our priorities became health and reading. We eventually set up partnerships to address nutrition and sanitation, but also trained science teachers to serve the gap where there is no doctor or nurse at the school and no hospital close by—everything from basic health to emergency treatment. Even things as simple as learning about healthy body weight, diarrhea, and fever diagnoses were really important in these schools. In terms of reading, we realized that students who should read couldn’t.

So poor academic performance in math and science, for example, is not just about poor teachers or books, but it was about students not knowing what the texts are saying. Thus, we tied up with the Office of Social Concern of the university who manages the exposure/immersion programs of Ateneo college students. These students would tutor the non-readers every Saturday for one semester at a time. We also realized that most private sector work on literacy assumes that parents can read, and that students have time to read when they go home, and maybe some basic reading materials at home. However, a lot of these kids have to work when they get home. A lot of parents are neither readers nor have the time or ability to help their children with homework.

All this shows why we have to understand context. The problems of public education are context-based, so their solutions would have to respect nuances and uniqueness of each community. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all package. As ACED expands, the challenge becomes how we can continue to go deep into a community and stay sensitive to its culture. Many groups want to hit certain numbers and seem to gloss over how important that is. The framework of community engagement in educational development isn’t very marketable, but I still try to convince people of its importance. That is also why we go out into the private sector and do the matching with communities, but only when we have taken inventory and understood what the communities really need through participatory planning.

For example, when Rod and his wife, Dina, came to me and asked where and how they could get started in helping the children in ACED’s partner schools, I explained to Rod that the problem of education is very complicated. However, if I show you one or two of the schools, you can maybe find something that you can have an impact on; you just have to experience it yourself first. I brought him to Payatas, and he was so amazed by the community. I told him, "What you see here is better than before, but they certainly have a long way to go." Rod is a firm believer in ACED and tries to convince other people that this is work that needs to be done. This sort of development isn’t about a big grant but more understanding where a community comes from, what is has, what it needs, and how it can take responsibility for itself. My emphasis at ACED was always on process. We focused on solving the problem and how to put people together with different ways of looking at education and what it means, and then convince them to work together. In the end it really paid off. One school went from ninety-fourth to sixteenth (in the city) in ranking (based on the national achievement test scores) in only three years, with no new buildings, classrooms, or principal. It was great. However, the outcomes we had in Payatas (test scores) can be considered icing on the cake. At the heart of it all was change in the process and in the way of doing things. When the scores jumped, people began paying attention and improved infrastructure followed.

The success in Payatas brought us to upscale the work. The next challenge was, can it work in a whole town? So, we went to San Isidro, Nueva Ecija and tried it there in 12 elementary and four high schools. Mayor Sonia Lorenzo was a firm believer in education, and she linked other stakeholders with us. Like Payatas, we had to gain their trust, gather data on what they have and don’t have, helped them develop an education development plan, and then begin work on building capability. It seems like a simple process, but very challenging as each school and community has different ways of doing things and we must adjust constantly. Without people like Ben Caling, our champion principal in Payatas, and Mayor Lorenzo, our mayor partner, we couldn’t really do it, as Ateneo is still really an outside institution ,and change ultimately has to come from within.

I stayed till 2006 and then began work on my Ph.D. in education in Singapore.

Could you speak about the potential for replicating the work ACED has done in Philippine communities in other areas?

The thing to remember is that Payatas is urban poor, and people are hungry and life is harsh. To connect with these people, you have to be, in a way, one of them. This is the only way to gain and earn their respect. The people in Payatas now see me as somebody who belongs, not some educated girl from one of the country’s most elite universities. People are very sensitive to you being different, and you have to be sensitive to that. Now the problem becomes, how do you achieve this deep, context-based appreciation, while spreading the work to new areas? You really have to find the balance in that framework.

It’s okay to have people follow the ACED process, but not just mechanically. The process sort of unraveled in front of us as we got started—it was what we had to do; there was lots of trial and error from the beginning. The three-step process (school-based research, planning, and capacity building) emerged and was formalized, but my appreciation for it might be different than somebody who hadn’t gone through that trial and error. The question of replicability really depends on finding people with an appreciation for that deep community engagement. If ACED were to expand to a 20-plus person staff to cover more ground, some staff might see one of the steps as just a step without finding out why it is there. It loses something and might be cut when the staff members are in a hurry. To replicate ACED, we have to replicate what it takes in terms of heart, going deeper than a sort of “dummies” guide to educational development. It can only be replicated if we find more of these people that can appreciate the community engagement aspect ahead of seeing the three steps we work on.

ACED can’t do the work for all 44,000 Filipino public schools. We have to have a lot of ACEDs to even consider the whole country!

Could you speak a little bit more about what inspired you to get involved, and what has motivated you to stay involved in this work?

I’m not the type of person who gives up. I went to a public school in Paete, Laguna Province, and then the Jesuits gave me a full scholarship to attend Ateneo. I guess I see a bit of myself in these kids as well. If I were to give up, a potentially bright kid might lose that chance to succeed. Principals and teachers appreciated that even during hard times, I was here working. Another reason why I kept going was because I really believe in Father Ben’s mission for helping the country through helping the public schools. At the end of the day, 90 percent of students in the Philippines are in public schools, and private schools like Ateneo only cater to the remaining 10 percent, or those who can afford it. As Father Ben says, the pace of a country in moving forward really depends on its slowest group.

Like most high school students, I took tests for University of the Philippines (UP), Lasalle and Ateneo. I got into all three, although I thought I could never compete with the students from exclusive schools, especially as I came from the province. But, then a letter came from Ateneo. I have later realized that Tom Steinbugler, S.J., a Jesuit and originally New Yorker, was a friend of my mom, a Vietnamese woman who worked with refugees. She spoke Filipino, French, Vietnamese, and English and at one point was managing a group that worked in a restaurant. Father Tom would come around to visit the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Vietnamese refugee camp in Palawan. He heard that I had taken the test and knew that I was considering UP, the state university which is a cheaper school. I think maybe he talked to somebody. I didn’t even originally know about the financial aid form and filled it out after my application. So I got the full scholarship plus dorm. In exchange, I would render services to various offices in the university in the morning, and I would work in the dorm at night patching phone calls through, which was fun because I got to know who was calling whom!

If there were no successful public school, there would also be no Ateneo for me. My dad died when I was young, and my mom worked to support all three of us. It’s like paying something forward. Ateneo helped me, and now I’m helping them achieve one their biggest goals as an institution. It does seem to me very selfish for us to talk only about how excellent Ateneo is as a school. It is an outward-looking institution that is trying to transform the country and has been really instrumental in helping reform public education with the DepEd, who has been aggressively reworking the system to make it work. It really is difficult to change a system like that one, with so few funds that 42,000 schools compete for. Eighty percent to 85 percent of the DepEd budget is spent on teachers’ salaries, and only the remaining 15 percent to 20 percent is used to purchase books, train teachers, repair the classrooms, etc. ACED helps bridge this resource gap in making sure a community sees its stake and takes responsibility for managing resources, as getting additional resources (if it happens) must also be well taken cared of to ensure a more lasting investment. There is something about my coming out of the public schools that gives me credibility in working to close that gap. Teachers and principals somehow trust me more when they learned I came from the public school system myself.

What do you see as the ideal outcome for a student who’s successfully been affected by ACED’s work, and how does that then drive community development and poverty alleviation?

ACED always looks at the school as a whole unit and never at one student. So, in terms of what a community would look like, first it might not even improve infrastructurally. However, there will be improvement in the value system, a more open and transparent policy process, more trusting among stakeholders in the community. The community will have made a real commitment to putting time and care into managing the resources they do have, becoming a community in the real sense of the word. They are not just improving an image, or gaining a manicured lawn, but are becoming a group of people together finding solutions to their problems. This transformation can’t really be pictured; statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. But here’s something: now I can go to Payatas late in the day, where I couldn’t before because it wasn’t safe. You can’t really take a picture of that, but it is something felt.

In terms of an individual child though, he or she would be someone that believes in people caring about his or her future, sees his or her school as a caring environment, where he or she doesn’t have to fend for the self in a hostile environment. At the worst, kids would scavenge in their schools, steal from teachers and school property. They will hopefully trust each other, show respect, and become more nurturing in spite of their poverty.

I teach community development now, and it’s about making sure people manage the resources they do have. One challenge I’ve seen with social entrepreneurship is that extra income is extra and treated as disposable, and not something to be saved. Yes, jobs are important. But if we don’t change the value system and emphasize things like family, education, and health as basic and normal, the extra income won’t help. We need to change the value system first. A big part of ACED is formulating these values, changing priorities, and seeing things in a new way.

Rod asked, “Can we show how this education work has really alleviated poverty?” I told him, “We can’t say we solved the problem of poverty, numbers-wise, but we have certainly improve the quality of life in these places significantly.”

How have recent events and the culture of migration affected the public schools in the Philippines, and specifically ACED’s work?

The difficulties with migration are a function of the national government not being able to provide jobs with sufficient salaries for skilled workers. In Payatas we worked with the poorest of the poor, and migrating wasn’t even a possibility. In San Isidro, there are some families of migrants who might be better off money-wise but still struggle with values as the parents are working overseas, simply away and unable to attend meetings and support their children with school activities. They can afford to give some money, but the extra material stuff can sometimes even hurt the work on values. It’s another example of how each school is a part of its own community with its own problems.

In terms of the recent financial crisis, some kids who had been attending private school have been forced back into the public schools, which already have full classrooms but have to take the students as the parents working overseas lose their jobs and can no longer afford to pay. It’s another example of how the problems in public schools are not usually directly related to education but instead socio-politico-economic and beyond the classroom. These factors include crime, health, population, and migration.

How does ACED work with partners and use the political process to affect change?

ACED plays a crucial role in matching potential donors with the needs of a community. Organizations are often ready to help but obviously can’t make an ACED-like commitment. So ACED has to organize things and make sure a community is ready to constructively engage with partners, whether short or long-term. We need to make sure resources aren’t wasted, and if a community is not ready for the help, the work will be a failure at the end of the day.

A school board in a town or city gets 1 percent of real property taxes to spend on education, and ACED tries to get them to be more functional with it, too. This depends also on a strong and transparent mayor. I’ve come to recognize the importance of politics and politicians in the process, and see them as allies and not enemies. Working with politicians can be frustrating, but being able to speak their language (coming from the political science discipline) helped me in my work.

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