For Manila's street children, school may be a plastic tent

AT 7 a.m. in Manila, Welma Comanga is getting ready to go to work in a tent. She is a social worker at an experimental ``street school'' run by the Department of Social Welfare and Development in the Philippines. The capital of a country of 55 million people, where a majority live in poverty and 40 percent of the population is below age 15, Manila is flooded with perhaps 30,000 children who spend their days - and sometimes their nights - on the streets.

The street school program aims to get them off the street and into an organized classroom environment and, ultimately, into the regular public school system.

Mita Pardo de Tavera, the secretary of social welfare and development, proposed the street schools last January. The first school was opened in the Manila suburb of Paranaque in April, aimed at the large squatter communities of Tambo and Seaside. ``We just wanted to get them off the street, if only for a few hours,'' Ms. de Tavera says. ``It's small, it's an experiment.''

Camanga, in her late 20s, has worked at the school on J.P. Laurel Street since it opened July 22. Her first monthly report read: ``First day of class proves difficult - the place is open and the pupils very unruly. ... Teacher cannot cope with demands [when] children grow wild. But there [has been] a slight change in the attitudes of the children.''

She laughs as she remembers. ``The first month was hard!'' she says.

It is 8 a.m., and in a small city park she is setting up the plastic tent on a patch of dirt that will serve as the schoolhouse. The children are already gathering.

At 9, teacher Marylyn Valle arrives. There are 17 students. They energetically if not tunefully sing ``Bayan Ko''(``My Country''), an emotional song about the Philippine struggle against colonialism. Since it is Marlon's birthday, they also sing ``Happy Birthday.'' Marlon is 11. Lessons begin.

``The first problem was finding the children,'' says Camanga. ``We only take seven- to 12-year-olds. The criterion we had was mendicants; we wanted kids to be totally out of school and to be from families too poor to send them to normal schools.''

Public schools in Manila can cost from 150 to 350 pesos per year. (Twenty pesos equal $1.) ``The minimum monthly wage for a family of six is P3,000 [$150] but so many people get much less,'' says Camanga. ``They have maybe five children and they cannot afford to send them all to school, so we take them.''

Eddy Detubio, president of the Urban Poor Neighbors Association in the J.P. Laurel area, helped identify children for the program. ``This land used to be full of garbage. Some squatters from the provinces made their shanties here. We found wood. Maybe some people stole it. We built our houses.''

Mr. Detubio is pleasant and relaxed. He watches the children in the tent. ``Many of these people, they were forced off their land [in the provinces] by landlords. Terrorized. So they came here. Some thought it would be nice to live in the city, so much to do, easy to get a job.'' He laughs. In Manila, jobs are few and far between.

``Some are farmers who borrowed money at high interest. They couldn't pay when their crops failed, and they came here.''

The street school has a blackboard and chairs, all stored at the Detubio house when not in use. Miss Valle writes letters on the board, the students copy them, learning the alphabet. They do arithmetic and ``socialization'' (manners, cleanliness). The students are noisy, but most of the 17 do their work. In the Paranaque school, there are only eight pupils.

``That's because we graduated 20 of them last year,'' says Amy Pampag proudly. She is the social worker in Paranaque. ``They achieved the right scholastic level for their age, and now [the Welfare Department] subsidizes them in public school.''

Pampag wears a skirt and high heels as she deftly steps over floating garbage, rounding up the kids. ``It's risky,'' she says. ``We deal in depressed areas.'' She carries a knife but says, ``No, I've never been attacked. They attack demolition crews [who remove squatters], but I think they love social workers.

``I think this project is the first under Cory [President Corazon Aquino] to help people this way,'' Pampag says. ``We have many programs but not enough staff.'' The Aquino government is planning to ``increase staff per unit,'' she says, ``if we get the money.''

De Tavera says she has asked for a budget increase for 1988. The 1987 welfare budget was $2 million, ``the smallest budget of all the departments, and they haven't even released it yet.'' Why? ``They just don't have it,'' she sighs.

``Marylyn makes 800 pesos a month,'' says Camanga. ``I make 1,251 pesos a month after taxes.'' She looks firm. ``If you do this job, you have to be committed. I want to help the people.''

There are plans to set up another school in the heart of Manila, and Celia Laurel, the wife of the Philippines vice-president, is starting one in the huge slum area of Tondo.

One advantage of the street school is that it allows social workers to have close contact with their people. While Valle teaches, Camanga talks to parents. They ask for food, for assured loans. Camanga has lectured parents in the tent after school hours on family planning.

Another plus is that being in school keeps the kids, for a few hours at least, from being targets of drug pushers and pimps looking for child prostitutes.

At noon school is finished. The social worker and teacher go to their office, the students go home.

Home for them is only 15 feet away. The drainage alley is crammed with shacks made of tin, cardboard, ripped plastic, and old wood. Their owners maintain them as best they can. Imelda Marcos had the concrete walls that surround the area constructed to hide the squatters' area from visitors going to Malacanang Palace, which is only a few hundred yards down J.P. Laurel Street.

Water is piped up to the alley illegally from the central system, and electricity is taken from the main power lines. ``Our neighborhood association gives 400 pesos to the man who works for the power company,'' Detubio says, ``and he looks the other way.''

Because of the proximity of Malacanang, President Aquino often drives by during school hours in her motorcade, three black Mercedeses, police cars, sirens. ``Cory never stops here,'' grins Detubio. ``Her security won't let her.''

The children are happy to be there and say so, in Tagalog. In contrast to the public schools, very little of the learning here is in English. It is part of the philosophy of practicality that de Tavera likes, although the program serves only 30 or so children out of 30,000.

``Well,'' she responds, ``if you have a few of them for three or four hours, it's better than zero. You just want to give them something. And it will grow.''

``There's an improvement in reading skills, writing, good manners, knowing how to answer the teacher since I've been here,'' says Camanga.

``It helps,'' says Detubio. ``And,'' he adds, ``the children like it.''

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