Like many Filipino children from the provinces, Mark John did not have the luxury of daily education.
When his father died and his mother left him to be raised by a relative, Mark had to start contributing to the household income. The youngest of three children, he dropped out of school to become a fisherman. "I needed to help my family,” says the softly spoken young man, who is now 18.
Mark's story is far from unusual in Masbate, one of the Philippines' poorest provinces, where 42.5 per cent of the population – double the national average of 21 per cent – lives in poverty.
"Poverty really is the root cause of problems in education,” says Carin Van der Hor of Plan Philippines, an agency that has been working since 1961 to improve education and health for marginalised children. "Frequently families find themselves in a situation where they have to make the unfortunate choice of pursuing livelihood opportunities or sending their children to school on a regular basis.”
Dubai Cares has worked with Plan Philippines as part of a four-year, US$2 million (Dh7.34m) education initiative it began last year called Raise, or Real Assets Through Improved Skills and Education for Adolescent Girls.
The project is being introduced in Masbate and Northern Samar, another of the poorest provinces.
Although girls make up 70 per cent of the programme's 10,976 beneficiaries, who are between the ages of 10 and 19, the initiative has also helped boys by funding specialised programmes with flexible teaching hours.
The two programmes, called Alternative Learning System and Open High School, are meant to attract school dropouts back to the classroom and to dissuade those who are at risk of leaving education.
Mark now hopes to attend college to study education or criminology. The flexible scheduling offered by the alternative learning centre allowed him to return to school without interrupting his job.
He is preparing to finish his secondary school equivalency exam on November 13. If he passes, he will be able to enrol in a technical or state college.
The alternative learning centre gives pupils the opportunity to set their own academic schedule so they can continue to work while going to school. The classes are held in small, simple community centres and are led by instructional managers.
The pupils can attend for as little as a couple of hours one day a week. Once they complete 800 hours, they can take the exam to prove they have mastered the subject.
"This is truly making a difference,” said instructional manager Ritchel Banas, who teaches 16 ALS pupils supported by the Raise programme.
"The out-of-school youth, many of them are now motivated enough to keep on schooling.
"Before, they did not think such things because what they are thinking is, ‘It's OK to keep on working, working for the family'. But now we opened up their minds to keep on schooling because of the better future ahead of them.”
Dubai Cares has also provided funds through Raise to build a new community centre in the municipality of Milagros, which has 113 alternative-learning pupils. The centre, which is being built and is due to open next year, will come equipped with 10 computers and a day-care and nursing room to help young mothers who are continuing their studies.
Raise is also supporting the Open High School programme by supplying staff with training and school materials for pupils enrolled in traditional secondary schools but who are at risk of dropping out. These pupils are also offered flexible scheduling, but their classes take place in a traditional school and their coursework follows the regular curriculum.
Mada Al Suwaidi, country programme officer for Dubai Cares, visited the schools last week with chief executive Tariq Al Gurg. She was pleased with what she saw.
"It showed me that girls who already have children or who already have a lot of work to complete outside of school, still have that link to a school environment even if it's only once a week,” she said.
"They have other priorities, but they don't want to lose that educational link. We are providing them with that.”
Source: The National