Imagine being at a high school one sunny Saturday in March. Instead of being surrounded by restless sulking teenagers, you are surrounded by adolescent and adult learners who are smiling shyly and who look happy to be there. There is some nervous energy as there are visitors to observe the Alternative Learning System – Education and Skills Training (ALS-EST) teaching-learning sessions, but the excitement and pride of everyone – from the school leaders to the teachers and learners – are more palpable.
You choose to observe the Food Processing session. You enter one of the school’s technical-vocational laboratories and sit at the back. When the lesson begins, you notice that the teacher is nervous. Her voice grows steadier as she guides the learners from one collaborative activity to another. You appreciate that, despite the observers, she is able to create a safe and inclusive space where mistakes are okay and everyone participates. In smaller groups, learners recap the process of making salted eggs, compute the total cost of ingredients, as well as the selling price of a salted egg using the cost of ingredients and the 140% return on investment (ROI) ‘rule’ — all with the use of various tables and graphs.
You secretly wonder if you can pull off making salted eggs yourself as you observe the teacher demonstrate the entire process. You learn how to keep the eggs submerged in the saline solution, the difference between duck and chicken eggs, as well as the importance of vinegar in making the purple color stick to the egg shells.
As the teacher gives a short quiz, you reflect on the lesson and how impressed you are with the clear links between the mathematical and scientific concepts and the skills being taught. Yesterday the school leaders were just explaining the curriculum integration process they created. Seeing how mapping of competencies, making of a curriculum web, curriculum brief and session guide can result in a teaching-learning session that seamlessly combines basic education concepts and skills training makes you bask in the school and program’s successful innovation.
It’s a good illustration of how a clear central office vision coupled with schools’ involvement in co-designing the implementation of that vision is a recipe for an effective innovation process.
Talking with two learners afterwards makes you even more convinced of the impact of ALS-EST. One 45-year-old learner relays how, before ALS-EST, she would have a lot of idle or tambay time. Now that she is attending the weekend ALS-EST sessions, she is more preoccupied; she prepares salted eggs, pickled vegetables, and other processed food products for herself and loved ones. She also shares with her neighbors what she has learned from ALS-EST and has been encouraging them to join as well. Another learner, a young mother, is pleased that she is able to prepare smoked fish, preserves, and, of course, salted eggs for her family. She is heartened by the fact that some of her friends who are ALS-EST graduates have been hired as cooks or vendor assistants.
You leave the laboratory. You are the first group at the Principal’s office. In true DepEd fashion, snacks have been laid out. The bicho-bicho, a Bacolodnon dessert that resembles an elongated donut rich in coconut meat fillings, stands out and tempts you to bite into it. In addition to food, juice tetra-packs and coffee, the Inocencio V. Ferrer Memorial School of Fisheries (IVFMSF) bulletin on a flatscreen welcomes you. You see and hear even more ALS-EST learners talk about why they joined the program and what benefits it has resulted in.
Upon having a few bites of bicho-bicho and a few sips of coffee, you go out of the office and head to the ALS-EST center. You see a tarpaulin with a covenant of support to the ALS-EST Program accompanied by signatures from various stakeholders, such as the ALS literacy teacher, ALS skills teachers, the Assistant Schools Division Superintendent (ASDS), and even the city mayor.
You walk behind the tarpaulin and look inside the window slats of the ALS-EST center. The room is small –maybe even smaller than a regular classroom. Someone tells you that the learners are reviewing for an Accreditation and Equivalency (A&E) test happening in a few days. You wonder how the learners are able to study given the crowded classroom and the 30 or so visitors/observers. You look forward to the day when their ALS-EST center would be bigger, more suitable to their needs, and a source of pride. You think about the ALS-EST Learning Center built in Lawaan, Eastern Samar and wish that more centers like that would be built over the next few years.
You head back to the air-conditioned office. You’d like to listen in to the review session but there are too many people and it’s almost impossible to hear what’s going on. The Cookery and Electronic Products Assembly and Servicing (EPAS) groups are already there; you just need to wait for the Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW) group to finish their observation. In the meantime, you are given a box of smoked fish with a lovely green ribbon and tag, a product of the ALS-EST Food Processing class. You say a heartfelt thanks but are actually unsure of what to do with it, given that you’re a vegetarian. You breathe deeply and hold on to the box.
The gift is not really the one in the box. You have been wanting to see actual ALS-EST learning delivery since its launch in 2017. Finally, you are here – experiencing an actual ALS-EST teaching-learning session.
You feel grateful to be part of this. As you became more involved in the program and the development of the ALS-EST Handbook for Implementers, you began to understand how it is a key ALS reform. It reflects the importance of going beyond basic and functional literacy and explicitly linking learning with employment or entrepreneurship (and not just higher education and middle-level skills development). In addition, by integrating not just skills training but life skills, work readiness skills, and learning-to-learn skills, the learners are given the possibility of having not just more opportunities in terms of economic engagement but also community participation and development.
The SMAW group is finally done with their observation. You are herded to the multi-purpose hall for the requisite picture-taking. One learner brought her baby; someone from DepEd Central Office carries the baby on her lap as the adults around her coo and make googly eyes. Click, click, click.
You feel glad that, beyond lifelong learning, ALS-EST reinforces other crucial K to 12 features, such as inclusive education. As an ALS program, it provides a viable alternative to the existing formal education instruction for Filipino youth and adults who are unable to access or have dropped out from formal basic education. By expanding the scope of ALS and increasing the possible exits, it increases the number of learners who are motivated to and able to participate in non-formal education programs.
The program has also started to advocate and develop project-based and portfolio assessments to complement the usual paper and pencil test for ALS A&E. Adding these kinds of authentic assessments makes the program even more inclusive and learner-centered.
More photos are taken. There are photos with everyone, there are photos with the school representatives, i.e. the ALS-EST coordinator, the skills teachers, and the other school personnel; division representatives and one Public Schools District Supervisor (PSDS); with the learners and some of their family members and friends.
You find it remarkable that the program, apart from building a constituency, has also built on many of the Senior High School (SHS) resources and lessons — from the use of the technical-vocational laboratories, expertise of the SHS teachers and even SHS immersion experiences. Many ALS-EST implementers are doing what many SHSs have been doing, such as linking with local industry and LGU priorities and getting support in the form of industry and career mentoring, work experience, hands-on activities and additional skills training from partners from the private sector.
Slowly you start the long process of saying goodbye and thanking the school for hosting. You wonder if it’s realistic to be able to visit Ubay, Bohol in the near future to see how ALS-EST sessions in dairy buffalo production look like. You are delighted by the prospect of being able to milk a carabao! But that’s another ALS-EST feature for another day.
Krupskaya M. Añonuevo is an education consultant, researcher, and facilitator. She is interested in teacher professional learning, inclusive education, and, more recently, equivalence programs. Send her your ALS-EST stories at email@example.com . She is also a fellow of the Action for Economic Reforms (AER).