28 August 2007

The promise of Libon

IF YOU saw Cars, the seventh animated film produced by the Disney-Pixar combine, then you will probably remember Radiator Springs, the former boomtown in the movie that faded into oblivion when Interstate 40 opened to traffic.

It is where our cocky hero -- and my daughter Nokie's all-time favorite -- Lightning McQueen suddenly found himself in after being separated from his transport truck on the way to the tie-breaker race in Los Angeles.

Bicol has its own version of Radiator Springs, a town called Libon in Albay province, which is in fact home to the oldest Spanish settlement in the region. It used to be called Santiago de Libong, if I recall my Bicol history right.

But when the straight bypass road from Matacon to Polangui town proper rose with the opening of the Maharlika Highway many decades back, traffic -- particularly passenger buses and vans -- that used to pass Libon disappeared, substantially affecting the town's vitality.

Yet the proud people of Libon are quietly confident they will rise again. Under the leadership of newly reelected Mayor Agnes "Bem" Dycoco, they are betting that improved education outcomes will enable the town to recover lost ground.

Last Friday, our six-man Synergeia Southern Luzon team headed by Mayor Robredo went to Libon to help manage their first-ever education summit. I came home with many positive impressions about the town and the quality of its governance:

- They have a tradition of participation that will serve the project well. Mayor Bem's department heads facilitated the workshops admirably, notwithstanding the 15-minute briefing early in the morning that the schedule allowed us.

- The municipal government has a functional Community-Based Monitoring System (CBMS), one of the only two in Albay, that the mayor juxtaposed against the DepEd data in his presentation. (We don't have one in Naga yet.) There were marked differences in the data, and Mayor Bem challenged the participants to use them in establishing the real situation at the community level.

- The town also works with seven uniquely named "leagues," which refer to a cluster of geographically contiguous villages; this arrangement facilitates management of its 48 component barangays. These leagues include Palayan (where the rice fields are), Poblacion (the town center), Coastal (those facing Burias Pass), Lakeside (along Lake Bato), Big Six(the six biggest barangays?), Six Hills (the hilly portions of the town), and Interior 8 (obviously the landlocked interior villages).

Mind you, practically all of them were represented, both at the school, barangay and PTA levels, except for one or two that failed to attend. Their presence enabled the town to come up with specific interventions unique to their own league, whose problems can be different from others.

- Mayor Dycoco's presentation of the town's state of education was the most comprehensive I've seen thus far. More than that, it started quite differently, invoking the town's illustrious sons and daughters -- including the likes of former Finance Secretary Dominador Aytona and Justice Irene Cortes. (It is also available via Slideshare below.)

It perfectly set the stage for challenging, thought-provoking questions toward the end, such as:

  • "Libon's prominent intellectual personalities, can we replicate them in the next generation?
  • "Do our public school children, especially those schooled in rural barangays ever have the chance to become intellectuals of our town?
  • "Can our next leaders, businessmen, professionals who will shape Libon’s community in the future come from them, or will these be privilege of the few?"
It so moved Albay Schools Division Superintendent Epifanio Buela, who remarked, "You will make a very good Department of Education secretary!" No wonder, Mayor Dycoco was elected by her peers as new president of the Albay municipal mayor's league.

(Interestingly, that is a common observation of all Synergeia local chief execs who have begun involving themselves in education governance issues beyond the traditional scholarships and provision of physical facilities: they begin talking like DepEd superintendents.)

My confidence that Libon will fulfill its promise came most unexpectedly when towards the end, as the various stakeholders were asked to reflect on their outputs, the Libon district supervisor -- whose name eludes me -- asked all school principals in attendance to stand up, raise their right hands, and commit themselves ("panunumpa" was the word she used) to seeing the plan through.

This reaffirmed my belief in the Synergeia model. Two days back, Cecile Calleja of the Lafayette-owned Rapu-Rapu Minerals, Inc. -- our corporate partner for the same project in the Albay mining boomtown -- asked me point-blank: "What is really your value-added?"

I said: I will have to disabuse your mind that we have a magic wand that will cure all ills in the public school system in communities that decide to work with us. But our value-added lies in working with local governments who, in leading their communities in identifying the problems and finding the solution to their problems, can make education governance reforms work.