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    As expected, the opening of classes has brought the Department of Education back in the glare of publicity once again. The usual shortages of teachers, classrooms, and books are highlighted, the K to 12 program is under critical scrutiny, as well as liberal and nonrestrictive class sizes that accommodate all students, students overage for the classes they belong to, students not yet reading in Grade 3… And the list goes on.

    But did we expect our country’s educational problems to be banished overnight? What has happened to DepEd’s clever acronym, ECARP—or the Every Child a Reader program by Grade 3—even if we all know such a requirement is a challenge to achieve? What is significant is the public trust and confidence, notwithstanding the brickbats, that the present DepEd leadership elicits. It is a matter of the leadership being transparent and the citizenry seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.
    Speaking on developing a reading culture in the country two days before the start of the school year, Education Undersecretary for Finance and Administration Francisco Varela provided a sweeping view of the major reforms DepEd has embarked on. It is an ambitious list: facilities improvement, more aggressive hiring of teachers, increased investments in information and communications technology (ICT) and other learning resources, additional training support for teachers, enhanced pedagogy through the Mother Tongue program, and major curriculum reform through the K to 12 implementation.

    Varela was the first to admit that these reforms and investments need to be translated not only in increases in the number of students entering and finishing school. The ultimate yardstick to measure success is also one difficult to measure: Did the children really learn in school?
    He recognized that the children would be driven to learn, to know and to understand only if the love for reading were instilled and developed in them at a very young age. The acquisition of reading skills, although a welcome major leap in itself, is not enough, because it does not necessarily redound to the motivation to learn. It is literature and the love for stories which will drive the students to want to read, and to read on their own.

    In an ideal world, there is no debating these issues. But a reality check will tell us that our very school setups make the motivation to learn a challenge to acquire. These realities can be daunting, says Varela.
    Many of our students, even those in the higher grades, do not know how to read. They have never enjoyed a home environment supportive of reading or a love for stories. They do not have reading models to look up to because the teachers may not be avid readers themselves. How can teachers pass on to their students the love for reading and learning that they do not possess?

    The Mother Tongue program is now generally accepted as the better and more effective way for children to learn, except that appropriately leveled materials in various languages are still not available in sufficient quantity and variety to address diverse learning needs. And sadly, the government does not have adequate resources to provide for a well-stocked library in every school.

    And even if resources were available, Varela asked, how does the government, constrained by budgetary and procurement policies, ensure that the appropriate books to address diverse learning needs are purchased and delivered with dispatch? He also raised another relevant issue in the publishing industry: the question of marketing rebates and ethical practices.

    * * *

    This overview was of special interest to the audience that gathered for the two-day Little Litfest that partners Museo Pambata and the National Book Development Board (NBDB) convened for the first time. The participants included writers, publishers, artists, illustrators, parents, teachers, students, and literacy advocates.

    And what’s a children’s literary festival without the participation of children, the target clientele? A most charming surprise touch was provided by seven-year-old Rafa Varela, who introduced his father with impressive self-confidence and aplomb, and got autographed books from the Australian author Ken Spillman of the Jake series. There was also a session, “From the Mouth of Babes,” which featured child readers Marcus Flores and Amihan Ramos, who talked about books they like to read and what, to them, are good books to read.

    Varela, who is also NBDB vice chair, mentioned a few literacy measures that DepED has implemented to address the state of reading in the public schools. Among these initiatives are the provision of storybooks for the now mandatory kindergarten program, a refined and expanded reading assessment program, teacher training programs, and Library Hubs.

    He called on the industry representatives in attendance, including authors who participated in Singapore’s Asian Festival of Children’s Content, to join hands with DepED in its vision to make public school students read and love reading stories, to allow these to “open and fill their minds.”
    No one can do this monumental task alone. As Varela said, reading is far too important to leave to educators.

    Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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