A different public school.
Imagine a Filipino public school where the students-from kindergarten to high school (Grades 7 to 10, with 11 and 12 coming up)-come from all socioeconomic strata of society, children whose parents might be physicians or security guards, lawyers or office clerks.
Imagine that public school with 68 faculty members for 1,000 students, or a ratio of about 1 teacher per 14 students, and the teachers having ranks and salaries similar to those in state universities, from instructors to associate professors, many with graduate degrees.
Imagine that public school with a full range of government-prescribed subjects, and good facilities. In addition, high school students have a range of electives like creative drama, journalism, painting and drawing, environmental science, practical law, creative cookery.
This is not fantasy. And this is not one of the government's science high schools. I'm referring to the UP Integrated School (UPIS), whose students are sometimes called Batang Isko and Iska, being young versions of the University of the Philippines' Iskolar ng Bayan (people's scholars).
UPIS is part of UP Diliman, and is celebrating its centennial this year. Three other schools with similar philosophies and visions exist in UP Los BaNos, UP Cebu and UP Iloilo, and in some of the state universities offering education degrees.
The pedigree of UPIS is complicated. Its current name was adopted in 1979 after several mergers and transfers of three units: the original UP High School (established in 1916 in Manila), UP Elementary (1936) and UP Preparatory School (1954).
UPIS carries on the functions of the older institutions. It is a laboratory school, where UP College of Education students can hone their teaching skills under the supervision of experienced teachers. It is a feeder school, with hopes that its graduates would eventually get into UP as college students. And it is a service school, originally meant mainly for children of UP faculty and staff.
If there's the UPCAT (UP College Admissions Test), UPIS has its KAT (Kindergarten Admission Test) and GAT (Grade 7 Admission Test). These tests are administered in March; in fact, the application period for KAT and GAT has started and will last until Jan. 29.
KAT and GAT can be even more stressful than UPCAT. More than 1,000 applicants take the KAT, competing for 100 kindergarten slots, 60 percent of which are for UP dependents and 40 percent for outsiders. From kindergarten to Grade 6, there is no way to transfer into UPIS except for children of faculty returning from studies overseas.
GAT is even more competitive: Applicants compete for the few slots vacated by students who leave UPIS during the grade school years. The numbers vary, but average about 10 a year. An additional 10 slots are allocated for varsity players, who must still pass admission requirements in addition to showing their potentials for athletic performance. Some of the transferees have come from the more exclusive private schools: Last year's valedictorian moved over in Grade 7 from Ateneo, his father convinced that studying in UPIS was a way to discover the real world out there.
I was at the launch of the UPIS centennial celebrations two weeks ago for a memorable morning. I went out to greet the students as they came in from a parade around the campus, as rough and tumble as UP students come. The kindergarten students chanted, Good morning, sir. The older ones were wonderfully irreverent: Someone would yell Chansy! (from Chancellor) from time to time. At one point I nearly got run over as a group of students rushed past.
Wow, you're now 100 years old! I called out to the second graders. And one of them protested, No! I'm only eight.
I sat next to principal Ronaldo San Jose, who knows UPIS' history inside and out. Next to the principal was Education Undersecretary and former UP dean Dina Ocampo, whose son is in UPIS. All around us were university faculty and staff, present as proud parents or alumni, or both.
It was a long morning, with performances from the UP Cherubim and UPIS Pep Squad. Each year level had its own performance as well, and, Filipino-style, they all danced, depicting milestones in UPIS' long history, with national events setting the context, for example, martial law.
Formality with freedom
Through the years I've learned to analyze a school's personality from the way its students dance. The more formal schools have students going through very tight routines, all in step, all synchronized. UP's students, including those in UPIS, combine formality with freedom, a lot of ad hoc steps, the students quickly recovering if they make mistakes.
I've learned as well through the years to identify UPIS graduates in my classes: They tend to be much more outspoken and articulate, with a calculated recklessness. At the centennial launch I ran into several friends from way back who I hadn't known were UPIS alumni. But, remembering how outspoken they were, and still are, I thought, No wonder.
It's not surprising to find UPIS graduates excelling. Last year, former first lady Ming Ramos gave me a photograph with a caption Freshman Class University High School U.P., 1940-1941, with some people identified: Principal Juan Canave and three students-Rafael Salas, Fidel Ramos and Ming Martinez (yes, now Ming Ramos).
I'm almost afraid to name some of the distinguished alumni because I will miss out on others, but here are some names listed in a Wikipilipinas entry for UPIS: Ryan Cayabyab, John Lesaca, Ramon Bautista, Kara David. I noticed that the people listed are in the arts, media, or politics (including one presidentiable and one vice-presidentiable), and I'm hoping that scientists, engineers and health professionals will come out in future lists.
The centennial launch gave me a chance to talk with the students. One of them, who had climbed up to the ledge of the stage, I remembered from the way he clearly enjoyed his dancing (in Filipino, bigay na bigay). The kid next to him seemed familiar, too, and then I realized they were twins. We chatted and I learned that the Lopez twins' mother was a staff member in the UP School of Statistics. One twin was a total extrovert, but even the silent one was comfortable as we talked. They could have been my students in a university-level class.
In my opening remarks I told the audience that I probably wouldn't be around to see the kindergarten students graduating from college in 2032 because I'd be more than 100 years old then.
Only after the ceremonies did I realize that I had a senior moment: I'd only be 80 then, so maybe there would still be a chance I could attend their college graduation, congratulate them, and remind them of that day in January 2016 when we celebrated the centennial of a very good idea for Philippine public schools.
Maybe some of them will go on to make important transformations, propagating that spirit of UPIS and no longer just daring to imagine what our public schools can be.