Throughout the Philippines, 50% of Grade 1 students will drop out (Nava, 2009). Beyond the drop-out crisis is a larger, looming problem shared by countries throughout the world; children are disengaged and bored in the traditional classroom.

The rigid style of education has proven difficult to translate to poorer contexts in particular. Financially, families just can’t afford to send their kids to school, as a family of five living on the poverty line would be spending half of their entire household income sending their three kids to school (Moore, 2016). What happens, therefore, is families ‘specialise’ their children (Murakami, 2011). This means one child becomes the hope of the family and their school needs are provided, while other children will work to support the basic needs. This is one reason why poorer families have larger families; as is typically the case, there is a very rational decision behind why poorer people act in such ways.

9c center through the years int.pngFairplay began working in education through a drop-in center, whereby kids had a safe space to learn, play, and rest. We gradually began to sponsor regular kids who felt ready to go back to formal school through the drop-in center. For the most part this has been successful with attendance and grades improving gradually.

However over time it became clear, through research and input from the community, that this could not be a universal solution. If, for example, we sent all the kids currently out of school back to the classroom, class sizes would double from their already egregiously large average of 60-80 in Payatas. It wouldn’t work.

Nor does the traditional system work for most kids. So at Fairplay we believe there’s a better way. We believe in child-centered learning; the students have a say in how the school is run, in what lessons they take, and in how they shape their future. We believe that curiosity should be encouraged and become the corner-stone of the learning process, not shut down for a prescribed curriculum that has little to do with their actual lives. We believe children learn best when cooperating, not competing, when they are happy and engaged, not passively memorising. We believe teachers know their students better, and that they should be free to support their students in ways they deem best, without bureaucratic burden.

This is therefore our long-term and grand vision: creating the Fairplay Academy, the first democratic school in the Philippines that offers in-house alternative, progressive education. Here, students learn at their own pace, focusing on social and emotional development first to ensure they see mistakes as a positive step in the trial and error process that epitomises the real learning process. The Growth Mindset (Dweck), Positive Psychology (Seligman, Achor), and Emotional Intelligence (Goleman) are key to providing a platform for the kids to work through.

The Fairplay Academy will also offer a dormitory space for the most hard-core cases to provide a safe and loving environment to live in. During this time we can work with the families through various interventions (psycho-social, emotional, and economic) so when the home has healed the student can return to them and become a day student in the Fairplay Academy.

We initiated a bold move towards this grand goal in 2016: turning our drop-in center into the Fairplay School. Through this ambitious move, our education program evolved into two distinct branches: (1) we continued to support 45 scholars enrolled in the nearby public schools through the Education Sponsorship Program (ESP), and (2) we welcomed new scholars as students of the Fairplay School.

In the Fairplay School, we offered in-house education to out-of-school children and youth (and even adults) living in Payatas through the Alternative Learning System of the Department of Education. However, we focused first on nurturing emotional intelligence, providing social support and nutrition to these most underprivileged of kids before we could delve into the academics. The growth of our scholars was wonderful to see.

However, after a couple of years with the Fairplay School, we hit some major stumbling blocks and it became clear that we could not maintain its operations sustainably. We therefore scaled back and streamlined our education program, transitioning our Fairplay School into the Youth Center. The students from the Fairplay School were absorbed under the ESP and enrolled into the local schools.

The Youth Center aims to holistically support our Fairplay Scholars in all their needs: social support, academic tutoring, mental health support, and financial incentives. Each of these areas is crucial in order to break the cycle of poverty – without any one of them, more children will fall through the cracks and be unable to break that cycle. You can learn more about these four pillars of support by checking out this Freakonomics podcast about a program called Pathways to Education in Toronto.

Through the Youth Center, our Fairplay scholars have access to: (1) social support through our weekly Youth Groups facilitated by our social and community workers, (2) academic tutoring through regular scheduled tutorials with our tutors, volunteers and community workers, (3) counseling through one-on-one “kamusthan” and consultation with the Youth Center Advisor as well as our weekly EQ Club and mentoring sessions, and (4) financial incentives through the ESP’s levels of support. Our football program also further enhances the impact of our work as it promotes these four pillars of support; many of our Fairplay scholars are also our Payatas FC players.

We are nothing close to a perfect learning environment, if one exists, but we continue to strive to build a a safe and caring environment for the kids to play, learn and grow.