MANILA - Pushcarts rolling on the streets of Cavite, a province immediately south of the Philippine capital Manila, began serving as mobile classrooms for street children in 2007, on the initiative of a nongovernmental organization called Dynamic Teen Company.
Five years later, the Philippine Department of Education teamed up with the firm for a larger-scale implementation of the pushcart classroom model that earned its founder, Efren Penaflorida, Jr., the CNN Hero of the Year award in 2009.
On Thursday, four years since the forging of their partnership, the education department recognized 1,267 children from various parts of Manila who completed the program, of whom more than half are now enrolled in regular classrooms.
"I appreciate (the program) because children learn something. It's fun," 9-year-old Baby Boy Abante, one of the children who finished the program, told Kyodo News.
Abante was formerly not attending school because he had to stay home while his mother went to work. He recently enrolled in a public elementary school in Manila after he was assessed, based on his pushcart school participation, to be fit for the Grade 4 level.
Public school teacher Elena Lopez, who handles another group of pushcart school students from another city, told Kyodo News that a lack of official documents like a birth certificate and mere lack of interest among parents to enroll their children are some reasons why there are thousands of children out of school in Manila.
"The objective is really to look for children aged 5 to 14 who are not in school, either because they didn't enroll from the start or because they've dropped out. So, we use the pushcart classroom approach to bridge them to bring the children back to school," Education Undersecretary Mario Deriquito said of the program.
"Our purpose for the pushcart classroom is to encourage children to love studying and bring them back to schools. Instead of lingering in the streets, where bad influences proliferate, we want them back in school to finish their studies," added Penaflorida.
Deriquito and Penaflorida both attended Thursday's culmination program held in the Manila suburb of Pasig City. The main guests included Vice President-elect Leni Robredo, outgoing Education Secretary Armin Luistro and outgoing Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman.
Manned by licensed teachers and trained volunteers, the mobile classrooms are equipped with books, charts, and other educational materials, as well as hygiene and first-aid kits, courtesy of different organizations and companies that also support the program. It provides free paper, notebooks, and pens to participating children, as well as snacks or meals.
They roll out at least once a week in the communities and hold sessions lasting a few hours. Lopez said that in her case, her pushcart classroom is normally stationed in the covered court of the village where she is assigned so that village officials can also lend a hand.
Their "students" include street children and kids in residential slums.
"In the pushcart classroom, we make it very interesting (for the children). There are games and storytelling so that children are then encouraged to go back to school," Deriquito said.
Thursday's 1,267 "completers" are among 1,631 children who attended learning sessions provided by the 59 pushcart schools across the entire Metro Manila starting 2015. Those who eventually enrolled in regular schools number 743, while the rest are continuing to attend their respective mobile classrooms until they become fit to enter a formal learning environment.
There is no immediately available data on the total beneficiaries from 2012, when the education department and Penaflorida's organization started working together, until 2014. Deriquito disclosed, however, that in their first year, they had set up 11 pushcart classrooms in Manila alone, estimated to have benefited some 400 children.
Penaflorida was not prepared as well to say how many children so far have benefited from the program since its launch in 2007, except to say there are now 83 pushcart schools across the country, on top of those set up with the Department of Education.
He added that there are also pushcart classrooms in the cities of Cebu and Bacolod in the central islands of Visayas on the initiative of other organizations.
The program was also established in Leyte province after it was struck by Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, Deriquito said.
"Recently, UNESCO recognized our program as one of the good practices for education-for-all in the whole Asia-Pacific. And by next month, the program will be replicated with UNESCO and we're targeting 16,000 out-of-school youth and children in the Philippines," Penaflorida disclosed.
With the goal of putting 110 pushcart classrooms all over Manila, the education department is now taking steps to institutionalize the program and allocate funds for it.
"We will continue to look for street children, through the help of the Department of Social Welfare and local governments. So, the pushcart classroom will just continue to roll out," Deriquito said of the program's prospects for the future.
Commenting on former out-of-school children who have made the transition to regular school attendees, Penaflorida said his organization hopes they do not drop out and complete their studies through college, "so their lives will be productive."
"Education is a powerful tool to fight poverty and ignorance," he said.
With his interest in going to school invigorated by his pushcart classroom experience, Abante said he looks forward to learning more about science, his favorite subject, as he now enters a formal education environment.
Having learned good study habits during his participation in the pushcart classroom sessions, Abante dreams of eventually finishing school, although not really for any grand ambition in life, at least, for now.
"I just want to work in an office when I grow up," the boy, who actually looks much younger than his age, said.