Riche Palle, a teacher in Agusan del Sur, stood on the eighth step leading up to a school entrance. “If the water level is here, we can still have class that day,” said Palle. He described how small wooden boats line up near the entrance to drop off a child for morning or afternoon classes.
In the United States, a snowstorm is the usual cause of canceled school classes. Severe thunderstorms, hurricanes and flooding move school administrators to choose safety over attendance. In the Philippine region of Agusan del Sur, extreme weather is the norm.
I traveled downstream on the Agusan River, accompanied by a development coordinator from the provincial government and a local Manobo who was fluent in the various dialects spoken in the towns. After three hours on a small motorized boat and no sighting of the river’s alligators, we reached what the coordinator, Julie Cuares, called a “floating community.” The homes in Sabang Gibong are built atop logs tied together as a raft. Homes line the banks of the marsh and are at times linked to each other with a few ropes.
The structures move with the currents. After the first hour, the swaying inside a home transforms from a dizzying experience to a soft, side-to-side rocking that is conducive to sleep in the height of the tropical heat. Boy Joyo, a local who has lived in a floating home in Sabang Gibong since childhood, told how the wood for rafts is cut from nearby forests and changed every ten years. Hardwoods are replaced every twenty years. “In the past, we used hardwoods because they last longer,” said Joyo, “Now times are hard and they’re more difficult to find.”
Rampant logging is causing soil degradation and unpredictable levels from the river. If locals chose to build on the marshland rather than on rafts, it is certain that the home will be meters underwater from January to March. We anchored our boat at Sabang Gibong Elementary School, the only structure in the town built on solid ground. A smaller building adjacent to it functions as the high school; unlike the elementary school, it is supported on rafts to rise with the water.
One hundred thirty children are enrolled in the elementary school while the high school has 55 students. Seven teachers have the task of educating the 185 students in a limited space. The solution is to teach two grades in each classroom. In one classroom, a teacher taught first graders the names of shapes. After ten minutes, she turned her attention to the other half of the room and taught second graders to write the names of the shapes. Despite of the lack of school supplies and a classroom shared between different ages, students were eager to learn.
Their visible discipline begins on the walk to school. On one afternoon, I watched from a floating home nearby and was surprised at the quietness of many children. One carried a pink umbrella to match her outfit, while others walked barefoot. Teachers are aware that most students' families have barely enough for food and necessities. The teachers' $40 monthly salary is used to buy school supplies and to cover the transportation cost to and from Sabang Gibong. Personal expenses come last.
A more serious issue is rooted in Agusan’s weather. Girlie Andig-Dinero, in her fifth year as the school’s principal, pointed to the dark, jagged watermarks that were a few feet above her head. When the rainy season comes, homes will stay float, but the school will remain underwater for weeks.
“Some kids don’t come because the mothers are afraid that most can’t swim when the water’s big,” said Andig-Dinero. She added how Sabang Gibong’s locals are noticing an increasing rise in water levels.
While the provincial government awaits proposals from local political leaders, non-governmental institutions are addressing basic needs. Palle flipped through a recently arrived book, which documents a new curriculum and lesson plans. The World Bank and the Philippine-Australian Community Assistance Program (PACAP) funded the development of the teaching material in partnership with provincial organizations.
Still, uncertainty looms for the school. If it is underwater during the school year, the improved lesson plans will be useless to the students. The school’s primary need, according to Andig-Dinero is “a proper floating structure.”