Sunday, April 1, 2012


Robotics is one of science’s new frontiers and the recent SeaPerch regional championships proved Filipinos are key to helping young Americans cross that threshold.

At least 17 of the Maryland middle and high schools that took part in the SeaPerch contest at the University of Maryland-Baltimore last March 26 had one or more Filipino coaches (some schools fielded more than one team).

Most of them were trained by compatriot Criselda Belarmino, a chemistry and physics teacher who’s been at the forefront of many school science competitions since she was recruited from the Philippines by a Kansas, Mo. school in 2005.

SeaPerch was established in 2003 to promote interest in underwater studies. The program trains tutors to teach students how to build submersible Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) as part of regular or extracurricular school work.

“Students learn important engineering and design skills,” its website proclaimed “and are exposed to all the exciting careers that are possible in naval architecture and naval, ocean and marine engineering.”

The program is funded by the Office of Naval Research and aims to develop the next generation of naval architects; and marine, naval and ocean engineers.

The importance of underwater ROVs was evident during last year’s Gulf Coast oil disaster where engineers relied exclusively on deep-sea submersibles to stop leaking crude from a damaged oil rig.

Winners of the regional contest will go to the National SeaPerch Challenge that is being held this year at the Manassas Park Community Center in Prince William, Va. Organizers expect as many as 80 teams of 4 students and one advisor/coach per team coming from all over the nation.

The Filipino teacher-coaches who participated in last week’s SeaPerch regional competitions are Geneve Garcia, Maria Panganiban, Leodegario Ras, Arthur Mitra, Ferdinand Camarote, Janice Enrico, Ferdinand Soriano, Ledi Caranay, Susana Pascual, Virginia Maranan, Warren Jamis, Ronnie Pitogo and Julita Belches

Belarmino, who teaches at the Maritime Industry Academy in this city, is an active proponent of robotics. Her team almost won the regional SeaPerch contest last year, she said, but was beaten by the bigger and better-funded Baltimore Polytechnique Institute when their craft’s propeller failed.

A graduate of the Marikina Institute of Science & Technology, she was among the first to receive a Department of Education scholarship to pursue her Masters at Dela Salle University in 2001. She taught physics at the Novaliches High School in Quezon City.

In 2005, she was lured by a teaching post in Kansas City, where she led the school’s contingent in the 1st robotic competition, winning an $18,000 grant. “Many of the students were finding things to do after school,” she explained.

All nine of the students who joined the robotics team earned scholarships and a ticket to college, Belarmino said.

She moved to the Baltimore area in 2009, becoming the only Filipino science teacher leader and physics teaching resource agent in the school district. Belarmino is a certified trainer in the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).

Since finishing a 2-week trainer’s training coarse in Hawaii three years ago, Belarmino has helped develop dozens of teacher-coaches, many of them fellow Filipinos in Baltimore city schools, to help lead their respective school’s robotics teams.

The United States has fallen behind from 3rd to 17th in the world in the number of engineering college graduates. There is reportedly a shortage of 400,000 engineers in the US and experts warn that would hurt US competitiveness.

The SeaPerch program is credited with training more than 4,000 teachers in 43 states.


When Prince George’s public schools were punished for “willfully violating” federal statutes in recruiting teachers from the Philippines, they not only lost some of their most skilled, experienced tutors but also key innovations that have now found their way to some District schools.

For the past couple of weeks, a small group of Filipino teachers have been volunteering their Saturday mornings to mentor school kids struggling with falling grades.

“We’re here to help the kids because they really need help in the classroom,” explained 2nd grade teacher Lilian Espiritu, one of hundreds of Filipino teachers who lost their jobs because of the US Labor Department’s 2-year debarment order against Prince George’s county public schools in Maryland.

Schools like the Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School in Northeast DC have hired some, including Espiritu and Marites Curley, president of Metro DC chapter of the Association of Filipino Teachers in America (AFTA).

Curley and other Filipino teachers introduced a free, weekend one-on-one mentoring program at their old school in Bowie, Md. It was widely credited with helping raise test scores – a feat that drew the attention of even the local media.

“We know they (DC pupils) will benefit from a Saturday tutoring program. We used to do this when we were in PG county, in our former school and we saw the results – the kids were passing math, we were passing the Maryland state assessment because that intervention helped them,” said 3rd grade math teacher and AFTA-DC vice president Maribel Rodriguez.

“Our head of school Mr. (Shadwick) Jenkins approached me,” Curley he revealed. “He saw the newspaper front page about our tutoring program. He said ‘I saw you in the newspaper’ and he asked if we could start something like that in our school.”

“He thought our kids needed more help especially since our test is coming in April,” Curley averred, “so even with just 7 or 8 weeks, we can at least boost the skills the kids need.”

Rodriguez chimes in, “We were offering free tutoring anyway so we thought, why not do it here in our own school where we can see that intervention can go a long way.”

“We had our benchmark assessment in school – it’s given during the quarter – and the result of our benchmark test was poor,” she added.

“These kids really need the intervention and through the benchmark assessment we were able to identify what skills the kids are faring poorly and where we need to raise basic proficiency,” Rodriguez stressed.

When we dropped by the Perry Street campus they were only on their 2nd Saturday session but the results were obviously encouraging. That morning the teachers included Curley and her husband Regidor, Rodriguez and her husband Ernie, Espiritu, Beth Manapul and Chiqui Balara.

“It’s really a teacher-generated activity,” explained Horace Franklin, the pre-K-8 school principal. “I like it because it’s a smaller, one-on-one, non-threatening environment and just working on skills that they need to be successful.”

“We are going to continue doing this every Saturday, from 9 to 11 in the morning,” he told the Manila Mail.

“We sent the letters out to all the parents and I’ve already had several parents inquire so we’re really excited. As we do more advertising, we’re talking about it in our community meetings to see if we can get more kids excited to come up and having a good time,” Franklin enthused.

The Filipino teachers’ work has stirred interest from both students and parents. Espiritu tells of one student who she would “borrow” after school hours to give additional tutoring.

“He’s in after-care (where young schoolchildren spend time until they’re fetched by parents or guardians) so I take advantage of that for 30 minutes of reading then testing his reading comprehension,” she admitted.

“I could see not only an improvement in his academics but also in his behavior because we were able to build a relationship. In the past he was so rude, disrespectful and playful inside the classroom – but not anymore,” Espiritu says proudly.

She says the kid’s mother has acknowledged the improvements and thanks her.

“PG county schools trained us to be the kind of teachers we are now,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been doing this for the past 4 years. That’s where we learned to look at test scores, how to make our instruction data-driven so when we came here (DC), we knew what to do.”

But more than the desire to practice when they’ve learned, the Filipino mentors have demonstrated a passion for teaching that has impressed school administrators, students and parents alike.

Husband Regidor Curley, a civil engineer who gave up his job outside the Philippines to start a new life with wife and daughter in America, says he fully supports his wife’s labor of love. He shares her concern for school kids and happy to help teach basic math to some of them.

“This is bonding time for us. After this we can go malling and eat out,” he says excitedly.

“Personally, I want to raise my students’ achievements because in this school, my 3rd graders have the lowest proficiency as a result of the benchmark test. I will move heaven and earth; do anything to move that up,” Rodriguez stressed.

For Ma. Chiqui Balara volunteering in DC schools was a way to keep her mind off an impending crisis. She will be the first Filipino teacher to lose her job at the Beltsville Academy near College Park, Md.

“It helps keep my weekends productive so I don’t think about my problem,” she explained, adding “I feel good when I’m able to help.”

She has an eye open for job opportunities with DC schools and believes that the volunteer work will boost her chances.

Rodriguez says she has a twin sister who’s still teaching in a PG public school. The work permits for the last and largest batch of Filipino teachers expire in September, and the schools are barred from extending them.

“She’s about to be displaced too,” Rodriguez says of her twin. “I’m encouraging her to continue to try finding employment here but she wants to go home already. I brought my family here; my husband gave up his career just to be with me, thinking everything was fine.”

“We’re going to try our best and see what happens,” she says thoughtfully.

That hopeful sentiment seems to reflect their work with DC school children – laying the seeds that grew so well in Maryland and hope they too will bear fruit in the nation’s capital.


Despite well-publicized efforts to prosecute past and present government officials, human rights advocates say the culture of impunity continues to thrive in the Philippines under the Aquino administration.

“No one is punished, no one is held to account for crimes committed,” Angelina Bisuna-Ipong, who at 66 was the oldest female political prisoner until all her charges were finally dismissed for lack of evidence and she was released in February 2011.

“We are deeply concerned,” said James Winkler, Secretary General of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church.

“We were hoping we would see an improvement under the administration of President (Benigno) Aquino III but we’re disturbed that doesn’t seem to be taking place,” he told the Manila Mail.

Bisuna-Ipong and Bishops Reuel Norman Marigza, Secretary General of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and Felixberto Calang of the Philippine Independent Church and Chairman of the Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao had visited the American capitol to speak with US lawmakers and State Department officials.

“During the time of former President Arroyo more than 20 clergy and lay leaders of the UCCP were killed. Now under President Noynoy there are 2 from my church alone,” Marigza said.

Perhaps the most prominent church victim is Italian missionary priest Fausto Tentorio who was gunned down in Cotabato last October.

“We are concerned about everyone who has been a victim of extrajudicial killings or has been illegally detained but I admit we are especially concerned with church workers and church leaders who are very close to us,” Winkler explained.

Bisuna-Ipong, who is also Secretary General of the Society of Ex-Detainees Against Arrest and Detention (SELDA), listed 68 extrajudicial killings, 8 forced disappearances, 55 victims of torture and 81 instances of illegal arrests and detention since President Aquino took office in June 2010.

“Sa tingin namin (in our view) the present administration must have the political will to do something,” she stressed.

But they believe Pres. Aquino needs some prodding to make true on his promise to end extrajudicial killings and curb human rights abuses. “We are hosting this delegation that we may visit Capitol Hill and go to the State Department since we want American policy makers and political officials to hear personally from Filipino leaders about what is happening,” Winkler said.

Church groups pushed for the unprecedented Senate hearing on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in 2007. The probe was spearheaded by Senator Barbara Boxer of California and led to the placing of conditions to the granting of US military aid to the Philippines.

“Those small stories (from the Filipino delegation) will be the most important element in our effort to push the Obama administration place significant pressure on the Philippine government to improve the situation,” Winkler said.

“We will be pushing for a reduction in military aid and security assistance to the Philippines for as long as human rights abuses continued,” he stressed.

The US has given over half a billion dollars in military assistance to the Philippines since 2001, according to US Ambassador Harry Thomas. It turned over last year a retired US Coast Guard cutter – and is scheduled to deliver a 2nd ship this year – to beef up the Philippine Navy’s capability to patrol the disputed Spratly Islands.

They appeared convinced tying up US help for the Philippine military was the most effective way of producing results.

“We have a military that has been very active in political life to the point that if they don’t like what the president is doing talks of a coup d’etat suddenly surface,” Marigza said.

Most of the extrajudicial killings have been blamed on the police or military, including the Fr. Tentorio case where the alleged mastermind had tagged a police captain who was later left out in the charge sheet.

Bisuna-Ipong also pointed to the government’s failure to capture former army Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan who’s been charged with killings and human rights abuses that even confidential State Department cables revealed by Wikileaks noted seemed to grow wherever Palparan was assigned.

“What we bring as church leaders is a moral and ethical dimension to lobbying on Capitol Hill,” Winkler averred.

“Our case is to say true security is based on democracy, on human rights, on the rule of law and when those abuses take place whether in the name of the war on terror or out of a perceived rivalry with another nation such as China, that allows for excuses to be made, for lies to be propagated and abuses to be ignored,” he explained.

“As people of faith that is not to be tolerated,” Winkler stressed.

Marigza exhorted President Aquino to be true to his word and deliver on his promises.

“Magpakatotoo siya sa sinabi niya tahakin ang tuwid na landas (He should be true to what he called the straight path). If his word is worth anything then he should follow-through on what he said regardless of the consequences whether that leads to giving up his share in Hacienda Luisita or going after the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings,” he said.