A BOUT 3,800 graduates and former students of the 62-year-old Jose Abad Santos Memorial School (JASMS), the preschool, elementary and high-school department of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) in Quezon City, are today united by a single cause: To save their alma mater and maintain its legacy of producing decent, nature-loving human beings. Their collective Facebook account serves as an active platform for news, developments and issues regarding JASMS.
The past four months have been a challenge for the current teachers, pupils, students and parents of the school, particularly those in its Quezon City campus. The business group, led by Eusebio H. Tanco, who owns the STI school system, claims to have taken over PWU and JASMS. It also claims to have forced the Benitez Family to resign from the school’s board last December for failure to pay loans originally amounting to P248 million.
The amount has now ballooned to P702 million after the Tanco Group imposed the current 3 percent per month compounded interest on the loan the Benitez Group obtained in 2006.
Documents obtained by the BusinessMirror showed the loan matures in February 2015, not earlier as the Tanco Group claims.
JASMS was founded by the Benitez Family, guided by Doreen Barber Gamboa and Priscilla Abaya in 1933 as its elementary-school arm. The mother school, PWU, was founded in 1919 in Manila.
The preschool, elementary, high-school and main-streaming education program and departments operate from two campuses: in Manila and on a 1.2-hectare site in Quezon City along Edsa, a stone’s throw from the Ayala-owned and –operated TriNoMa Mall.
In its official web site, JASMS describes itself as “a private, progressive, nonsectarian school that offers preschool, elementary, secondary and special education.” The student population in its Quezon City campus today totals 522 pupils and students. The elementary department has 280 pupils, 20 percent of whom are children with special needs.
Throughout the years, JASMS has utilized its sprawling campus as a venue for its students to commune with nature: Planting rice, flowers, vegetables and fruit trees; raising tilapia in a pond; raising chickens; spending time under aged trees, including three that have been classified as heritage trees: A botong tree that naturally grows near seawater, and two other trees with a pending application in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for designation as heritage trees—an acacia tree and a third tree that the developers plan to ball and which could possibly die.
It also had a field for students to play in, a basketball court for elementary pupils and a multi-purpose one for high-school students playing basketball, badminton and volleyball.
JASMS’s mission centers on providing an educational environment where children and young adults acquire a balanced education and venue for growth that helps nurture them into creative, independent thinkers who value life and morality in all its forms.
The current problem PWU-JASMS is now going through stemmed from the desire of the Benitez Family to expand the school’s reach outside Metro Manila. Wanting to rehabilitate its aging facilities and expand in the provinces, the Benitez Family in 2007 sought out new partners and borrowed P250 million through the years from banks. The STI/Tanco group assumed the debt and expressed interest in promoting “the JASMS way.” Central to the deal was the 1.2-hectare site of the JASMS Quezon City campus.
Vicente Pijano III, current president of the JASMS Quezon City Parents Association (JPA), said, “Dr. Helena Benitez has always said hers is a family of educators. The family wanted to upgrade JASMS’s facilities and expand to other parts of the country, but they did not foresee the steep decline in enrollment the following school year.
“A nurturing place like JASMS must be saved by all means.” Pijano said, adding that the Tanco-Ayala development plan revolves around building a nine-story structure in the Quezon City campus to house PWU and JASMS, with the building’s top floor serving as a common area and the roof of the mall as the school playground.
“The parents’ concern is focused on our children and students enrolled in the mainstreaming program,” he said. “What if they think they can play around in the roof and they fall? Fences and high barriers will not prevent them from doing so. It is a tragedy we will avoid by all means.”
Gillian Virata, PWU executive director for basic education and a granddaughter of Doreen Barber Gamboa, who guided the development of JASMS with the motto “borderless experience,” said, “Our students’ interests are paramount and cannot be compromised in any way.”
Maria Christina Caoile, whose 16-year-old daughter Anna is enrolled in JASMS’s mainstreaming program, said, “My daughter thrives in JASMS unlike when she was enrolled in traditional schools for children with special needs. Her emotional quotient in JASMS has been very high. We, her parents, are very pleased with her emotional development.”
Anna’s father is Dr. Patrick V. Caoile, a business executive and university professor, who acts as the JPA board’s adviser.
JASMS is recognized by the Department of Education and is also currently preparing for accreditation with the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (Paascu). JASMS Manila and the PWU High School are Paascu accredited for many years now. In the last quarter of 2011, STI Holdings Inc. acquired 40 percent of PWU that includes JASMS.
Pijano said, “Running a school is like running any business. But educational institutions are unique in that, though ownership is transferable, managing a school is not. The Department of Education, for one, needs to approve the school curriculum and the management before permits are granted and, then, it can operate.”
Pupils and students of JASMS have been concerned about the very existence of JASMS after news reports said the school grounds in Quezon City will be converted into a mall and condominiums by Tanco and Ayala Land Inc. The news has caused many of the school’s pupils and students to grieve the potential loss of their beloved school and a future filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Iluminada Tamayo, mother of JASMS students and auditor of the JPA, said she and the other parents, seeing their children’s anxiety, asked the teachers to encourage their pupils to write their Christmas wishes. Before the holiday break, the teachers asked their pupils to submit these written wishes.
Many pupils wrote poignant messages, asking God and the Ayala Group to save their school.
Faye Llarinas wrote: “I wish JASMS wouldn’t be taken away from us because this has been our second home and I was able to discover a lot of things about me and that is because of JASMS.”
Diana Gutierrez, principal of JASMS Quezon City, said the school’s management holds “town-hall meetings” to allow their pupils and students a venue to air their concerns. In turn, she, the teachers and other school staff explain the school’s position to the students: The school management, following the covenant made by the Benitez Family, will use all of PWU-JASMS’s and family resources to save it.
Pijano’s nephew John, 13, who has Asperger’s syndrome, considers JASMS “his happiest place on earth” and has also asked God to save it.