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Learning the Art Way

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[Photo of PHSA]A high school as breeding ground for young artists who could keep Filipino culture alive.

While most high school kids sweat over formulas and periodic tables, students in this school have to balance between memorizing equations and dancing to folk songs. Their mission? Keep Filipino culture and arts alive.

Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA), like most cultural institutions in the country, was a brainchild of Imelda Marcos. Established in 1977, the school allows only exceptionally talented applicants to enter its premises. Some of the artists who passed through its corridors are singer Grace Nono, filmmaker Raymond Red, actor Soliman Cruz, and actress Shamaine Buencamino.

PHSA offers scholarships in visual arts, creative writing, dance, music, and theater arts. As government scholars, students don’t pay for their tuition and board and lodging. Add to that, they also receive a monthly stipend. And you’ll be surprised how much the government spends for each student per year: 300, 000 pesos (US$6,497.20).

Those who question why the government spends so much on the young artists, however, need only watch the teens perform. The talent each student displays is very much worth the high price on his head, so to speak.

View From the Top

Looking more like a resort than a school, PHSA is a cluster of cottages serving as classrooms and dormitories. Sitting on the Makiling mountain, the students are surrounded by trees, singing birds and clouds. Looking out from one of the cottages, one can also see Laguna de Bay and the mountains of Rizal and Laguna.

The fresh air and the school’s closeness to nature serve as inspiration to the young artists. As PHSA executive director Fernando Josef puts it, “There is something about the place that I think makes the artist more introspective.” He describes this as an intangible experience that the students would have missed had the school been located at the city.

Student’s Life

How exactly do PHSA’s 132 students spend their days? Studying of course. Aside from art classes which comprise 60% of their curriculum, students also study general education subjects such as Math, Science, English, Filipino, and Social Sciences.

The young artists are trained by 16 full-time teachers and other visiting instructors. Visiting instructors are usually alumni members who would like to share their talents to the next generation of PHSA students.

But for the young ones, learning does not stop in the classrooms. In the evening, the students continue to rehearse, write, or do their plates. Exhibits and performances are also familiar scenes in the school. Aside from that, they also have the chance to represent the school in local and international competitions.

But they have a grade to maintain to stay at PHSA. For general subjects, the passing grade is 75, while for art classes, they can have no grades lower than 90.

Aside from the pressure of keeping passing marks, some students also experience homesickness. Studying in Makiling means parting from parents and siblings for a while. Of course, they could still be visited by their families during weekends. But most of the time, the students are in the company of friends and PHSA faculty and staff.

Director Josef explains that the first two weeks are always the hardest. He says the sound of children crying in the middle of the night could break anyone’s heart. But the staff and even older students talk to new ones to help them cope with the environment.

Indeed, the students, staff, and teachers all function like one big family. The teens have house parents and teachers to guide them, while older students serve as “ates” (older sisters) and “kuyas” (older brothers) to the young ones.

Double Trouble

Like any other family, PHSA also has its problems. In Josef’s own words, their students are “double jeopardy.” “Adolescents na, artists pa,” he says. (They are both adolescents and artists.)

The staff members talk to the students who have gone astray or are about to give up. Instead of letting them sink or swim, the school guides them and gives them more attention to encourage them to stay. PHSA wants to keep everyone as much as possible. The students, after all, have all passed the rigorous selection process. So teachers are always available to listen to the kids to find out the real reasons behind their low grades.

But not every student can be saved. There are some who still get dismissed after failing to meet the required grades. Some have to be let go because of poor behavior. Though sad for those who had to leave, Josef’s message for those kicked out is simple: “Life does not end when your term ends in this school.” He’s right. There are many great artists who did not graduate from PHSA.

[Photo PHSA artist]Life After School

PHSA produces less than 35 graduates a year and not everyone continues in the field he was trained in. Some start in theater arts but end up in dance. Some take totally different paths and become doctors and engineers. Most graduates, though, still take up courses related to the training they received at PHSA.

But whatever the young artists choose to become after high school, their experience in Makiling is one they would never forget: the school environment, their exposure to different art forms, and the big family that shaped them. As Inshalah Montero, a graduating student in creative writing puts it: “The community has given me so much more than just a scholarship. PHSA is a home.”

Print ed: 03/09


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