A degree is much like that golden ticket that allows entry into a world of opportunities and possibilities. That is why children are started off young, with elementary subjects getting more and more progressive each year. But what if a child has challenges with comprehension or cannot focus properly? The tried-and-tested solution is after-school tutoring. However, some parents may not be able to afford this option.

Good thing good deeds are being done in Makati City through an organization called A-HA! Learning Center (A-HA! stands for “Angels here abound”). A project of the Commodore Jose Francisco Foundation, A-HA! serves public schools and communities in Makati City as the first free premium after-school center for public school students in the country.

For the last nine years, A-HA! has serviced around 2,500 students from grades one to 10. It “prides itself in creating high-end private school level materials for public school children, not only to help them improve in their academics, but to build them up as resilient and independent thinkers. By having the skill set and perspective to become competitive in the 21st century market, each A-HA! student becomes a leader who can make meaningful change in their community,” shares Jaton Zulueta, founder and president.

Open five days a week, it currently serves over 120 underprivileged children aged six to 15 from five Makati public schools, especially those at risk of repeating a grade level or dropping out. Its holistic services include tutoring for reading, English, and math, values formation and mentorship, a feeding program, and a parents skills learning program.

Students who want to join A-HA!’s programs have to apply for a slot. Likewise, their parents apply too, and take a seminar for two weeks, after which they are assessed for approval. There are no tuition fees for the programs; instead, parents “pay” by volunteering to the center for three hours a month. While old students have an enrollment event, new students are usually recommended by A-HA!’s partner public schools.

The center has four teachers who teach seven classes. There are also about 10 volunteer teachers who help kids with low comprehension. Students are evaluated by reading level and not necessarily by grades.

What sets A-HA! apart is its commitment to delivering high quality, private school-level content, which is meant to develop lifelong critical thinking skills in the students. This, in turn, will lead them to better career opportunities in the future. As a result, students have gotten higher grades in their report cards, won awards, made it to the top of their classes, and cited for their improving behavior in school.

At the helm of the A-HA! Learning Center is its founder and president, Jaton Zulueta. He started when he was just 19 years old, going into Manila South Cemetery on his own, gathering out-of-school youth living in the mausoleums, and teaching them basic reading and arithmetic.

He has since expanded the project from the cemetery into a brick-and-mortar four-classroom center, and has grown his core team from an original group of four to 50. The core members consist of barangay officials, school leaders, students, parents, church leaders, government workers, and private citizens.

Zulueta says, “Local government units (LGUs) can use this model by using the classrooms in the public schools. By booking six extra learning hours after school, they can address many learning gaps. A-HA! can help train the teachers and provide materials that will be ready to use. A big part of this effort is engaging the private sector. Because we live in Makati, our partners are varied; we have business leaders who can do business talks, sound engineers who can help record the kids’ songs, etc.”

Right now, Zulueta and his team are busy listening to the community. They are working on a prototype, which will help break the cycle of poverty, by making the students R.I.C.H.—resilient workers, independent adults, critical thinkers, and helpful citizens. When the prototype is done, they will be working with the schools and communities.

He dreams of an A-HA! in every barangay across the Philippines—a safe space for kids to learn and express and explore themselves freely. “If you want to serve your country, serve by volunteering your genius,” he says. — MALOU ROSAL


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