For many generations of Mabalaqueños, the school to go to for one’s primary education was the Mabalacat Elementary School which was conveniently located right next to the municipio and by the side of the church. It was in the expansive grounds of this school that I learned my ABC’s, as did all my siblings and my father before us, mentored by a succession of teachers steeped in the modern American way of education.
Before the Americans though, primary level education in Mabalacat was available only to a chosen few. Private tutoring was the practice of the day. In San Francisco, a certain Apung Beltung Pile (Old Lame Beltung) had a “bantayan” school, a kind of day-care center, where parents left their kids to study under his tutelage. Here, he mostly taught reading and writing.
With the coming of the Americans, a Department of Public Instruction was established in March 1900. Mr. Fred W. Atkinson was appointed as General Superintendent of Public Instruction and imposed two things: the use of English as a medium of instruction and the importation of American teachers to help run native schools and train local teachers. The largest and most well-known batch of teachers arrived in the Philippines on 21 August 1901 aboard the U.S.S. Thomas. A Thomasite from this ship, Mr. Carroll Peabody, a fresh graduate of Western Reserve University in Ohio, was assigned to Mabalacat and became a school superintendent. His wife, Emma, was also a teacher. Schools had to be quickly set up to institutionalize the American educational system.
The early buildings of the Mabalacat Elementary School were built on rented lands in different places: along Ligtasan Street (site of the present Venmari Resort near the Morales Bridge) and in Sta. Ines (property owned by Narcisa Lim), where a cockpit now stands.
In 1907, the 1st Philippine Assembly’s first legislation was the Gabaldon Act, with Isauro Gabaldon of Nueva Ecija. As its proponent, the act appropriated P1 Million to construct schools all over the country. On a tract of land donated by Mrs. Rufino Angeles de Ramos and with the intercession of Atty. Francisco Siopongco Sr., the Mabalacat Elementary School was constructed from funds acquired through the efforts of Hon. Ceferino Hilario. Like the elementary school in Angeles, M.E.S. was built strictly adhering to the architectural lay-out specified in the Gabaldon Plan--with the structure elevated on posts like a nipa hut—hence, the uniformity in style.
The school was damaged during the last World War and after the local government applied for relief with the Philippine War Damage Commission, a P20,000 war damage fund was issued to cover the repair of two buildings. The school expansion continued way until the 1960s with the addition of a stage, a P.E. field and more classrooms. In 2 May 2002, however, a Philippine Air Force F5 jet exploded in mid-air and plowed into the school, hitting one of the buildings and leveling 11 classrooms. The crash killed the pilot, Capt. Daniel Policarpio and injured at least 16 people including teacher Jess Rivera (who later succumbed to his injuries) and Emilio de la Cruz, the school janitor.
Last time I was at M.E.S. as we called our alma mater, I was happy to see that the school has been beautifully preserved, right down to the tree-lined lawn that was the site of our many early morning flag raising ceremonies. This time though, the school looked smaller to my adult eye, but it has certainly not diminished the great respect and gratitude I have for this institution that has become an indelible part of the education and character formation of thousands of accomplished Mabalaqueños.