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By Maria Gemima C. Valderrama

Just a week before she took oath as Education secretary, Dr. Leonor Magtolis-Briones met the DepEd personnel in Davao to ensure that she will be supporting programs that have been implemented and those reforms that need to take place.

Everyone in DepEd Regional Office was in awe when the new secretary paid a surprise visit. As everyone was being introduced, she was also ready to share her story and wit.

A native Bisayan speaker, Dr. Briones captured more the hearts of Dabawenyos.

Since everyone can relate to her and her stories on teachers, especially that she was speaking in Bisaya, for them, change has really come. It was like giving glory to the teaching profession as how Dr. Briones articulated it.

Dr. Briones belongs to a family of teachers. Her mother was a teacher and most of her relatives, too. She is also a teacher and was fondly called Prof. Lingling Briones in Silliman University where she was the chair of the Board of Trustees.

She shared the times she spent learning with her mother. Dr. Briones recalled how her mother taught her to write using banana leaves as paper and sharpened bamboo sticks as pencils during the war years. She was only four years old when the war ended in 1945.

At that time of her life, she has memorized alphabets and numbers and, to the delight of her mother, some matters so advance for her age. She was, in fact, promoted two levels higher because she was too scholarly for her age.

At 13, she finished high school at Hibbard Institute, a school established by Silliman faculty members during the height of war. The 75-year-old secretary was born in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental.

At 17, she graduated as magna cum laude at Silliman University for her Accounting degree. Her struggles in her younger years, where she had to walk long distance to and from school with overcrowded classrooms enduring hunger and thirst, never fettered her dream and passion.

She got her Master of Public Administration in the University of the Philippines (UP) and Public Enterprises at Leeds University in England in 1969 with distinction.

She proceeded to complete further studies in the United States where she was granted a Post Graduate Diploma in Development Administration from the Harvard Institute for International Development at Harvard University.

Remembering her mother leads her to recognize teachers. She said a teacher teaches everywhere and all the time. But Dr. Briones did not want to become a teacher at first. She remembers living through the travails of teachers who receive low pay, work long hours, pay huge debts, and struggle physical difficulties.

But just like her mother, Dr. Briones has the heart for education.

It was known that Dr. Briones never applied for the position and has never met President Rodrigo R. Duterte when the secretaryship was offered to her. But since she is not new in the national government arena and was born an educator, President Duterte put his trust on her to lead the agency with the highest budget.

Even Bro. Armin A. Luistro, now former Education secretary, said the Department was pleased with her appointment as new Deped Secretary.

“She brings with her a wealth of experience in public finance and administration which would be beneficial to DepEd being the agency with the largest budget,” Secretary Luistro said. “We also know that education is one of her top advocacies and she considers it her lifelong mission especially for the last mile learners.”

Dr. Briones has held significant positions in the national government such as National Treasurer of the Republic of the Philippines from 1998 to 2001, secretary of the Commission on Audit, Vice President for Finance and Administration at UP, and presidential adviser on social development with Cabinet rank.

She was ranked Professor Emeritus, a high distinction given to retired faculty members by virtue of their contributions as intellectuals, at UP’s National College of Public Administration and Governance. She is known as the Lead Convenor of Social Watch Philippines, the budget watchdog group.

She was the chairman designate of the Board of Regents of the Universidad de Manila. She received her Doctor of Humanities (Honoris Causa) in Public Administration from Central Philippine University.

A few days after she accepted the offer of Duterte, Dr. Briones openly shared her views on the K to 12 Program.

“We will continue and improve the K to 12 program and provide an alternative learning system to those who would not benefit from the program,” she said.

She also said the program is beneficial in the long-term to make the country’s education system at par with the rest of the world, which has 12 years of primary and secondary education.

“K to 12 is important for our national pride. This is to satisfy international market and ourselves. We are doing this to ourselves as a country,” she said during her visit.

Regional Director Alberto Escobarte, who was in the Central Office for a meeting early that day, flew back to Davao to meet her. He, too, recognizes her wit and experiences in leading an important organization.

Assistant Regional Director Teresita Tambagan welcomed Dr. Briones, saying DepEd will be in good hands with her as the new secretary.  Her visit captured the hearts of many. (Coverpage story of Sunstar Davao)