Filipino-American builds One World School on Edsa
Ericson Perez believes that schools should welcome all students, regardless of their race or abilities. His family brought him as a nine-year-old kid to the US in 1982, where he endured years of discrimination in elementary and high school, because his accent sounded different and his skin was darker than those of his Caucasian classmates.
He persevered just the same, went to one of the best universities, became a teacher, served in Kenya and returned to rediscover his roots in the Philippines and propagate a culture of acceptance for all types of students. Now settled in his home country and armed with a strong conviction that everyone deserves quality education and equal attention, Perez built a school along Edsa in Makati City to accept students of all abilities.
“Over the years, I asked why I wanted to teach kids with special needs. I think it has to do with my experience growing up in the US. We migrated there when I was nine. From Grade 3 until high school, I felt the [racial] discrimination all the time, because I looked different, I sounded different. Most of my classmates growing up were Caucasian. Many of my classmates were white. There was a lot of discrimination that I experienced,” Perez says in an interview at One World School located along Edsa in Gualalupe Viejo, Makati City.
“The discrimination I felt was not only from the kids, but also from some teachers. That’s one reason why I connect with kids with special needs. I understand what it is like not to be treated fairly. The way we have been discriminated was different but at the end of the day, it is the same,” he says.
Perez, a 41-year-old special education and science teacher, is the founder and headmaster of One World School, whose mission is to educate children of all abilities. The name of the school refers to its goal of teaching children of all abilities, in one school, in one world, he says.
“When I look at the core value of the school, it makes sense because of what we are trying to do is create one world, where kids feel they are one. The experience of kids in other schools is that they are marginalized, isolated or they do not get the right program. So they are not part of the school, they are in the periphery. For our school, we want everybody—kids with significant needs, kids with mild needs, kids with special needs to feel like they are one. And it is one school, not a separate school,” he says.
Perez, who worked for 10 years in the US and Kenya and eight years at an international school in the Philippines, currently leads 30 staff at One World School, including teachers, developmental psychologist, physical therapists, speech pathologist, music therapist, occupational therapist, school nurse and behavioral pediatrician who are all bound by love for kids with special needs.
He is the chairperson of the board of directors of Special Education Network in Asia. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Brown University in 1996 and Master of Arts in Education and Human Development at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. in 2004.
One World School currently has 65 students, aged two to 35, from a dozen countries, including children of foreign diplomats and executives of multinational companies based in Manila. It offers pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, high school, internship and transition program, wellness center, extra curricular activities and summer school program. It maintains each classroom at eight to nine students with two specially trained teachers to ensure that each student is given enough attention.
“We have 12 countries represented here. There are a lot of Filipinos, but we have many from different parts of the world. Their parents are working here for different companies. It is quite a group of international students. That is why the language of instruction is English,” he says.
Perez spent his life savings and raised funds from family, friends and donor agencies to build One World School. Asked why he gave up a bright future in the US to build a school in the Philippines, he points to his experience as a student and as a teacher.
“I was born in Quezon City and I went to Claret School until Grade 3. My parents left the Philippines for more opportunities in the US. We became US citizens,” he says. Despite the discrimination he felt in school, Perez studied hard and finished college at the prestigious Brown University, an Ivy League research university.
Perez lived in different parts of the US for over 20 years. He served as a physical science teacher at Sedgwick Middle School in Connecticut from 1996 to 1999 and a special education and science teacher at Watkins Mill High School in Maryland from 2002 to 2006. For three years, he served as a volunteer at United States Peace Corps and served as biology and chemistry teacher in Kenya in 1999 to 2001.
“After saving enough money, I came back to the Philippines on my own for a three-week vacation,” he says. “For 20 plus years, we didn’t go back as a family. The main reason was financial. When I was able to save enough, I went back. For three weeks, my cousin helped arrange different tours. Then within a couple of days, I said this is where I want to be.”
Back in the US, he attended a school fair and submitted an application to an international school with presence in the Philippines. He realized his goal of working in the Philippines as a special education teacher and coordinator of student services in a prestigious international school, starting 2006. He also helped develop the special education program of that school.
“When I was teaching science in the US, there were kids with special needs, but I thought they were not my responsibility. When I look back at those kids, I thought I was responsible for that. So, after serving in the Peace Corps, I decided I wanted to pursue a Master’s in Special Education. I thought it was my responsibility to learn to teach all kids, including those with special needs,” he says.
In 2012, he decided to build his own school and found an ideal location just a few steps from Edsa. It is a secluded property, with a garden. The rent is also cheaper than those in Fort Bonifacio in Taguig or Greenhills in San Juan, he says.
“It is much cheaper than what you would pay in the Fort. We are lucky with our landlord. They treat us very well. They understand what we are doing as a school. In fact, they are the ones who make sure that the garden is always beautiful,” says Perez.
Perez did a fundraising through personal contacts, friends and family in 2012 to improve the first floor of the building. “The second year, after we realized we were growing and there were more applicants, by February 2014, we had the second round of fundraising for the second floor. The second set of donors were primarily parents of current students. They wanted to see the school expand and continue to grow,” he says.
Perez was able to raise almost $200,000 for the school’s development and expansion between 2012 and 2015.
One World School follows the international school calendar, beginning August and ending May of the following year. It also offers summer programs in June and July.
“We started with 15 students in 2013. Now we have 65 students. When we started, we had less than 10 in the team. Now, we are at almost 30, including therapists. Some classrooms have up to nine kids. Some classrooms are meant for one to one. We have about 15 classrooms,” he says.
As a private institution, One World School charges tuition in order to pay all the operations and salaries of the teachers. Annual tuition ranges from P100,000 to P400,000, depending on the program. The school has a scholarship program for those who cannot afford the tuition.
“We have kids on scholarships. Basically, we don’t want to turn away kids because of cost. Usually, if we ask for funds from different groups, they help. We have kids from different economic background,” says Perez.
Perez says he is fully invested in One World School. “I became a Filipino citizen again. I repatriated, but remain dual citizen. I spent my savings in the school and cashed in my retirement. I am fully invested in the school. I’m in it for the long haul,” he says.
“What sets us apart from other schools is that we welcome all kinds of kids here. We see kids as kids with potential. We understand kids with disabilities but there’s a lot they can do. Our mission here is to bring out the best in those kids,” says Perez.