Victoria (Vicky) Colbert has designed and spread a revolutionary model for rural education in Colombia: Escuela Nueva, or New School. As she continues to push that innovation forward, she is simultaneously developing a new methodology to address the unique educational needs of children displaced by Colombia's armed conflict.
The New Idea
Having studied sociology and education in Latin America and the United States, Vicky returned to Colombia in the mid-1970s to introduce Escuela Nueva, or New School, a model that blended elements she had studied. Using this educational approach, she converted dysfunctional rural schools into those that connected with students, taught relevant skills, linked schools to community life, and offered participatory and self-paced learning to students. The model worked, the strategy for introducing it proved effective, and the Ministry of Education made it a national policy, bringing it to 18,000 rural schools in Colombia. In 2000, UNESCO not only ranked Colombia's rural schools as superior to its urban schools, but also determined that Colombia offered the second-best rural education in Latin America (after Cuba), an assessment for which Vicky is largely responsible.
In addition to introducing the New School throughout Colombia's rural areas, Vicky has proven it to be flexible by adapting it to new settings. She has spread it to low-income urban schools in Colombia, and she has helped others adapt it to a number of other countries, including Panama, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, and the Philippines. Now she is adapting to meet an important and growing need: Colombia's displaced people. She is taking the most applicable materials from the New School's repertoire and compiling them into an easy-to-use, practical kit that any informal educator can use to teach displaced children.
Many segments of Colombian society lack access to quality education, and the public education system has been unable to design different educational solutions to respond to the individual needs of diverse populations.
In rural areas, prior to the introduction of the New School, few children had access to a complete primary education. Low population densities means that rural children receive their education in multi-grade schools–single classrooms with approximately 40 students between grades one and five, with one or two teachers. The teaching methods they used were the same as in single grade classrooms: authoritarian frontal teaching without individualized attention by grade. Much of the curricula and the schools themselves did not take into account the reality of their rural lives. For example, the schools' schedules did not accommodate harvest periods. Most students would have to leave school to work in the field with their families, and when they would return, they would have to repeat the grade. Moreover, high teacher turnover in rural schools made it difficult for children to get a consistent quality education, and monotony and authoritarianism in teaching methods, combined with this lack of flexibility, made dropping out of school an easy choice.
The reality of rural multi-grade schools, although they represent 70 percent of Colombia's schools, was invisible to educational planning. There was no public policy to address their specific needs, and introducing innovations in a bureaucracy like that of the Ministry of Education was and continues to be challenging because of jealousies and frequent changes in ministers. Vicky's experience has shown that even when a program like the New School becomes public policy, changes in political appointees can just as quickly take it away if there is not some other force keeping it in place. Foreseeing that innovations become vulnerable to political changes, she created the Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente Foundation (Back to the People) and established strategic alliances with the private sector, such as the Coffee Growers Association.
Now, with the displacement of more than two million people since 1985 because of Colombia's armed conflict, there is a new challenge to education in Colombia. As the armed groups reach rural areas, whole communities flee to the cities, leaving their schools and education behind. When they arrive in urban areas, they face an educational system that neither wants them nor has the capacity to absorb them. Generally, when displaced people arrive in cities, there are services related to housing, food, and clothing available to them, but neither the school system, state welfare programs, nor NGOs address their educational needs. Some studies indicate that in cities like Bogotá, which have large displaced populations, up to 70 percent of school-aged children are outside of the educational system. Young people living in the desperate conditions with nothing to do with their time frequently find themselves involved in armed groups or the drug trade. If someone does not find a way to incorporate these children into some sort of educational system soon, Colombia's already grave problems are going to multiply dramatically.
Through the New School methodology, Vicky found a way to significantly expand and improve education in Colombia's rural multigrade schools. Now she is developing a new strategy to similarly reach Colombia's displaced children.
Building on previous experiences like the Unitary School promoted by UNESCO in the 1960s and the Montessori School, Vicky led and introduced an innovation into Colombian rural education when she began the New School in 1975 with a pilot project of 150 schools. The New School's strategy is rooted in focusing on the student, including such aspects as active learning centered on student participation, a new role for the teacher as facilitator of cooperative learning, and interactive self-teaching texts and guides. It also introduced new elements into the curricula that are more applicable to the students' daily lives and families; such elements include mapping the area where they live and learning about the agricultural calendar. Moreover, the learning and teaching materials direct students to share what they learn in school with their families and communities. Students and teachers' materials were designed to be complementary, which means that even when teachers change, students can still follow the curricula themselves. The New School also offers students the possibility of advancing at their own rate so that frequent absences in harvest periods do not force them to repeat grades unnecessarily. Studies of the New School have demonstrated that students educated in the methodology have closer relationships with their parents and with their communities. Parents have even noted a change in the communities themselves as a result of the New School.
Vicky began to introduce this innovation into the educational system from the bottom up, with the teachers, changing their methods by training them in a new way. In addition to new interactive, self-guided texts and teachers' guides, Vicky's strategy includes hands-on training and what she calls "microcenters," where teachers come together for concrete workshops such as how to use the educational materials and manage a library, and also to share their experiences. This model ensures that teachers come together for follow-up, to share solutions to problems, reflect on their learning and implementation process, and have a collaborative process of horizontal diffusion of innovations. In order to make the New Schools truly a part of the communities where they are located, the schools partner with both families and the social sector, which has ensured the survival of many New Schools when policies and teachers change. For example, the New School continues to be strongest in Colombia's coffee-producing regions because of partnerships between the schools and the National Federation of Coffee Producers, which has taken a great interest in supporting the education of the region's future coffee producers.
As the significant positive changes in teachers, students, and communities were becoming increasingly clear, the Ministry of Education received a World Bank credit to expand the New School model to all of Colombia's rural schools. Soon after, Vicky was named Vice Minister of Education, and, through that position, she strengthened the model and expanded it to 18,000 schools, 35,000 teachers, and 1.5 million students. She has also adapted the model to urban schools though Fundacion Escuela Nueva, the institution she set up to promote the Escuela Nueva model, maintain its essence and philosophy, and develop new applications to new populations, such as urban and displaced populations.
Recognizing a new pressing need in Colombian education, Vicky is now turning her attention and strategy toward Colombia's new most vulnerable population: displaced people. She is choosing the most appropriate materials of the New School and developing a kit that will be used to teach displaced children basic life skills, primarily related to health, the environment, culture, conflict resolution, sex education, and essential reading, writing, and math skills. Since there are no teachers and no schools, she plans to transfer this model directly to the community and train young community members, many of whom studied in New Schools prior to their displacement, as informal educators who can direct the education of the children. Aside from solving the problem of who will teach the children, giving young people such an important role will give them a purpose and something productive to do, thus helping to prevent them from getting involved in delinquent behavior.
In addition to creating an innovation for the education of displaced children, Vicky is also formulating new strategies about how to strengthen and continue to spread the New School. Once Vicky left the Ministry of Education, she saw the New School lose momentum because of political changes–the Ministry decentralized education, and local governments replaced teachers on a massive scale. She is now working to reestablish her relationship with the Ministry, but this time as a strategic partnership among her foundation, the Ministry, and community groups like the National Federation of Coffee Producers. She also plans to seek allies in other sectors including businesses, citizen organizations, and community groups, and to introduce the New School methodology into teacher-training colleges to ensure the future growth and survival of New Schools in Colombia.
Vicky's mother was a life-long educator who founded teacher-training colleges in Colombia. Vicky, too, has always been drawn to the field of education and to the challenge of creating more direct links between education and society.
Her interest in that relationship was piqued during college. While Vicky was studying sociology at the Universidad Javeriana, she taught courses on the sociology of education. Upon graduation, she accepted a position giving distance courses to rural teachers, and she began to understand how different the reality of a rural teacher was from the theoretical concepts she had been learning in her college courses. She came to understand that she had to find a different, simpler way to express the complex ideas she had learned. After learning such important lessons on the job, Vicky received a scholarship from the Ford Foundation and studied two master's degrees at Stanford University: one in the Sociology of Education and the other in Comparative Education. She focused her studies on the micro, classroom level.
Back in Colombia, she decided to apply what she learned once again in rural schools and work to discover their true needs. She began working as the first Coordinator of the Multi-Grade Rural Education Project, an initiative related to the Ministry of Education, and in 1975, she first introduced the New School model. She later worked in several important positions at the national and Latin American levels including Vice Minister of Education and Regional Education Advisor for UNICEF. Through those positions, she pushed the New School forward, and in 1985, she founded her own organization, the Back to the People Foundation, to be able to promote and innovate the New School, regardless of what position she held.