By Gabriel Sanchez Zinny and James McBride
In Latin America, as in much of the developing world, the struggle to improve educational quality has run up against the challenge of how to effectively reach often isolated rural schools. Even as rapid urbanization has placed its own pressures on crowded urban schools, the effects of poverty, displacement, and post-conflict dislocation have posed particular problems for students in the countryside.
Vicky Colbert, from Colombia, and Kevin Marinacci, based in Nicaragua, are two education experts and practitioners who understand this better than anyone. They have worked for decades on developing new models for educating the poorest children in their countries and throughout Latin America. On April 4th, the Brookings Center for Universal Education hosted both of them for an expert roundtable discussion on their life and work.
Colbert opened with a description of her “Escuela Nueva”, or New School, model. Founded in 1975, the Escuela Nueva was designed to respond to the particular exigencies of rural Colombian society, especially the “multi-grade” classrooms – single rooms packed with large numbers of students, all in different grades but all taught at the same time.
In that era, despite making up some 70 percent of the country’s schools, the problems of rural multi-grade classrooms were largely ignored by policymakers. To begin to remedy this massive gap, and taking her lead from initiatives like UNESCO’s Unitary School, Colbert began with a pilot project of just 150 schools. This bottom up approach allowed the model to prove itself in a cost effective, low risk way.
Indeed, the New School model was a true paradigm shift, but one that sought to work within the constraints of the existing structure rather than tear it down all at once. As Colbert explained, it was not about replacing teachers, but rather providing those teachers with a new pedagogy that would revolutionize the way they interacted with their students, and with each other.
The New School is an “education model that challenges the 20th century paradigm and seeks innovative ways to go beyond it,” as one of the discussion participants, Paula Cerutti of the World Bank, put it. “These schools no longer revolve solely around the teacher as the only source of learning. Instead, there is more space for students to get involved, and respond to their needs and their pace of learning. They also work with parents, local communities, and the private sector to ensure their own sustainability.”
In some ways, the New School’s biggest challenge was its success, as Colombia’s Ministry of Education put it to the test by adopting it as national policy. Scaling up the model on a nation-wide basis for Colombia’s nearly 18,000 rural schools was not just a difficult implementation issue, but also raised questions about how momentum for reform can be sustained from within the government bureaucracy. For that reason, Colbert founded the New School Foundation (Fundacion Escuela Nueva) to serve as an independent base to keep innovating and pushing ahead with what she refers to as a “movement,” which is carried “by many different hands.”
An important theme of the discussion was the way in which so-called “soft skills” such as initiative, cooperation, teamwork, and conflict resolution also translate into the realm of citizenship and political stability. In post conflict societies, including both Colombia and Nicaragua, inculcating such keys to peaceful democratic behavior is a critical goal of the New School approach, as well as of the Fabretto Foundation’s Kevin Marinacci.
Marinacci certainly understands the importance of improving education in the poorest and most conflict-riddled sectors of society. He has been working to improve the health, education, and nutrition outcomes of Nicaragua’s children since 1989. As head of the Fabretto Children’s Foundation, Marinacci has expanded its reach from 300 children to more than 12,000 children in education centers around the country.
Echoing Colbert’s point, Marinacci argued that “post-conflict, the first goal is to get kids back into school.” To that end, Fabretto’s efforts have focused on teacher training, curriculum development, and school nutrition programs. In addition to teaching children values of citizenship and stewardship, early grade reading performance has also improved by over a factor of two in the Foundation’s schools.
Throughout the discussion, both Marinacci and Colbert converged on the need for a paradigm shift that focuses on students and engages a broader array of community stakeholders, from parents to civil society to the private sector. Even where governments seek to apply reforms on a large scale – as in Colombia – independent, grassroots reformers must always be seeking new ways to push progress forward. Many of Latin America’s poorest and most isolated students are counting on it.