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Escuela nueva in Colombia goes urban
By Ángela Constanza Jerez T. Journalist, El Teimpo, Colombia

  Jonathan knew that the school where he was going to start primary Grade 5 was different; he had heard people talk about it in his neighbourhood and his mother had said the same thing when she came home from enrolment day. So he was looking forward to his first day at his new school, the Colegio Distrital San Vicente.

  It took him just a few days to learn the ropes. He had never seen a classroom like that before. The desks were not arranged in rows and the teacher's desk was not at the front. The teacher did not stand by the blackboard to take the lessons, which was what usually happened at his previous school. There were no textbooks either, the children had handbooks that they filled in together. Books were kept on a small shelf for everyone to use. "It was pretty hard at first," Jonathan recalls, "because all the children were already divided into groups and knew how to use the handbooks, but I went up to them all, one by one, and became friends with everyone. They told me how to use the handbooks."
  Jonathan Flórez spent this school year in one of the 15 schools in Bogotá which have been using the Escuela Nueva (new school) approach for the past two-and-a-half years. This approach was devised in 1975 for rural schools in the coffee-producing region of Colombia, then extended to almost all the country's rural areas, and a slightly adapted version is now being tried out in schools in poor urban areas in Cali (Valle) and Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.
  Escuela Nueva began as a pilot project to increase the number of primary grades offered in rural areas, to prevent children from dropping out of school in regions with specific problems or conditions and, above all, to improve the quality of rural education.
  "It started in multi-grade schools," explains Vicky Colbert, director of the Volvamos a La Gente Foundation. "Teachers had to be more innovative because of the huge range of abilities and speeds of learning. These schools needed a broader range of personalized strategies for co-operative learning, as children started school later and repeated grades more often."
  The results surpassed expectations and the Escuela Nueva approach has now been in existence for some twenty-two years, picking up countless awards along the way. In 1988 it was chosen by the World Bank as one of three most outstanding projects undertaken in developing countries, having made good at national level after starting as a local venture. International Organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF, OAS and IDB have hailed it as one of the most important educational innovations in recent years.
Children learning values
  The education departments in Cali and Bogotá decided to try out the Escuela Nueva approach in schools in their poorer areas, where they had the same problems as those who had first adopted it in rural schools. The model was launched eight years ago in Cali, where the eightly poorest schools took up the challenge of changing their teaching methods. Unfortunately, resources were inadequate and there are only two schools today that are still working with the model, although in a fairly rudimentary form.
  Of the sixteen schools in Bogotá that took up the education department's proposal, on the other hand, fifteen are still using the approach, which they have adapted to their needs. (The school which dropped out of the project did so because it had extended its grade system to include Grade 9 and Escuela Nueva is only for primary schools.) In Jonathan's school, for example, the teachers made changes to the assessment processes and the handbooks children use to learn the different subjects.
  Julia Díaz, Jonathan's class teacher, recalls that there was initially some resistance to change from a conventional school to a "new school", particularly from parents who did not understand why the teacher did not teach from the front of the class any more and why children had to work in groups and solve problems in a book the parents thought looked like a collection of forms.
  There are some parents today who still do not understand how their children can be learning anything, but they are happy because they can see them making progress.
  This is the case of Olga Leguizamón, the mother of a Grade 4 pupil. She is not quite sure how this educational approach works, but she likes the idea of children working in groups and helping each other. Sometimes she even goes to the school to help the pupils.
  "This is quite common," says María Ligia Canón, a teacher. "Parents help their children with their homework and come to lessons too."
  The lessons are indeed very different at San Vicente. Pupils are divided into groups of four or six. They all follow the instructions in the handbook and help each other, ask each other questions and listen to one another.
  But this was not always the case. According to Julia Díaz, it took teachers and pupils six months to understand how the Escuela Nueva worked. They started with the changes that had to be made in the organization of the classroom. The teachers identified leaders among pupils and made them group monitors, library monitors and helpers. Then they taught both them and the other pupils that working in groups meant listening to others, respecting their opinions, being tolerant, keeping their voices down, etc.
  "At the same time as learning how to work in groups, they were learning values such as responsibility, honesty, autonomy and comradeship. We are still teaching them these values," explains María Ligia Canón.
  Each time the children finish a work unit in their handbook they have to assess their performance as an individual and as a group. The other members of their group and the teacher then make their assessments. "This puts the values they have learned to test," says Lilia Alayón, a teacher. "At first they were generous with their self-assessment, but now they are very hard on themselves. Their self-assessments are stricter than any others."
Progress in reading and in democracy
  The children have learned how to follow instructions, conduct research and consult dictionaries and texts on all kinds of subjects, and have consequently improved their reading and comprehension skills. They have also learned about civil and democratic processes thanks to the system of school government whereby pupils, parents and teachers are all represented on the three committees governing the school: the teaching methods committee, the sport and leisure committee, and the health committee.
  Other schools in problem areas of Bogotá which have adopted the Escuela Nueva approach have similar school "governments". All these schools, like San Vicente, receive support from the Volvamos a la Gente Foundation to set up their "governments" and introduce the other features of the Escuela Nueva approach.
  But one is still missing, and that is the "learning corners", small areas where children can carry out specific tasks, such as work on projects. They have not been set up because of the double shift system.
  "This is a problem, but unfortunately we cannot solve it by creating virtual corners," says Julia Díaz. Jonathan is aware of this. He brings his projects to school when he thinks he may need them and then takes them home again, because there is nowhere to put them in the classroom and if there were, the children from the afternoon shift would make short work of them. "I don't mind," says Jonathan, who likes going to this school, where the teachers have never boxed his ears and where he feels he is respected.
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