“Let’s start off with a basic premise,” Vicky said during our interview with her, clearing her throat. “If you don’t have quality or basic education, nothing can be achieved in society.”
When Vicky Colbert set out to investigate what was happening in schools across rural Colombia more than 30 years ago, she was convinced that the future of her country relied on access to quality, basic education for all. At the time, Colombia was in the midst of internal warfare with armed groups and emerging drug lords. The challenge was to support the universalization of primary education—a goal for the entire Latin American region—and improve the quality of basic education for Colombia’s most vulnerable children, especially the ones who attended remote, rural, and sometimes invisible multigrade schools. Fresh out of university, Vicky was chosen to lead a new position within Colombia’s Ministry of Education as the National Education Coordinator for Multigrade Schools in Rural Areas. First and foremost, she decided that to be successful, she must investigate firsthand the challenges faced by these multigrade schools, where only one teacher was tasked with educating and managing students of various ages and needs.
She knew right away that the answer wasn’t going to come to her in an ivory tower. Vicky was born a risk-taker—and while there were great risks associated with traveling in war-torn territories, her empathy for Colombia’s children and her optimism for the future of education drove her into the field to investigate. She had never been one to wait for someone else to fix something for her. Why start now?
Her first investigative journey took her deep into the Andean mountains, where she visited the UNESCO Unitary School Project. There, she met an exceptional teacher named Oscar, a local schoolteacher and a charismatic leader in the Unitary School UNESCO Project. He received technical support from UNESCO to initiate a demonstration school to train teachers. She also joined forces with Beryl Levinger, a former Peace Corp Volunteer, who became an education official for USAID. Together, they formed a strong alliance that designed the system that eventually became Escuela Nueva.
This small team of dreamers built on the concept of escuela unitaria by introducing strategies that were more technically, politically, and financially viable. Above all else, they had to be easily replicable. Escuela Nueva was proposing a shift in the learning paradigm from a teacher-centric model to a child-centered one. As such, the school would be more participatory and personalized by applying an active learning approac h to help students become self-directed, while teachers were facilitators and not transmitters of knowledge. The new approach introduced a dramatic cultural change, and the team knew they would disrupt the entire belief system of conventional education systems, which dominated both developed and developing countries at the time.
Discussing the launch of Escuela Nueva in our interview, Vicky recalled, “We had to start everything from scratch. I had to look for the money so we could implement the model, find the partnerships, and build the relationships—everything.” But the seed for an idea of a student-centric, community-built, and easily replicable model had been planted, and she was ready to fight for it, even at the cost of her job.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish