International Opinion

Innovative Latin American School Design Coming to California

By Contributing Blogger — April 17, 2017 6 min read
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Fundación Escuela Nueva set out in 1987 to improve the quality and relevance of education in schools with limited resources by restructuring the way school children learn in the classroom. A major component of this approach is a child-centered environment that emphasizes creative collaboration and changing the teacher’s role from lecturer to facilitator. As students learn to work together, gender barriers are broken down and students view one another as equals.

By Tom Luschei and Sarah Smith Orr

Colombia’s Escuela Nueva multigrade school improvement model has traveled across national borders and continents to reach over a dozen countries and more than seven million children in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. But until recently, implementation of Escuela Nueva had never been seriously considered in the United States.

That changed last November when the Fundación Escuela Nueva USA (FEN USA) was established under the sponsorship of Community Partners, a non-profit incubator in Los Angeles. FEN USA’s mission is to “expand opportunities for quality education for children utilizing the Escuela Nueva model,” which “avoids conventional teaching practices, such as memorization and passive learning, in favor of a student-to-student, teacher-facilitated process of cooperative, personalized, and active learning.”

A Good Fit For California Priorities

FEN USA’s Advisory Council represents a Who’s Who of Golden State education policy experts, including Berkeley’s David Kirp, Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Beryl Levinger (a co-founder of the Escuela Nueva model), former Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education Marshall Smith, Stanford emeritus professor Henry Levin (also a professor at Columbia University), and UCLA education professor Pedro Noguera. FEN USA also draws advice from David Plank, Executive Director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), and UCLA Presidential Professor Emerita in Educational Equity Jeannie Oakes. This group knows Escuela Nueva and believes in its potential to support educational improvement in California.

This blog has taught us that California is exceptional in many ways, both negative and positive. Escuela Nueva provides the state an opportunity to leverage the positive to address the negative. For example, California is home to millions of poor children and confronts a high degree of income inequality. As we argued here in 2015, Escuela Nueva’s success in Colombia and across Latin America—a region long plagued by poverty and inequality—must be considered in a state that faces many of the same challenges.

Making Schools Democratic

We identified many potential applications of Escuela Nueva’s flexible, cooperative, and child-centered approach for California, including the education of migrant and immigrant youth, curricular and instructional support for dual immersion Spanish bilingual schools, and to address the needs of foster children, a key target population of California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

As we meet with teachers and school and district leaders across California (as well as Montana and New Mexico), we find a great deal of interest among those who consider today’s school to be too top-down and teacher-centered. Escuela Nueva’s child-centered and flexible approach emphasizing authentic student governance appeals to those who believe in empowering children and families and making school more democratic.

For students, the school day is no longer sitting and listening. Rather, they are now active participants in their own education by taking on leadership roles, creative art projects, producing plays and performances, and voting. Essentially, the students learn how to learn while developing cognitive and social competencies. Fundacion Escuela Nueva views each child as an agent of change that is crucial for maintaining peace and democracy for the next generation.

As David Kirp wrote in the New York Times, “Escuela Nueva turns the schoolhouse into a laboratory for democracy. Rather than being run as a mini-dictatorship, with the principal as its unquestioned leader, the school operates as a self-governing community, where teachers, parents and students have a real say in how it is run.”

Solutions for School Violence

Perhaps most importantly, evidence of Escuela Nueva’s positive impact on children’s peaceful coexistence, or “convivencia,” appeals to those seeking solutions for school violence and social and political discord. At the Third Annual Congress of Escuelas Nuevas, held in Bogotá in November 2016, several researchers connected Escuela Nueva’s expansion across Colombia since the 1970s to the nation’s emerging peace process. Although this connection needs more rigorous empirical investigation, it seems likely that the Escuela Nueva model, which has been implemented in over 20,000 schools across Colombia, has helped to establish and support peace and democracy in local communities and the broader Colombian society.

Can Escuela Nueva succeed in California? This is where the positive side of California’s exceptionalism can help. At a meeting of FEN USA’s Advisory Council in March 2017, PACE’s David Plank described the state educational context and expressed optimism (along with some caution) for piloting Escuela Nueva in California.

Strong Interest Expected

According to Plank, Escuela Nueva is likely to attract strong interest in the state, as districts and charter schools seek new ideas to address the needs of students targeted with additional funds by the LCFF. California’s new School Dashboard requires that schools demonstrate multiple measures of success like school climate, student graduation rates, and college and career readiness, which could increase the appeal of Escuela Nueva’s child-centered approach.

The passage of Proposition 58 in November 2016 increases options for bilingual instruction in California and stimulates demand for rich curricular resources in Spanish. California also has a strong and active philanthropic sector as well as a thriving grassroots organizing community that we believe will be receptive to Escuela Nueva.

Finally, successful implementation of Escuela Nueva in California, the country’s biggest and richest state, as well as the home of many high-profile foundations and social media, will ensure national visibility for Escuela Nueva and establish a foothold for expansion and scaling up across the USA. For those who are interested in EN for their own schools and districts, the FEN USA Advisory Council is working on the logistics of how schools in California can adopt EN and more information will be available soon. In the meantime, you can write Sarah Smith Orr (sorr@escuelanueva.org) with questions.

Tom Luschei, Ph.D., is associate professor at the Claremont Graduate University School of Educational Studies. He is a founding member of FEN USA’s Advisory Council.

Sarah Smith Orr, Ph.D., is founding director of FEN USA and director of strategic partnerships for Fundación Escuela Nueva based in Bogota Colombia. She is teaching faculty for Claremont Lincoln University where her focus is on social impact leadership.

Photos and captions: James Roh, Cotopaxi

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.