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La Educación
Número: (132-133) I,II
Año: 1999

3. A Description of the New School Program4

New School innovations in school organization, curriculum and instruction, staff training, and community relations are described in turn. Bear in mind that these represent ideal reforms. The degree to which they have been implemented is addressed in Part 5.

School Organization

New Schools are organized around a multigrade system, usually with one or two teachers per school. In sparsely populated areas, student populations may be inadequate to justify a separate teacher for each grade level. If educational outputs are not reduced by multigrade instruction, the system can be a cost-effective way of increasing primary coverage in rural areas. Students complete academic units at their own pace through group and individual work, which may take more or less time than allotted. If they leave school to assist in agricultural activities and later reenter school, they do not start the year anew, implying savings to schools through reduced repetition rates.

Curriculum and Instruction

Individual student work, emphasized in traditional schools, is combined with work in small groups. In a multigrade setting, group work relieves the teacher of the need to constantly monitor or lecture to students, providing a way to keep students on task. Instruction of younger students by older students or parent volunteers is often used as a cost-effective means of providing assistance to students that have fallen behind.

Self-instructional learning guides in mathematics, Spanish, science, and social studies direct group and individual work. They are accompanied by teacher guides. Units in the book state the learning objective, guided activities to be completed, and free activities that require application of the knowledge gained. Some involve creative exploration and application of regional-specific knowledge. For instance, local recipes, oral traditions, or flora are collected and studied. Materials related to the different curricular areas are gathered in “learning corners” organized by students, where other children can benefit from them. As students advance through activities and exercises in the guides, they are shown to the teacher, who authorizes students to advance. Students may advance at different paces and only do so upon exhibiting sufficient mastery of concepts. The requirements for advancement are explicitly stated and available to students.

An integral part of the New School is a small library that teaches basic research skills when effectively utilized by the teacher. It complements the self-instructional guides, and provides additional opportunities for motivated or advanced students. A student council is organized by the teacher. Students divide into committees, thus learning skills of organization and cooperation. The committees address a variety of issues, including cleaning and maintenance of the school, care of the library, school discipline, and peer tutoring. Other elements of New Schools include a classroom decorated with the alphabet, numbers, and student art, a suggestion box where student input is solicited, and varied recreational activities.5

Staff Training

Basic teacher training is divided into three one-week courses conducted throughout the first school year. Courses use a detailed manual that is organized similarly to student learning guides.6 The first session addresses the aims and methodology of the New School, organization of the building and classroom, developing the learning corners, establishing a student council, and basic methods of group work. Instruction is conducted in much the same way as it is in the functioning New School, so that teachers “learn-by-doing” instead of passively attending lectures. Once the school is organized and the community has been mobilized, the second workshop takes place two or three months later. It focuses on learning to effectively use the student learning guides, work in a multigrade setting, and as many other innovations as the teacher is ready to implement. The final workshop covers the use of the school library as well as a final review.

Once completed there are follow-up workshops as needed in “microcenters.” Centers are located in a demonstration school where the New School methodology is thought to be particularly well-implemented. In recent years, visits to these schools have become an essential element of a teacher’s initiation into the New School program. There teachers are free to exchange ideas, doubts, and questions with other teachers and a supervisor in an informal, non-hierarchical group setting.

A workshop is also held for administrators at the department level and at the level of “school clusters,”or smaller groups of New Schools located in the same area. In addition to exposition of the New School program, it is designed to encourage a mentoring and collaborative relationship between administrators and teachers.

Community Relations

New Schools are designed to be resources for the community. Substantial latitude is left to the teacher to design interventions, but several are suggested or required. Students and their family members collaborate in making a map of the surrounding community. Basic personal and demographic information is collected on each family, which allows teachers to efficiently plan for upcoming years. Teachers use this information to prepare a “county monograph,” which describes the culture, health, jobs, and other characteristics of community members. With the community, an agricultural calendar is prepared that serves a dual purpose: to provide a means of planning school schedules and a learning tool for the teacher and children. Learning guides mentioned above often explicitly require collecting knowledge and materials from the community, which can be helpful in forging bonds. Sometimes parents collaborate in the actual construction and maintenance of the school and furniture that facilitates implementation of the reforms (i.e., desks that facilitate group work, shelves for the learning corners, etc.). Toward this end, an illustrated manual gives practical guidance.