For many children across Colombia’s central highlands, the school day starts by strapping the back of a mule with a saddle for a two- hour ride through coffee groves. Surrounded by plantain stalks and cacao bushes, seven-year old Jaime reaches Escuela Nueva La Cabaña as the first light of day envelops the verdant foothills of the Quindío department.

When most youngsters in the western hemisphere are enjoying their final hours of sleep, the students of La Cabaña begin their day by writing each other friendship messages; and, as there are only 12 students in this rural school, aged five to 13, no one is left out. Pictures of endemic birds adorn the walls, so too a map of Colombia, and baskets of flowering orchids sway next to the classroom windows.

These youngsters understand all too well that the education they are receiving from Fundación Escuela Nueva – New School Foundation – is a privilege that requires daily sacrifice, and one they are willing to make in a country where education has escaped many, yet an essential right ensconced in the Constitution of 1991.

Fundación Escuela Nueva’s track record of providing quality education to some of the most vulnerable in society dates back four decades to when the Bogotá-born Vicky Colbert began envisioning her country’s future as one in which all children could receive an education.

During the 1970s, Colombia was lacking teachers who could implement a basic educational model established in the national curriculum, especially in remote areas where the state had little or no presence. With a degree from the Javeriana University, and two masters from Stanford University, sociologist Vicky Colbert began looking at the Unitary School system promoted by UNESCO in 1961.

The UNESCO model aimed to fill a void in areas with a very low population density by recommending one teacher per school. But, the implementation faced many challenges, from acquiring essential teaching materials to a lack of clarity of the role of teachers in developing character and self-esteem in children.

The Colombian government adopted by decree the UNESCO methodology during the 1960s in an attempt to eradicate rampant illiteracy among its rural population. But, it wasn’t until 1975 that Colbert presented the national government a New School model to strengthen the relationship between schools and their communities, as well as put education at the service of children.

Given the reality that many youngsters could not advance from one grade to the next as a result of having to help out with agricultural duties, let alone catch up with the pace of urban students, Colbert didn’t want the New Schools to be synonymous with poverty. They had to be cost-effective, innovative, and at the heart of early education. Children also had to have a sense of pride in their rural condition, acquire values to guide them through life, and feel empowered by teachers.

Appointed the first National Coordinator of Escuela Nueva in the Ministry of Education, Vicky Colbert began to scale the education system in Colombia by focusing on sustainability and quality, rather than coverage. The country already had basic infrastructure in many rural areas to open new schools, but what was most needed were dedicated teachers who could adapt the traditional curriculum of language and mathematics to a specific region.

By expanding analytical thinking beyond the blackboard, and having youngsters work together in teams to problem-solve, the teachers of the Escuela Nueva became “agents of social change,” remarks Colbert. “They are the role models parents and the com-munity must look up to.”

Joined by Oscar Mogollón, a charismatic teacher in Pamplona, Norte de Santander department, who was creating his own innovations in a unitary school, and Beryl Levinger, a USAID education officer who arrived in Colombia with the Peace Corps, Colbert co-authored the first teaching manual for Escuela Nueva.

The manual would become the educational road-map for some 24,000 “new schools,” and a pillar of the government’s education policy when Colbert was appointed vice Minister of Education in the government of President Belisario Betancur.

But, like all government, bureaucracy can entangle the social good, so Colbert, while advising Unicef on education for Latin America, took the leap to go it alone. In 1987, the sociologist consolidated her Fundación Escuela Nueva – FEN – to act locally and think globally.

For the first time in this nation’s history, rural schools were beginning to outperform urban ones. The World Bank stepped in to help finance FEN’s expansion across a nation that despite deep social divides was beginning to take significant strides to become a more inclusive, better educated, society.

“We had evidence and results,” says Colbert of how FEN was transforming education in Colombia’s countryside, and how it was becoming a reference other developing nations such as Brazil, Vietnam, and Zambia wanted to adapt to their own conditions, given a shortage of teachers. “You can’t have a PhD in the middle of the jungle,” asserts Colbert. “You need to connect to children.”

By the turn of the millennium, a UNESCO study put Colombia next to Cuba as the country that was best educating children in rural areas, and much of this credit goes to Escuela Nueva.

The Escuela Nueva schools, such as picture-postcard La Cabaña in the coffee-growing jurisdiction of Caicedonia, are all guided by a philosophy of cross-peer learning. Students sit together at the same table, resolve problems as a group, and appoint their own student councils.

In a country that has endured a half-century long internal conflict, the Escuela Nueva schools have been a life- line for rural children easily recruited by criminal armed groups to form their rank-and file. Now that peace has been forged between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla, the fighting in the countryside, where many of Colbert’s schools are located, has subsided, yet threats to youngsters remain.

Drug abuse, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and politically-motivated intolerance has not spared the Colombian countryside nor its most vulnerable.

However, the Escuela Nueva mission continues to directly impact the lives of children beyond the classroom, as parents must actively participate in their child’s learning progress, happiness and engagement in the community. But, it is the youngsters who ultimately are in control of their future, starting the day by keeping tabs on their attendance and delegating the role of “profe” to one of mentor.

“The real role of a teacher is to be a good coach, to stimulate students, to know their strengths, and weaknesses,” says Colbert from her Bogotá office, where the foundation houses volumes of educational manuals, and coordinates the work of teachers in the field.

For Colbert, cross-peer teaching is also a line of defense with an all too common occurrence of traditional classroom culture: bullying. The sociologist takes great pride in stating that all her schools are void of this dangerous problem.

Two Escuela Nueva schools in Quindío – tiny La Cabaña and the larger Sede Barragán – are archetypes of the foundation’s commitment to educate the citizens of tomorrow. “Peace cannot be taught. You learn democracy in a classroom,” states Colbert.

Her dedication to democratizing education has earned the enthusiastic Colbert worldwide recognition. In 2013, the sociologist-turned-educator was awarded the prestigious Wise Prize for expanding sustainable education across Colombia, and other countries. Escuela Nueva recently forged an alliance with the Mexican non-profit Fundación Azteca to bring education to the most poor in Chiapas. The Zambia-based Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) are also partners of Fundación Escuela Nueva, providing education to girls who have been excluded from society by no fault of their own, either by early marriage, teen pregnancy, HIV/Aids.

Closer to home, Brazil has some 10,000 Escola Ativa (Participatory Schools) currently using the Escuela Nueva methodology. Colbert’s pioneering work across South America, Africa and South East Asia earned her the prestigious Clinton Global Citizenship Award.

And, now China.

Charles Chen Yidan is the co-founder of the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, and widely regarded as one of Asia’s most generous philanthropists. The 45-year old billionaire has launched the world’s largest prize that aims to transform global education every year: the Yidan Prize.

With a US$320 million endowment from the Yidan Foundation, the Yidan Prize will award two recipients nearly US$8 million to promote their achievements and innovation. Each Laureate will receive a gold medal, US$3.9 million worth in awards, including a cash prize of US$1.9 million. For the first-ever Yidan Prize, Co- lombia’s Vicky Colbert and Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor who for decades has researched the “growth mindset” of students, have been chosen.

“The Yidan Prize is so important for me, because it would help us to ensure investment of other possible contributors, and people that want to join the effort of improving quality education,” believes Colbert. “With the support from the Yidan Prize Foundation our work will spread even wider to benefit more children in developing regions around the world.”

When Vicky Colbert got involved in early education she didn’t want to start a ‘nice little project,” instead, she wanted to influence an entire nation. Her “life’s mission” has now come full circle as this global educator heads to the Yidan Prize ceremony in Hong Kong.

For the students of Escuela Nueva a brighter future now awaits them as well, even though across rural Colombia many children still have to get up in the dark to get to school.