In the remote rural village of Olivera, nestled in the north of Uruguay, the School No. 67 stands as a testament to the power of dedicated educators and their unwavering commitment to improving the lives of their students. Their story has won our hearts and their journey through the World’s Best School Prizes is worth sharing, in the hope of inspiring many other schools like this one around the world.
With just two teachers and a student population of twenty-three, this school is a true underdog in the world of education. Until June 15, 2023, when they were announced as shortlisted in the World’s Best School Prizes, they had lived in relative obscurity, without any recognition or visibility on a national or global scale.
The School No. 67’s journey is remarkable for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a story of profound commitment. The school staff, consisting of only two teachers, including the Principal, recognised a critical issue within their community and took ownership of it. The problem they identified was simple but essential: their students’ health. Without proper health, learning becomes an insurmountable challenge. What’s more, they managed to turn their remote location and lack of resources, widely understood as their weaknesses, into strengths, an aspect that we’ll explore in detail moreover. Additionally, the national context in which their story unfolded played a crucial role in its subsequent impact.
The story of Escuela No. 67 began with the emergence of a health crisis. Students were frequently suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, with no clear source of the problem. This wasn’t just an issue affecting the children; it extended to their families and the broader community. The school realised that the community was not addressing the situation, and there was a severe lack of awareness and interest in resolving the issue. This is when Aldana and Pablo, principal and teacher, respectively, stepped in to investigate further. They conducted an exhaustive process of elimination, examining everything from food and soil to air quality. After consulting with medical experts, universities, and community-based organisations, they identified the source of contamination as the water supply. Their quick response was to install a chlorinator in the water pump to purify the water for human consumption, providing a short-term solution to the problem.
But Aldana and Pablo knew that this was just the beginning of their journey. They recognised the importance of empowering their students with problem-solving skills and a comprehensive understanding of the issue. To achieve this, they collaborated with Uruguay’s CEIBAL, the government’s innovation agency for schools. Together, they designed a project-based learning approach that allowed students to explore the problem from an interdisciplinary angle, incorporating social and natural sciences, and other fields of study, including soft skills such as creativity, collaboration, problem-solving amongst others. The chlorinator, they understood, was only one piece of the puzzle.
The school not only acted as a medical practitioner diagnosing the children’s disease, but also rallied the entire community to tackle the issue. They knew they couldn’t do it alone or within the boundaries of their own village.
In February 2023, they took a bold step and applied for the World’s Best School Prize for Supporting Healthy Lives. Despite competing against a pool of wealthy schools from high-income countries, they believed in the transformative power of their story. Their application not only described how they were safeguarding their students’ health but also outlined the broader impact they were having on the Olivera community. They demonstrated a holistic approach that involved the entire community, particularly the parents who initially resisted but eventually became allies, for which the students’ active involvement played a pivotal role. The secret to the success of their entry lies in how they conveyed their story.
Despite navigating through the hazards of language barriers, they made it through our assessment process, all the way up to the Top 10 shortlists of the Prizes, a tipping point in their school’s history. Armed with a captivating school logo designed and drawn by a child, they hold their position in the Top 10 amongst high achieving schools all over the world. The recognition and visibility they gained opened doors to numerous foundations and organisations willing to support a long-term solution. Among those, they were advised to analyse water consumption levels to ensure the chlorinator’s effectiveness, and they even received a donated water meter to optimize their water purification process. In parallel to this process, Uruguay’s government declared a water shortage emergency, emphasising the relevance and urgency of their work, more than ever.
The School No. 67’s journey is just one of many inspiring stories uncovered through the World’s Best School Prizes. And it’s only the beginning of their journey. The Prizes just pushed them to take off. This story serves as a powerful reminder to teachers and principals everywhere: trust in your community, believe in your story, and embrace your circumstances. The World’s Best School Prizes offer more than just a competition; they provide a platform for your voice to be heard, to guide your path toward school and community transformation, and to DREAM BIG!