Building Schools and Futures in Central America

Boston’s Kate Curran started School the World to build schoolhouses and change the lives of children living in extreme poverty. It turns out she’s transforming the lives of privileged kids, too.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

In 2007, Kate Curran was a high-powered attorney at General Electric helping the corporate giant navigate legislation, regulations, consumer concerns and public policy issues.

But after 10 years there, she was flagging, and huge personal loss had her questioning the purpose and course of her life. “I lost a brother and both of my parents in two and a half years,” she says. “I was pretty crushed.”

Her parents had both been public servants. After her father’s passing, television reports lamented the loss of a “great man.” At her mother’s wake, the letter carrier wept. “I thought a lot about the kind of life I was living and how different it was from these lives that were so generous,” she says. “I need to leave.”

She resigned from GE and went on a walk-about. “I thought I’ll go travel for a month and then come back and figure it out,” she says. “It was 4 years before I ever had a paycheck again.”

Curran, now 53, left GE to embark on a completely new life, but GE never really left her. The skills and relationships she gained there would prove crucial as she started and grew , a Boston that has built 47 schools in Guatemala and Honduras and plans to build many more.

Passion for a Beautiful World

During Curran’s “sabbatical,” as she calls it, she spent more than a year traversing four continents. She met amazing people and saw beautiful places, she says. “I went from someone who was really sad to someone who was inspired.”

Curran, who loved kids but had none of her own, was especially moved by children in she met in Tanzania, Zambia and Argentina who faced huge barriers to getting educations. And she was reminded of an old dream she’d had to build a .

“This is what I want to do,” she realized. “And so I started School the World.” After “witnessing the beauty of the world and common values shared by such disparate people around the world, I felt like I could accomplish anything.”

Curran returned to Boston, packed up her townhouse and moved in with one of her sisters, who was living at her parents old house. There, she threw herself into strategy and planning.

She decided to focus on Central America because of the extreme poverty there and ease of travel from the U.S. Moreover, she had spent some time in the area while at GE, working on a joint venture with a regional bank. Soon, she recruited the CEO of that joint venture to donate about $20,000 to kickstart her first projects, one in Guatemala and one in Honduras.

A Purpose in Educating Poor Kids

Using analytical thinking sharpened as a lawyer, she studied education best practices and developed an education strategy she believed would work.

Her starting point was a deep personal belief that all kids love to learn but cannot do so under the terrible conditions prevalent in areas of extreme poverty. So she created a plan to provide basic resources: a building with a floor, lights, windows, books and teachers with at least some training. Later she added playgrounds to that list — she has now built 23 — because of research showing the importance of play in learning.

She also gets local buy-in. Curran asks mayors in the towns where School the World operates to contribute half the school’s infrastructure costs and asks the community to donate land and unskilled labor. Parents contribute about $1 for their children’s books. All this helps create a vital sense of ownership and community investment, she says.

School the World also builds the capacity of teachers and parents to support learning. Teachers must be there every day, she says, and be held accountable by empowered parents.

With this foundation, Curran believed that kids would learn and stay in school, and parents would support their education. And it worked, she says; her schools have sliced dropouts in half.

Energized by her plan, Curran tapped her network to raise money, reaching out to friends and family, old colleagues from GE, and alums of her college. “I was determined to build three schools in the first year,” she says. “And we did it.”

At first, School the World focused on in Guatemala, where it’s easier and safer to operate. However, eight of the 47 schools are in Honduras. Expansion there was supported by a local arm of Dole, the fruit company, which made a 6-year financial commitment beginning in 2012, and by the International Monetary Fund.

Curran intends to keep expanding. By 2020, she aims to have 100 schools that serve 10,000 impoverished kids, and she wants to add one or two more countries. She’s currently considering the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Colombia and Paraguay.

Kate Curran, School the WorldShe’s on a mission to beat back poverty, and “education is the one thing that has the highest return on investment,” she says. Not only does it lift incomes, education reduces child marriage, improves health and produces many other dividends.

“Every child has the right to learn. That’s what motivates me: giving that to kids.”

Opening American Kids’ Eyes

In 2013, Curran added a very different educational component to School the World — one designed to open the eyes and minds of privileged American kids.

During a week-long and , U.S. high school students visit Guatemala to help to finish school construction and experience life there. “They are right in with extreme poverty,” she says. “They love the kids and they love the people, and they come back so positive, so inspired by the people that they met, with a completely different outlook on life and perspective on what they have.”

Curran says her board of directors was initially reticent to offer the travel program because of liability concerns. But GE stepped up and provided a famed Six Sigma risk assessment, presented its findings to the board and committed to help with implementation. The program has proved vital to School the World; it now generates about half of its annual budget, which will reach $1.1 million this year.

“It’s why we are still here,” Curran says.

The first year, Curran took 12 students, and in 2017 she will take 150, most from Boston, Connecticut, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Each student pays a total of $3,500, including flights, though most fundraise the lionshare of their fees. About half of the money goes to cover expenses, and half funds school construction and support programs.

“Together, the high school kids that go fund most of our work in Guatemala,” Curran says. And it’s a win-win. “We give young people here what I got during that sabbatical: gratitude.”

Why should we include you in The Passionate & Purposeful?

I was a successful attorney and executive at GE in the first decade of this century, doing my best to turn my corporate job into a mission, becoming a consumer advocate within GE’s consumer-finance arm. It was not about children, but it was about a sense of fairness and economic justice. When I suddenly lost my brother, my father and my mother in 21 months, though, I started to understand it was not enough. My mother’s last words, “I’ve had a great life,” spurred me to action. I left my career and all of its trappings behind and began to travel the world. Four continents and more than a year later, I was utterly compelled to start School the World to give some of the world’s poorest children an opportunity in life.

Posted: May 15, 2017

Riva RichmondBuilding Schools and Futures in Central America