Why a Lawyer Quit Her Job and Built 72 Schools for Kids Living in Poverty

If you're wondering when to quit your job, consider Kate Curran's story. She was a high-powered lawyer when a string of tragic incidents led her to do some soul searching -- and start School the World, a nonprofit that builds schoolhouses for children in Central America.

By Christina Kelly

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Kate In Guatemala schools, kids start dropping out after first grade, and the vast majority drop out by or in fourth grade, and not really having learned anything. And a lot of people used to blame it on the parents. And we disagreed with that. Our theory is if we are working with the parents at the same time, so they truly understand the value of education and how they can help their children learn, that the kids will want to stay in school, and the parents will support it.

TEXT Kate Curran, Founder + CEO – School the World – Boston, Mass.

Kate School the World changes lives through education, through partnerships with the local community, the local government. We commit for the long term and we believe that we will have every child graduating from primary school knowing how to read, write and count.

TEXT Growing up in Connecticut, Kate always wanted to work with young people.

Kate My father was the mayor of Bridgeport. Very involved, very community oriented. “Do something” was a very familiar refrain, from both parents all the time. Doesn't matter what it is, but do something.

TEXT After graduating from Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, Kate moved to New York to fundraise for the Boy Scouts.

Kate I wanted to do something mission oriented, social oriented, serving youth. I thought fundraising would be a good place to start. I worked with some of the most incredible people. I learned a tremendous amount and really loved it.

TEXT After 5 years with the Boy Scouts, Kate went to law school. Her goal was to become a lawyer and then start her own nonprofit.

TEXT But after graduation Kate was offered a job at General Electric’s finance arm.

Kate I saw an opportunity to get advocacy experience doing some government relations work for them. So I thought, “Okay, I'll make a little bit of money for a while,” and I kind of became the consumer advocate within the company.

TEXT In 2005 Kate’s brother died and then, a short time later, both her parents.

TEXT By 2007 with much of the financial industry doling out subprime mortgages, Kate grew uncomfortable in her job..

Kate It was like cognitive dissonance, holding the grief that I had for, you know, these greatest generation parents who had contributed so much to society, and working at GE. I just felt like, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

TEXT Kate left GE and decided to take a year off to travel.

Kate I saw a lot while I was traveling. Little kids working, you know, under the really hot sun. Classrooms with 12 kids sharing two pencils. And I actually started to remember, “Wait, I went to law school to start a nonprofit.”

TEXT In Guatemala, a guide introduced Kate to the mayor of Chichicastenango.

Kate We started talking, and I don't know whether it was my background, but the mayor said they needed schools, and I said, “Okay, how about you pay for half, and we pay for half.” And they took me up right away, up the mountain to see a community that needed a school, and it was incredible. It was, these kids had a shack with a dirt floor, horrible light. They didn't even have chairs.

TEXT Kate barely hesitated.

TEXT A year later, with funding from family and friends, she opened her first school.

TEXT Two more schools soon followed.

TEXT Each one cost about $15,000.

Kate We start at the infrastructure, and it's an opportunity for us to build trust and to engage the community and the local government. The community actually builds the school themselves. They supply all the unskilled labor.

TEXT From the start, Kate made it a priority to work with the parents.

Kate We start with the parents. We help them understand that they are the first educators. Even if they cannot read or write, there are things that they can do to help their children learn. For example, how much time your child is in school is going to have a huge impact on how much they learn. And we
really see them transformed pretty quickly, fighting for their children's education.

TEXT School the World offers 2 years of training to local teachers.

Kate The teacher is getting a much better environment to teach and their morale starts to improve at the same time as parents are beginning to show some signs that they're going to hold the teachers accountable, and that's how you turn the environment around.

TEXT Funding is a constant challenge.

TEXT Kate supports operations through USAID grants, as well as private and corporate donations.

TEXT A new income stream is a service program for American students to work in the country.

Kate They're mostly fairly affluent kids, and for them, it's a complete shock to be in this environment. You know, in the beginning, they are so inspired by the happiness and the warmth of the community.

TEXT They raise funds to build a school.

TEXT They spend a week helping complete the build.

Kate When they see how these kids have to live, it really has a huge impact on them. About 35% of our students are coming back for second and third years.

TEXT School the World has an annual $1.4 million budget and supports 57 schools in Guatemala and Honduras.

Kate I know that building the school is just the beginning, and you're not making a difference until you change behaviors and have kids actually learning.

TEXT Dropout rates have decreased 50% in some schools.

Kate It took about four years when we finally started to see it, and then, I was visiting and a teacher came up to me and said, “Kate, we didn't have a single dropout this year,” and I was like, “Yes!” You know, then I know that it's working.


Posted: September 12, 2018

Christina KellyWhy a Lawyer Quit Her Job and Built 72 Schools for Kids Living in Poverty