The Social Challenge

Access to Sustainable, Quality Education

When School the World (STW) began in Guatemala in 2009, children in poor rural communities were going to “school” in shacks with dirt floors, no windows or ventilation, no books and poorly trained teachers. At that time, few children in these communities were making it past fourth grade. Even among those that did, few were completing primary school reading fluently, and access to lower secondary school was extremely limited. Teacher morale and motivation were low, with teacher truancy one of the biggest impediments to learning.

To address this education crisis, School the World joined forces with local governments and local community councils to build new infrastructure, improve morale and create trusting relationships with local stakeholders. Once those relationships are established, the partnership introduces the programming needed to turn around these failing rural schools and realize the promise of education. 

The Partnership

School the World’s Community Schools

The Partners

  • School the World           
  • COCODE/Patronato — Community Development Councils
  • Local Mayors and Governments

The Idea and the Action

School the World works in rural Central America, specifically in communities impacted by extreme poverty. Its mission is to solve extreme poverty through the power of education. It works to improve both morale and capacity with basic resources (such as infrastructure and books) and capacity-building of teachers and parents. School the World intentionally seeks ways to increase buy-in and local ownership across all stakeholders, including the local government.

STW’s “Community Schools” are built through a tri-part public-private partnership between local governments and local Community Development Councils (COCODE/Patronato).

Local mayors agree to the partnership. They pay 50 percent of the infrastructure (school and playground costs), and School the World provides the other 50 percent through donors. For mayors, it is “good politics,” as well as an opportunity for them to do more for communities. Mayors recognize the value of the partnership’s five-year holistic educational programming, which includes parent empowerment training, teacher training, a library program, an early childhood program and middle school scholarships.

The Community Development Council donates the land and unskilled labor to build the school and playground as well as obtain the approval of parents to attend trainings for five years.

This partnership engages three separate sectors to unite around providing 10 years of quality education to some of the world’s poorest children. Each partner has the shared goal of giving a better future to these rural communities, and by working together, School the World creates the opportunity for children to chart a path out of extreme poverty.                                        

The Impact

School the World has built 109 schools and 57 playgrounds, empowered 7,625 parents, trained 7,395 teachers, created 635 classroom libraries, provided 1,159 scholarships and improved the quality of education for 12,711 children.

STW’s impact is sustained by making communities and parents the centerpiece of the strategy, using what they highly value — new infrastructure — to engage, inform and empower them from the very beginning. All parents want better lives for their children, and the best way to turn around a failing school is through the community in general and parents in particular. Accordingly, each component of STW’s program is designed to strengthen the engagement and empowerment of community leaders and parents. When they fully understand and embrace not just children’s right to an education but also know what a good education looks like, STW’s intervention is sustainable. Accordingly, if the government places an unfit school director or teacher in a school after our intervention, the community and parents know what to do and how to do it.

The Insight

Despite major growth in worldwide school enrollment during the decades preceding the pandemic, about 260 million children were still out of school in 2018 — nearly one fifth of the global population in that age group. As many as 617 million children lack minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics.

Lifting educational quality is part of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. Learning and education are at the heart of all development that reduces poverty, as advancing other UN goals such as gender equality and basic infrastructure (inclusive of clean water and food preservation practices) are far better achieved when individuals are empowered with the knowledge and skills to create better lives and communities.

The foundations of nation states and local communities are at risk due to growth that has concentrated benefits supporting upward mobility of those who are not already struggling with poverty. The Center for Socioeconomic Mobility Through Education at the University of North Texas at Dallas cites research finding that students’ economic mobility is tied to experiences in their first primary classrooms, then later to schooling at every level through post-secondary education. One of School the World’s focuses, on “cognitive markers that make a child ready for school” in early childhood, is vital.

Given the lack of well-educated and qualified talent in current generations to dramatically expand educational opportunities to future generations, many educators are focusing on better leveraging existing assets to build local capacity and ownership. School the World’s efforts to alleviate extreme poverty in Central America have great promise in part due to its community model that invests in local infrastructure, relationships and parental engagement. The model has achieved impressive results, with both student attainment and secondary enrollment, in part by investing in repeatable models, led by employees from the areas, that grow the capacity of local teachers. The maintenance of cross-sector funding and partnership is more likely when community allies notice and celebrate the benefits of the investment. Education system reform often struggles with creating positive trends in parents’ or students’ self-efficacy and in promoting to the community similar tangible benefits.

As organizations such as School the World expand their practice via public-private partnerships, lasting impact will depend on the establishment of systems of continuous improvement. Too often, global organizations build schools, libraries and playgrounds to establish a floor of basic education without understanding the impact of those investments — and without increasing collaboration across schools and systems to increase the sustainable and broad impact of those investments. Measuring the survival rate of attendance needs to be complemented with investments in measuring lasting student skills and competencies, as School the World does well. 

The work of the UVA Partnership for Leaders in Education, helps leaders balance the value of centralized systems of capacity-building and service provision that create conditions for remarkable and scalable improvement, with decentralized approaches more responsive to community nuance and ownership. Investment in spotlighting successes and encouraging the spread of local innovations will help raise the ceiling of possibilities for students. To spread lasting educational opportunity, it is vital to encourage governments to not simply focus on individual schools but to strengthen systems that invest equitably in communities, which will maximize the effectiveness of operational investments, support cross-school learning and spread innovation.

The Darden School of Business’ Institute for Business in Society partners with Concordia and the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships to present the annual P3 Impact Award, which recognizes leading public-private partnerships that improve communities around the world. This year’s award will be presented at the Concordia Annual Summit the week of 19 September 2022. The five finalists will be highlighted on Darden Ideas to Action on Fridays leading up to the event.

This article was developed with the support of Darden’s Institute for Business in Society, at which Maggie Morse is director of programs. William Robinson is executive director of the Partnership for Leaders in Education, a joint venture of the UVA Darden School of Business and UVA School of Education and Human Development.


The P3 Impact Award
Recognizing leading public-private partnerships that improve communities around the world