Only a power-cutting tropical storm could keep Heidi Curry from taking part in her Boise State University master’s program. Even though she lives 2,500 miles away, Curry graduated in May with a degree in educational leadership.
Curry completed her master’s degree because of accommodating professors, welcoming classmates and technology that could transport her into a Boise classroom from Belize, a small country on the northeastern coast of Central America.
BSU associate professor Kathleen Budge met Curry in Belize three years ago. “I was impressed by her energy, passion and commitment to ensuring native teens had an opportunity to earn a high school diploma,” said Budge.
Although she wasn’t a formally trained educator, Curry founded Ocean Academy in 2008 to fill the tremendous need she saw. The academy was the first and only high school on the small island of Caye Caulker, a 45-minute boat ride from the mainland. In Caye Caulker, where students would have to commute by boat, only 10 percent went to school.
Curry was the only hope for about 30 students to continue their education. (She has 64 students now). Less than half of high-school age children in Belize attend school because they live in isolated regions or cannot afford fees. It is not uncommon for Curry to skip a paycheck to ensure the school stays solvent.
When Curry expressed an interest in earning a master’s degree in education, Budge was eager to find a way to help her gain the knowledge and skills in educational leadership she desired. Budge was excited for what Curry could add — an international perspective to her program.
Thanks in large part to the generosity and dedication of classmate Dan Massimino, Curry was able to join the program remotely. Massimino connected Curry to class each week using a camera, laptop, microphone, cords and the Internet.
“We had to work out a lot of technical issues so she could join live,” Massimino said. “I was constantly facilitating tech support, while taking my own notes and corresponding with her. It was worth it because she is a rock star. She brought an outside perspective to class. She comes from a place of complete goodness.”
The master’s program prepares future high school principals and the curriculum places a heavy emphasis on problem-based learning. Students assume the role of principal and study ways to solve problems — problems they’ve yet to encounter. Curry added value to the class because she has lived through worst-case scenarios.
“She would ground me into reality very quickly,” Massimino said.
Her school has dirt floors. There is no teacher’s lounge, gym or lunchroom. Sand blows into computer keyboards while rain floods classrooms. Teachers resign and kids need to be inspired to stay in school, as most of them face challenges posed by extreme poverty.
Massimino and five other members of the cohort traveled to Belize last summer to experience Curry’s world, as part of a field study sponsored by BSU’s Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies (CSIPS). While the natural beauty of the country was breathtaking, the reality of the poverty was overpowering.
The school serves an island only five miles long and a half-mile wide with a population of 1,300. Most islanders earn a living in the tourism industry made up of small, family-owned businesses, such as restaurants and bars, hotels and gift shops and fishing, diving and snorkeling guides.
Curry’s school serves any child who wants to learn, admitting those that other schools turn away.
“I learned from her the right philosophy of education,” Massimino said. “Hers is second to none. She believes all kids can learn. It’s who she is. I have a passion to help her now.”
She teaches them how to be successful on the island so that non-natives don’t continue to take over the work force. While her curriculum encompasses reading, writing and math, it focuses on place-based learning or technical training. Students learn skills to be successful in tourism, small business or hotel management.
“Leading Ocean Academy is like breathing, it is what I’m supposed to do,” Curry said. “I’m grateful for Boise State and the kind-hearted faculty whose social justice philosophy extends all the way to our corner of the world.”
Disclaimer: Idaho Education News is housed at Boise State University under the Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies.