Bridge International is the largest chain of non-formal schools in Africa providing high quality education to children of parents living on less than Sh200 per day. Our writer Nduta Waweru spoke to the co-founder Dr Shannon May
What’s the history of Bridge International?
Bridge International Academies was established to partner with parents and governments to ensure that every child has access to a world-class education.
Since 2009 we have opened more than 400 primary and nursery schools in Kenya and Uganda, educating more than 100,000 students. In September 2015, we opened the doors of our first two academies in Nigeria, enrolling more than 500 children in the first weeks. Given the demand, we are accelerating our timeline to meet the urgent need and have begun to train more teachers who will start in January 2016.
In 2016, Bridge will begin working with the government of Andhra Pradesh, India, to ensure that standards of learning can be raised for all children.
What is your model of education?
Bridge’s model is based on one goal — to support teachers in delivering a world-class education to our pupils every day. We do this by using technology and human capacity to bring the worlds best educators into every Bridge classroom. Each one of our teachers is equipped with a teacher tablet, onto which they upload daily teachers’ guides using the academy manager’s smartphone’s wireless hotspot.
Each academy has a manager who does daily and weekly reviews of each and every classroom and meets with the teacher each week to provide guidance and support. We have area managers and quality assurance teams who travel to academies every day, monitoring and guiding teachers. Through their tablets, teachers further have a direct line to the academic team and almost instantaneous support, whether it be with the speed of the class, or the way the lesson is formatted.
So far you are only in ECD, nursery and primary school, are there plans to expand to secondary education?
We are currently preparing our first cohort of grade eight students in Kenya to sit the KCPE and are looking forward to seeing them progress to secondary school. We have also recently received the support of a non-profit called United We Reach, which will give scholarships to our top performers to attend high school. In addition, several of our very top KCPE candidates are right now interviewing for full scholarships to attend elite secondary schools in the United States.
How do you determine the locations of these schools?
The first question we ask when we think about opening a new academy is: do parents in this community want us to open an academy?
Considering requests from parents and community leaders and other information, we use satellite and aerial imagery to determine potential locations based on factors like how many other schools are in the area, and whether there is enough space for an academy. We then go to the community to establish facts like the number of primary-aged children living in a given area, their parents’ jobs and incomes, the school availability, quality, and cost in there area, and whether parents are looking for alternative schooling options for their children. We then work with the District Education Officer and the County Education Board to open a school.
How have you adopted technology in your model of education?
Technology can be a great equaliser in education and Bridge is proud to be part of Kenya’s Vision 2030 by using technology to deliver a world-class education. We use technology across our operation in order to implement, track, and improve education. We rely on technology to help us to relieve teachers of the arduous task of lesson planning by using the tablets with teacher’s guide and give them more time in the classroom, interacting with students.
How do you maintain quality in education?
Everything we do is about ensuring quality in our academies. By employing a central team of world-leading educationalists to create daily teachers’ guides to be used in each academy, and a team of talented local teachers, we are bringing world-class education into every classroom.
Our academic team develop all Bridge’s academic content by analysing the 8-4-4 curriculum and using leading pedagogical theories and extensive practical experience to consider how best to teach it. We also do additional lessons on reading and critical thinking skills.
Because content is delivered through tablets, our academic team can monitor everything that happens in class and can talk directly to teachers about their experiences. They then use this information to improve future lessons.
On average, Bridge pupils score 35 per cent higher on core reading skills and 19 per cent higher in maths than their peers in neighbouring schools based on USAID-designed assessments conducted annually by an independent monitoring and evaluation agency.
How are the schools run?
Our academies are community run schools. Each Bridge academy has an academy manager, who runs the day-to-day operations of the academy.
The academy manager works closely with the parent representative body, made up of one elected representative from each class in the academy. The parents meet monthly to support and guide the operations of the school, and to support the students in extra-curricular activities, or solve any issues.
How do you manage to keep the costs so low?
Bridge International Academies’ business model is based on principles of scale, buttressed by extensive international financial support. If we are basing our system on serving 500,000 pupils, rather than 500, we can deliver a higher quality at a lower price. Due to our international financial partners, we are able to offer every parent a subsidised price to attend Bridge.
Our academies are entirely cashless which both cuts administrative costs and reduces the chance of misappropriation of funds.
What are the achievements and challenges you have encountered along the way?
The fact that we now have over 100,000 students across three countries in school and learning is by far our greatest achievement. When we see pupils who come to our academies unable to read or write or speak English transform in three months to be able to speak fluent English and see a whole new future for themselves and their families, that is the greatest achievement and something we are all extremely proud of.
Our greatest challenge is our rate of growth, particularly recruiting and retaining talented and dedicated staff, but we put in place numerous systems and processes to overcome this.
What are your plans for the future?
Our plans are quite simple really — we want to provide as many children as possible with access to a high-quality education as soon as possible. We have a goal of reaching 10 million pupils in over a dozen countries by 2025, both through attending our academies and working with partners to use our model beyond our academies.