Can a Tech Start-Up Successfully Educate Children in the Developing World?
Last fall, when I visited Kawangware, a densely populated slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, the morning was bright, and a breeze provided a welcome respite from the smell of the open sewers that run like septic capillaries through the back streets and alleys. Extreme poverty makes life difficult here, and H.I.V. and waterborne illness are rife. Most homes are one-room corrugated-metal shacks that lack electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. It was an unlikely place to open a for-profit private school. But there, along a pitted road, stood an outpost of Bridge International Academies, an ambitious experiment in bringing market-based education to communities like this around the world.
Stepping inside the green-painted metal fencing, I ducked into one of two low, rectangular school buildings, which had been constructed from rough-hewed wood and sheets of bright green metal. From the hallway, one of Bridge’s founders, Shannon May, urged me to look through the chicken-wire windows. The dim, spare, well-swept classrooms had uneven concrete floors and no electric lights. Inside, a third-grade teacher was reading from a computer tablet, reciting a lesson script that had been transmitted from the Bridge headquarters in central Nairobi, a 45-minute drive away. The instructor quietly spoke the lesson as he wrote on the chalkboard, explaining the math symbols that indicate ‘‘greater than’’ or ‘‘less than.’’ Twenty-three third-grade students, all dressed in bright green Bridge uniforms, were doing their best to follow along. Because Bridge schools are standardized, May pointed out that the teachers were working from the same synchronized lesson guide that was being delivered in hundreds of Bridge’s schools in Kenya, allowing the company to ensure that students everywhere were receiving a uniform curriculum.
Bridge operates 405 schools in Kenya, educating children from preschool through eighth grade, for a fee of between $54 and $126 per year, depending on the location of the school. It was founded in 2007 by May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014. Just as titans in Silicon Valley were remaking communication and commerce, Bridge founders promised to revolutionize primary-school education. ‘‘It’s the Tesla of education companies,’’ says Whitney Tilson, a Bridge investor and hedge-fund manager in New York who helped found Teach for America and is a vocal supporter of charter schools.