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In Kenya, American entrepreneurs are attempting to revolutionize primary education for some of the poorest kids in the world, and to make a profit while they're at it. Over the last four years, Bridge International Academies has set up more than 200 schools in Kenya and plans to open 50 more in January. Delivering the curriculum on an eReader, Bridge promises a quality education for roughly $5 a month. The company's founders say they plan to expand throughout the developing world and eventually reach millions.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: At a Bridge school on the western edge of Nairobi, backpacks hang in the line on hooks outside a sixth grade classroom. The teacher inside is running through an English lesson.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wildlife.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Wildlife.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Habitat.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Habitat.
BEAUBIEN: The dirt courtyard of the school is tidy but the smell of wood smoke and pit toilets from the neighboring shacks hangs in the air. The stark classrooms look like many others in poor parts of the developing world. Rows of simple wooden desks face a blackboard.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Damage.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Damage.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Population.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Population.
BEAUBIEN: But what's unusual here, what you don't expect to see in a poor African school that doesn't even have electricity is the teacher holding a Barnes and Noble Nook eReader. Everything the teacher is saying, she's reading from the electronic tablet in front of her. Every word she's writing on the blackboard, every example is scripted.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Very good dialogue, give them a super cheer.
BEAUBIEN: All across Kenya, Bridge teachers are going over exactly the same lesson at exactly the same time.
SHANNON MAY: So that in some ways is kind of the magic of it. That you could move from one school to another, a student could transfer. There's no break.
BEAUBIEN: Bridge co-founder Shannon May says part of the central idea behind Bridge International Academies is to come up with standardized lesson plans, and then roll them out electronically to all their schools.
MAY: If you were at one of the other 200 locations right now you'd be seeing the exact same thing. That exact English listening and speaking lesson on climate change, and human/animal conflict, would have been happening in every Class Six across the country at the same time.
BEAUBIEN: Bridge applies a Silicon Valley startup mindset to the question of how to improve education for some of the poorest kids on the planet. Their business model takes the franchise model of McDonald's, merges it with a tablet computer's efficiency at delivering information, automates daily operations through a smartphone, and then plunks the final product down in a Third World slum for $5 a month.
MAY: A lot of the premise of Bridge really only works to get to that price point, if you start with the sort of crazy premise that you need to do this for a million kids.
BEAUBIEN: And that's their goal. Their target customers are the hundreds of millions of parents around the world who live on $2 day and yearn for better schools for their children.
MAY: So the real issue is about, well, figuring out how much money they have to spend, this family. And then can you provide a service that has a quality outcome at that price point?
BEAUBIEN: To get to that price point, Bridge depends on large class sizes and tightly controlled costs. Their ideal class size is 40 to 50 kids. At one of their schools in Mombassa a single teacher is leading 72 students.
Bridge cuts expenses by hiring teachers who don't have college degrees and pays them less than conventional teachers. The eReader tablet not only delivers the lesson's script to the teachers, but it also acts as an electronic supervisor. It tracks what time the teacher arrives, what time she leaves, how long she spends on every lesson. Then that information is synced with Bridge headquarters through the school manager's smartphone.
DAVID MWANGI: Automatically they start connecting. This one starts searching for this one...
BEAUBIEN: David Mwangi, the manager at this school, taps on his phone to show how he sets up a Wi-Fi hotspot for the school. Once the connection is open, all the teachers tablets start syncing to his phone.
MWANGI: All the information will be transferred to the smartphone during syncing. The HQ will now get all the information from the smartphone. Then be able to see how our children are performing, their payment. Everything, they're able to monitor from HQ.
BEAUBIEN: Mwangi says the entire school is run off this mobile device. He can admit a new student, pay a vendor for chalk, submit test scores, send payroll timesheets back to Bridge's central office in Nairobi - all from his cheap Chinese smartphone.
Tuition collection is also automated. Parents pay their monthly school fees through Kenya's mobile money system called M-Pesa which allows people to transfer cash via text message.
There are other private schools all over Africa seeking to serve the so-called poorest of the poor, but their models and size are quite different from those of Bridge. Over the last four years, Bridge has grown to be the largest chain of private schools on the continent. And some advocates for universal education find this troubling.
ED GRAGERT: If somebody suggested that kind of a model in this country, they would be laughed out of the educational community.
BEAUBIEN: Ed Gragert is the U.S. director of the Global Campaign for Education, which advocates for increased access to education in the developing world. He's concerned with Bridge's large class sizes and the scripted lessons.
GRAGERT: That's not how kids learn best. Kids learn by interacting with each other. And it seems like we are going back - for the sake of someone earning some profit - back to a model where basically a robot could teach that class.
BEAUBIEN: Shannon May bristles at her teachers being called robots, but she does say that Bridge has a fundamentally different view of the role of its teacher.
MAY: They are not content producers.
BEAUBIEN: She says Bridge hires experts to script the lessons and then the teachers deliver that content to the class. Particularly in a place where teachers may have had poor educations themselves, May says the traditional model where teachers are expected to be experts on everything doesn't make sense.
MAY: What the child is able to learn is always limited by what the teacher knows. The child can never possibly learn more than what the teacher knows because it's that teacher who is creating the content. So you can never have the child essentially leapfrog previous problems within that town, city or country.
BEAUBIEN: Gragert with the Global Campaign for Education acknowledges that there are huge problems in poor schools in impoverished nations. But he says the long term solution is to improve government schools in these countries. In the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa, Shuweka Mohammed, however, wasn't willing to wait for educational reform in Kenya. Earlier this year, she moved her two young sons into a Bridge school.
SHUWEKA MOHAMMED: I like very everything about the school, for sure. And I'm happy to see my kids become experts themselves. They can do their homework without any assistance. You see, that is one thing that I like about this school, yeah.
BEAUBIEN: In 2003, Kenya introduced free universal primary education by simply abolishing government school fees. But parents continue to complain that they have to pay bribes to teachers. Mohammed says Bridge is cheaper than other private schools in Mombasa, and only a little bit more expensive than what she'd expect to pay each month in various unauthorized fees at a public school.
Shannon May says her company is helping to solve one of the biggest problems facing the poorest of the poor: the lack of access to decent education. And her company is taking an unabashedly capitalist approach in a field that has long been the domain of governments, churches and nonprofits.
MAY: I think there's something really important about approaching this problem from a for-profit perspective.
BEAUBIEN: Unlike an aid project that has to answer to Washington or London or Geneva, she says Bridge is ultimately accountable to its paying customers: the parents.
MAY: Our customer can put us out of business. They can say, this isn't good. I don't want it, it's not useful. It has no value to me. That's not how I want to spend my 400 shillings this month.
BEAUBIEN: Bridge also is raising private capital to fund its expansion, but their business model envisions each school generating enough revenue to be profitable. Bridge is already looking at expanding from Kenya into Africa's most populous nation: Nigeria. According to UNICEF, Nigeria has roughly 5 million primary school aged children who don't go to school at all. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.