This week investor and edreformer Whitney Tilson discovered Bridge International Academies which “I confidently predict will be as big and impactful as both of these incredible organizations.”
“Bridge runs primary schools serving the poorest urban children in Kenya (from age 3 through grade 8),” describes Tilson, “But Bridge is doing many things VERY differently and holds the promise of changing the way that 700 MILLION of the world’s poorest children are educated. And while Bridge will never operate in the U.S. or any other OECD country, there are many lessons for ALL schools and school systems.”
Tilson listed 11 reasons he was excited about Bridge:
- It’s addressing one of the world’s biggest problems: the terribly inadequate educational system for the poorest of the poor (generally people living on less than $1/day).
- It opened with one school exactly four years ago (the Kenyan school year is the calendar year) and this week open 50 (FIFTY!) new schools to reach a total of 135 schools – in only four years! And Bridge will open another 150 schools this year – that’s a new school every 2.5 DAYS! I have never seen ANY network of schools (or, come to think of it, any business of any type) grow at anything like this rate. To open so many, the schools must be really tiny, right? No. The average school opens with 320 students from age 3 through grade 6 and rapidly grows to 1,000 students (almost all of whom live close by and walk to school). By the end of this month, in four years from starting its first school, Bridge will be educating more than 45,000 students, and is the largest business of any type in Kenya by number of locations. It will scale to more than 75,000 pupils by the end of the year and by next year will be the largest network of schools in the WORLD by both number of schools and total students (stop and think about that for a second – it’s truly staggering). Its goal is to eventually serve TEN MILLION students, and is looking at Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and India as possible next countries for expansion.
- You’ll never guess the average tuition per student per month. Keep in mind that this has to be affordable to people living on $1/day. Nope, lower. Lower… I hope you’re sitting down. The answer: $6 (SIX DOLLARS!) per student per month (not day, not week, but MONTH!), not including food (see #9 below).
- Surely no school in the world can even come close to covering its costs at such a low price point, so foundations and/or governments must be providing a massive subsidy, right? Nope. Bridge is a FOR-PROFIT company – a genuine for-profit, not one of the new breed of pseudo-for-profits that, while often doing much social good, don’t come close to (and aren’t designed) to earn truly market rates of return. In contrast, Bridge, while founded by people who want to change the world, is achieving unit-level profitability in about a year and has attracted LARGE amounts of venture capital from brand-name investors who are SOLELY interested in financial returns, including NEA (the largest venture capital firm in the world, with $13 billion under management), media giant Pearson, Omidyar Network, Khosla Ventures, and Learn Capital (where Tom is a partner).
- Oh no, not another for-profit education company preying on poor people, providing an overpriced, dismal education! Well, it’s hard to call $6/month overpriced by any definition, but it’s a valid question what type of education Bridge can provide while spending so little. The answer is a very basic, decent quality education. To be clear, nobody on this email list would ever send their child to a Bridge school. (There are plenty of exceptional (mostly British) private schools costing $10,000-$20,000 annually to serve the wealthy elite of Kenya – sound familiar???) But that’s not the right comparison. For Kenya’s poorest families, there are only two choices: a) Public schools which, even if they’re available (there are only a half dozen serving the 1+ MILLION people in Kibera, for example), are truly horrific in most cases (certainly those serving the poorest children): no books, classes of 100+, four-hour school days, teachers with strong job protections so they’re often drunk or absent – you get the idea… And while supposedly free, in reality they’re not: they require uniforms, various fees, etc. that typically add up to at least $4/month. Or, b) Private schools, usually single-unit microenterprises run out of people’s homes, at prices averaging $10/month. They’re usually a bit better than the public schools – they have to be to get parents to pay more – but not much…Relative to these two options, Bridge is an exceptionally better option, both in terms of cost (25% more than public schools and 40% less than private ones) and quality.Bridge’s average class size at full capacity is 60 students, which isn’t bad for Kenya. And Bridge doesn’t scrimp on the school day: it’s 7:30am to 5:00pm weekdays plus half days on Saturday (almost identical to KIPP schools, though Bridge says it didn’t get this idea from KIPP). Talking to the founders, though, they sound just like KIPP: “There’s no substitute for a lot of extra hours and hard work.” Consistent with this, Bridge’s schools are also open during half of each of the three months a year that Kenyan schools are not in session (the Kenyan school year is roughly three months on, one month off) for optional additional schooling (at the same price per day as regular school), and about 40% of students take advantage.
- The curriculum is 100% standardized, aligned to Kenya’s national curriculum, and every teacher has a Nook with that day’s lessons, scripted down to every single word the teacher speaks every minute of the day. To be clear: if you were to pop into any classroom at any time of day on any day of the year, you would find the teacher doing the EXACT SAME lesson in EVERY ONE of Bridge’s 135 schools. I’m sure many of you are gasping in horror that principals (called Academy Managers) and teachers are robbed of their ability to be creative, cater to the individual needs of particular classrooms or schools, etc. But remember the context: Kenya doesn’t have very many super-talented teachers or principals – and those it has are working at the elite private schools, which can afford to pay them good wages. A fully standardized curriculum, while robbing teachers of the ability to soar, also greatly reduces the chances that they crash and burn – which is 100x more likely in Kenya…
- Given that attracting highly talented, motivated teachers is one of the biggest barriers to growth of school networks like KIPP, how has Bridge managed to hire, train and manage more than 1,400 teachers in such a short time? The answer is that it doesn’t hire people who have been trained or certified as teachers. Instead, nearly all of its teachers are secondary (high) school graduates who live within 500 meters of the school, most of whom are unemployed (the unemployment rate in Kenya is officially 40%, but as in the U.S. and elsewhere, that only counts people who are actively looking for work).Bridge screens on the front end and then puts about 60% more teachers than it plans to hire into an intensive 240-hour training program, weeding out the ones who aren’t cutting it along the way (once they start on the job, turnover is less than 2% per month). Bridge provides ongoing training to existing teachers as well. It’s a similar process for principals, who are given smartphones with software that helps them manage all aspects of the school. The article below notes that: “A performance form is completed each week for every teacher, and teachers get a bonus or have pay docked based on an overall score. The same process governs compensation for school managers, giving them an economic stake in the school’s overall educational performance.” Note that no money changes hands at the school level: all tuition is paid by bank deposit or a cell phone-based system called M-Pesa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-Pesa), teachers are paid via direct deposit, etc.
- Academic results are preliminary right now, but according to Bridge, their students are testing 100% better on reading and 25% better in math relative to peer schools using international exams and external assessors…Note that every student at Bridge is tested every 8-10 days in all core subjects and all results are captured electronically and made available to the principal and headquarters, so every student, teacher, principal, and school can be tracked almost real time.
- What about food? Don’t the children get hungry between 7:30am and 5:00pm? Yes, though keep in mind that these kids are (sadly) used to not eating regularly. Bridge gives students an option: they can bring their own food or contract directly with local entrepreneurs to provide a meal (with payment going directly from the student to the entrepreneur). This is quite inefficient, so Bridge is rolling out an exciting pilot program to provide children a healthy, nutritious lunch of corn (or ugali/cornmeal) and beans for only $5/student/month, which is about 25% cheaper than the price that they would pay otherwise (due to Bridge’s ability to buy and prepare food at large scale).
- Those of you accustomed to the endless headaches related to facilities must be wondering how Bridge secures so many new facilities so quickly. With a lot of difficulty, to be sure, but they handle EVERYTHING internally, from market research, site identification, leasing (not buying) land, constructing the buildings from scratch, etc. Believe it or not, it takes Bridge less than five months from site identification to school opening, and the fixed costs for launching a new school (11 classrooms, 6 toilets, and a handful of other rooms for offices, food, etc.) are only $25,000 (not including land). Bridge then continues to build out each school as it grows. Bridge uses three basic architectural temples: approximately 70% a standard one-story structure, 20% a modified one-story structure for the hotter coast (coral bricks; straw mats on the roof to mitigate the heat), and 10% more expensive two-story structures in urban areas where land is more expensive. Note that Bridge’s current model doesn’t work in very rural areas: a certain population density is required for the schools to achieve the critical mass necessary for profitability. But they have successfully opened in small towns with populations as low as 9,000 people.
- School books are nonexistent at most schools in Kenya, so this is a major cost for most families (or students go without, which obviously impacts learning). Bridge provides necessary schoolbooks to every student as part of the regular tuition – the only thing students must provide is a pencil and a basic, blank, lined notebook.