Lindsay Stradley (MBA 2011) spent her internship months during Summer 2010 working at Bridge International Academies in Nairobi, Kenya. This is her story from the field.
Bridge is a for-profit social enterprise that’s building low-cost (i.e., $4/month) private primary schools in the slums. The first school opened in January of 2009, a second in May of that year, and then two more waves in January and May of this past year so that they now have 10 schools across Nairobi.
In Kenya, people are accustomed to paying for education. The upper and middle classes pay premium prices for elite education. Even with the recent expansion of “free” government schools primarily for the lower class, parents pay for uniforms, exam fees, and other miscellaneous expenses like “motivation fees” for teachers – all of which adds up to a very significant portion of a poor family’s income despite the declining quality and ballooning student-teacher ratios of most government schools.
Parents are willing to pay for education only so long as they see results. Their justifiable and escalating demands have introduced market forces into the school and teacher accountability argument we hear in the U.S. Recognizing this competitive market, countless private schools have opened in Kenya’s urban slums and other poor areas, but the quality is, at best, undependable. Independent low-cost schools rarely have the resources to invest in high-quality curriculum or the experience to support teachers and manage a school.
Bridge International Academies plans to open thousands of schools across Africa, pooling resources to create a “School in a Box” model: a customized curriculum and teacher training program, to ensure the highest quality of education, and a set of centralized financial and operational tools, to ensure the strength and ease of management. On the ground, the schools operate almost as independent franchises, with a school manager and teachers from the local community.
The first school opened in January of 2009, and Bridge now operates 10 successful schools in the Nairobi slums. In the next year, we will grow to 50 schools. As Bridge makes the jump from start-up to stable, medium-sized company, it’s crunch time to formalize and scale many ad hoc recruiting, training, and other operational processes – my job for the summer. Since we’ll be hiring managers to run each of our new schools and field supervisors to support and oversee them, I’ve been figuring out just what these people should be doing, refining the operational tools and systems that they use, and developing two-month trainings for each of those groups.
As part of this process, I spent one week shadowing one of our two current field supervisors as he conducted visits at five of our existing schools. In these visits, I continually saw where the reality of our students and employees confronts the theory of our business model. Introducing a profit motive also introduces difficult sets of questions and choices. Our mission is to make a high-quality education attainable for all students; however, when a parent can’t pay the month’s very modest fees (approximately $4), we send the child home until the balance is settled. We also seek to create jobs in our schools’ communities, employing, training, and supporting local residents as school managers and teachers; however, when an employee proves unable or unwilling to follow our processes, we fire him.
Many of these challenges came to the fore in one school visit alone:
One teacher, a woman exceptionally devoted to her students, has been spending extra time on student tutoring, but at the expense of completing the required tracking and documentation. We must maintain the consistent implementation of the School in a Box, but should she be penalized?
The parents of a first-grade student had not paid last month’s fees but, due to a clerical error, they hadn’t been notified. We must apply the fee requirements consistently and firmly, but should the student be sent home now, without any prior warning?
After lunchtime, another student came to the school manager’s office in order to eat the portion of the manager’s lunch that she sets aside for him every day because his parents cannot afford to send him with a lunch or lunch money. As a manager, she can’t afford to pay for his lunch, but as an educator, she can’t tolerate the thought of sending him back to class on an empty stomach.
During the visit, we warned the teacher, sent the first-grader home, and discussed the lunch issues without reaching a new conclusion. Back in the office, I kept each of these stories in mind as I refined our policies and designed the training for our future managers. Throughout the summer, I’m continually reminded that mission-based businesses must repeatedly reexamine the balancing act between their profit and mission. Without profits, we can’t pursue the mission. But an excessive focus on profit undeniably handicaps the mission.
Bridge has, so far, struck a successful balance. Hopefully the operational tools and training practices I’ve developed this summer will allow them to maintain that balance as the business and its challenges grow.