Sunlight streamed through an oversized classroom window in Kisauni—a slum in Mombasa, Kenya—as a group of 6-year-olds fixed their eyes on their teacher. As he rhapsodized about the intricacies of grammar, he snuck a glance at his Nook e-reader every couple minutes; it was imperative that he follow the guidelines written there. Without much prodding, his students enthusiastically recited the spelling lesson in unison. The cheerful ambience stood in stark contrast to that of most public schools in the poverty-stricken district.
The teacher—or academy manager, to be more precise—worked for Bridge International Academies, a for-profit company that has grown, in only six years, into a behemoth in Kenyan education. The company has done this by focusing on one core tenet: accurately evaluating teacher performance. Its first academy opened in the Mukuru slum in January 2009, and as of October 2014, Bridge has over 350 locations and 100,000 pupils in Kenya, with plans for expansion into other Anglophonic developing countries—Uganda, Nigeria, and India—slated for 2015. In each new location, the goal is the same: to solve the problems that plague primary schooling in the developing world, and make a profit in the process.
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In the Mombasa classroom, two visitors sat on the sidelines, smiling broadly whenever a student answered a question correctly. Shannon May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, first came up with the idea for Bridge thousands of miles away in rural China. May, then a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California Berkeley, was teaching English in the Huangbaiyu village in northeast China, where she was able to see the inadequacies of primary education firsthand. “It’s not that kids living in rural China were any less intelligent that people living all around the world,” May told me. “It’s that at the only schools available to these families there was very little education being delivered. The system was foreclosing opportunities for them before they were even 12. It’s not the children. All children can learn if they are put in the right situation."