How ‘Starbucks-style’ schooling is reinventing education in poor countries

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(Bridge International)

(Bridge International)

You won’t hear the words “non-fat, no-whip pumpkin spice latte” uttered at any of the 250 or so Bridge International Academies that are scattered throughout poverty-stricken Kenya. So what exactly does Bridge International mean when it says it thinks about education the same way that Starbucks thinks about coffee?

Starbucks devotees flock to the popular java chain because of the consistent, predictable experience it offers. Your venti latte is always the same, in New York or Abu Dhabi. The same easy-to-replicate model lies at the heart of Bridge International, a five-year-old company headed by former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jay Kimmel. By reducing costs to a minimum and creating a highly standardized curriculum, it says it’s able to provide a consistently high-quality education for an average of just $6 per month.

None of Bridge International’s bare-bones schoolhouses have electricity. Most don’t even have running water. Teachers download lesson plans—which are scripted word for word, example for example—on their tablets before each class. Yet despite the system’s simplicity and lack of amenities, scores on international exams suggest Bridge International’s model is working. Last November its students scored 35% higher on reading and 19% higher in math than kids attending free, government-run schools.

The scripted lesson plans are one way that the company ensures a high-quality learning experience. They’re a game-changer in Kenya, where many teachers are unable to pass exams on the same curriculum that they teach. By providing ready-to-go lesson plans, Bridge ensures that teachers have all of the knowledge they need at hand.

“We are looking to teach a child fractions in the smallest amount of time possible, just as much as we’re looking to reduce the cost of teaching fractions,” says Marie Leznicki, the company’s vice-president of brand strategy. “The emphasis is as much on high quality as it is on low cost.”

Most of the schools’ administrative functions are handled remotely by Bridge International, eliminating the need for costly non-teaching staff at each school.

The bare-bones system operates on tiny margins—the company won’t be profitable until it reaches at least 500,000 students. (Right now, roughly 80,000 students are enrolled.) Until then, Bridge is funding its expansion through investments from firms such as NEA, Omidyar Network, Khosla Ventures and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The company plans to launch its “school-in-a-box” model in Uganda and Nigeria this year, and in India in 2015.

Leznicki says the Bridge formula has universal appeal: “At our academies, because parents are paying with their wallets, they’re in complete control. If we promise them that their child will be talking English in three months, they hold us accountable.”

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