From Arizona to Africa with heart for needy pupils

By Joe Ombuor

Meet a couple with a runaway passion to equip Africa’s poverty-riddled children with affordable quality education.

Dr Shannon May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, are the brains behind Bridge International Academies, a low-cost educational centre that aims at narrowing the gap between education for the majority poor and the minority rich, hence the term ‘bridge’.

The novel idea came to them half a world away in China where Shannon and Jay lived with poor families in Liaoning province. Here, she says, houses had no running water, and no indoor toilets.

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“We ate silk worms, wild frogs, forest fruits and whatever we would grow in the family garden, using manure made from our own dung as fertiliser,” she says.

Impoverished families

Shannon, an anthropologist and expert in organisational and social issues, was at the time doing research on economic and environmental development for her PhD programme back home in the US where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

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“I saw impoverished families thrown into a vicious cycle of more and more poverty because they could not afford quality education for their children, who were left with little or no opportunity to improve their lot and that of their families.

“That made me think of my own lowly background where, although we led a comparatively better life, I would not have made it to Harvard for my first degree if I did not benefit by going to a quality school courtesy of a highly subsidised educational system.

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“Even as I researched for my thesis in this remote Chinese village, where I also taught English at a village school, the issue of quality education and its role in alleviating poverty preoccupied my mind,” she adds.

She continues: “Together with Jay, who then was my boyfriend and was living with me in China, we decided to find a way to provide quality education to children from poor backgrounds. We had established the problem was greatest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pilot project

“We conducted extensive fact finding research in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda and Nigeria but found Kenya with its relatively enlightened population and pockets of deep poverty in urban slums and rural areas to offer the most conducive ground for our pilot project that we, eventually, expect to roll out to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

While in Malawi, Shannon and Jay recruited Phil Frei to be part of their dream project. The trio is today the co-founders of Bridge International Academies company, formed in 2008 to source for investor funds that have seen an innovative idea crystalise into reality with 73 schools and more than 25,000 pupils across Kenya.

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Nairobi, where the first Bridge Academy opened in January 2009 in Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum with a first batch of 60 pupils, today has 21 academies. The rest are in Central, Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western provinces.

Spreads countrywide

Shannon says Coast Province is yet to be reached due to challenges of acquiring land there. She also plans to reach out to needy pupils in North Eastern soon.

“We are opening another 11 schools by August and expect to be serving more than 100 communities in Kenya by the end of the year,” says Shannon.

The schools that currently are at Standard Five will see their pioneer pupils sit KCPE in 2015.

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Bridge has adopted the 8-4-4 system.

“We look forward to that time with bated breath to see our children at the top of national lists,” effuses Shannon.

Her projection is to roll such academies across sub-Saharan Africa, with Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana already on the radar.

“Our target is to reach over a million children in impoverished villages across sub-Saharan Africa in the near future,” she adds.

Before embarking on the ambitious project, says Shannon, they conducted visits to government and private schools, looking at various obstacles that affected performance.

“We wanted to come up with better approach that would yield improved outcome,” she says.

Says Shannon: “We made it a policy to create jobs within the community by recruiting teachers from the immediate neighbourood of our schools. We put them into a six-week intensive programme for which we pay, albeit with a bond to serve the company for an agreed period.”

To have a glimpse of a Bridge academy situation, Education visited Kingston academy bordering Mukuru Sinai informal settlement. The school has a population of 458 children from nursery to Class Five.

Academy managers

An academy manager Caroline Musau (the equivalent of headmistress) runs the academy, overseeing the work of 11 teachers, all employed by Bridge International Academies. When the academy offers upto class eight, she says, it should have 22 teachers.

Lunga Lunga academy manager Mr Patrick Ndege explains that apart from the food that they eat at Sh20 a small plate or Sh30 for a bigger plate, the pupils are served with highly nutritious porridge at Sh1.50 a cup, thanks to a donation by ChildFund Kenya to three academies in Mukuru. The porridge has not reached all the schools though.

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