Bridging the divide for first-generation learners in Andhra Pradesh

Sometimes hitting the bottom of the charts can work to your advantage.  In 2009, when India appeared fourth from the bottom of a list of school learning outcomes — after Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria — it caught the attention of the founders of Bridge International Academies. 

India lagged behind what was expected of a country of its stage of development and dimension. It was close to the worst performers in learning levels and outcomes. Co-founders Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May began to look at India closely to see why public education systems were failing children.

While working on her PhD in rural China, May had noticed the lack of basic education that children in under-privileged communities received. In 2007, the two travelled through sub-Saharan Africa and found the same story. 

By 2010, when Sujatha Muthayya, now 42 and vice president for policy and partnerships for the outfit, came across Bridge International Academies, it was already operating in Kenya and Uganda, two educationally backward countries,

After spending a decade in Indian education, Muthayya had started questioning what she was doing and whether it had any impact whatsoever. She realised that many good initiatives in the sector started with a bang and fizzled out. A majority failed to achieve any scale. “I was increasingly cynical about anyone who made tall claims about large scale transformation”, she said. 

But Bridge presented a unique opportunity. One, it would give her the chance to work in other equally needy countries that provided a good mirror for comparison with India. Two, Bridge’s programme could make some impact as its focus was on “impeccable execution”. Scale, of course, might be harder — there are 600 million children worldwide who don’t get the education they ought to — but at least some impact would be visible.

In 2015, Muthayya joined Bridge International Academies and started working on its projects in Kenya with the intention of bringing its work to India. The organisation had by then worked with 155,000 first generation learners in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. Lessons had been learnt that could be applied in India. 

By then, its results had been acknowledged and it had become a part of the global conversation. In Kenya, Bridge pupils outperformed the national average by over 10 percentage points in 2017. In Uganda, pupils scored over 93 per cent compared to a national average of 56 per cent. In Liberia, Bridge students were found to learn twice as fast as their peers. 

Slowly but surely, Bridge was being pulled into the global debate with the United Nations and other multilateral organisations beginning to acknowledge its work.

In India, what stood out for Bridge were two trends. First, parents were highly aspirational for their children and saw education as a means to an end. 

Second, a massive migration out of government schools into private schools was taking place, accompanied by a desire that children should learn English for a better destiny. 

In September 2015, Bridge took on four government schools in Vijaywada district, Andhra Pradesh and launched within eight months for the session starting in April 2016
As it finalised its plans to enter India, Bridge found the Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan governments keen to work with it. Andhra Pradesh said that it was consolidating some of its schools (for every five schools, it was consolidating students, teachers and infrastructure) but would have some empty buildings and ready infrastructure to offer. 

In September 2015, Bridge took on four government schools in Vijaywada district, Andhra Pradesh and launched within eight months for the session starting in April 2016. Around 40 individuals were hired from the local community and trained to become teachers. 

Almost all the schools were empty and had no students so a local, door-to-door drive was started to encourage children to enroll. It resulted in close to 175 students joining all four schools.

Since Bridge has taught many first generation learners in other countries, it brings methods that are proven. “Experience has shown us what works and what doesn’t and that helps avoid mistakes,” said Muthayya. 

The third party assessments speak for themselves. Upper kindergarten students at Bridge could solve an additional 5.5 addition sums per minute than peers at neighbouring schools while Standard 3 solved an additional two subtraction sums per minute. Standard 3 Bridge students read 14 more sight words and 26 words in a story per minute. In fact Standard 3 Bridge students more than doubled their reading speeds in less than one year. 

The improved results made government officials wake up and start turning up at the schools to understand how their results were outshining almost all others. Parents from other schools too began to flock to the Bridge schools to see if their wards could join. Meanwhile, the teachers trained by Bridge became mini stars.

From four schools and a few hundred students in 2015-16, Bridge is now working in six schools in the district with close to 800 students. Globally, its initiative has impacted half a million students so far.

But half a million is a drop in the ocean of 600 million students who are not receiving a good education. Bridge’s plan is to move into public-private partnerships with governments across countries rather than setting up its own schools everywhere, which is a slower process. 

India presents its own challenges. But here too, the goal is to prove the model’s success, convince government schools to work in partnership to achieve scale, and then replicate the same work in all states. Andhra Pradesh is just the first step.


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