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Good Schools for the World's Poor

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Steady progress has been toward universal access to primary education -- a 2015 Global Development Goal. But in the developing world the quality of government schools in urban slums are terribly bad. Parents desperately seek alternatives but few solutions. In some South African townships parents pay twice as much in cab fees as they do in school fees in an attempt to access quality.

When I visited the massive slums surrounding Nairobi Kenya a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that most of the children attended private schools. As professor James Tooley shared in his book The Beautiful Tree, edupreneurs in the slums of Africa and Asia are addressing the problem of access to educational quality by developing low cost private schools. In Hyderabad India, the majority of students attend private schools that cost the equivalent of a few dollars a month in tuition.

In a new volume (in which I also contributed a chapter), editor James Stanfield explores the solution of affordable private schools where fees are often less expensive than "free" government schools and that allow poor families in urban and rural communities to provide their children with a high-quality education.

Stanfield points to Bridge International Academies as the best example of a high quality
affordable school network. Opening in Kenya in 2009 with a vision to revolutionize accessibility to primary education for poor families, Bridge operates more than 22 low-cost private schools in Kenya. By 2015, they plan to open 1,800 schools, serving over one million families.

After Jay Kimmelman sold the EduSoft assessment system to HMH in 2003 he began investigating developing world education. In 2007 he launched Bridge and began to engineer out cost and design in quality. The Bridge "School in a Box" model includes step-by-step instructions for local school managers to set up their school in as little as five months and manage their school to ensure success. Bridge schools are built for less than $2,000 per classroom. Tuition is about $4 per month. With planned enrollment of 1,000 students, the schools break even within one year of opening. Bridge utilizes an automated, cell phone based payment system which is used for almost all student payments and school financial transactions.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, the EAdvance is extending access to quality education by importing the Rocketship Education blended learning model from San Jose. A recent MBA graduate, Stacey Brewer plans to open their first school in January 2013, and another 64 schools in the next ten years. She hopes to implement Rocketship learning lab components including Dreambox and ST Math, positioning EAdvance as the thought leaders in blended learning in South Africa.

India has the largest and longest standing involvement with low-income private schools. Low cost private school expert Molly McMahon of the IQ Collective says India currently has more than 200,000 low cost schools, educating 95 million students. These schools serve families living on five dollars a day and who choose to pay $2 to $15 a month for high-quality education.

In addition to individual edupreneurs, corporations are bridging the quality education gap. SKS Microfinance runs 60 SKS Bodhi Academies in Andhra Pradesh, offering quality schooling for 160-220 rupees a month. With more than 60 million microfinance clients around the world, SKS reveal the great potential for an approach that encourages parents to invest in their children's schooling. Based on the success of Bridge International, Pearson recently announced intentions to invest in the expansion of low cost private schools in Africa and Asia.

Bridge has demonstrated the potential for low cost private schools to deliver quality academic results at scale. EAdvance will push the model further by adding personalized digital learning. Just around the corner is the potential for edupreneurs to put a quality high school experience within reach of every young person on earth.

Jaclyn Norton co-authored this post.

Disclosure: Tom Vander Ark is CEO of Open Education Solutions and a partner at Learn Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in educational technology. Bridge International is a portfolio company of Learn Capital. Pearson is also a limited partner in Learn Capital.