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Bridging education gaps in communities

By Ian Katusiime

New schools strive to offer quality education at minimal fees

In Nabaziza, Kyengera about 9kms from central Kampala, 205 pupils from the community are attending school in newly built structures. Their teachers are dressed in lime green T-shirts and black pants and refer to their notes on tablet computers. Everything appears exciting for the young minds grappling with the basics of mathematics, science, English and so on.

This is at Bridge Academy International-Nabaziza, one of the many centres Bridge Academy has established in Uganda in one year – 2015.

The classes are small.

“In the first week of opening we had 20 children in each class,” says Juliana Musaaazi, the Administration Manager of the Bridge Schools, “We are building trust.”

Griffin Asigo, the Regional Manager of the Academy in Uganda says the philosophy of the school is ‘Knowledge for all. Every child can learn’. Asigo says the philosophy is meant to reinforce their belief that so many school going children in Uganda have a lot of potential but often drop out because they lack simple education requirements – like school fees.

A teacher at Bridge Academy conducts a lesson using a PC tablet. INDEPENDENT/IAN KAT USIIME

So Bridge Academies start with a financing model that ensures children pay at the lowest cost possible. The ‘baby class’ pays Shs83,500 which is a tiny fraction of what an average kindergarten in Kampala would charge for attending to a child. Asigo says a Primary One pupil is charged Shs95,400 and Shs105, 200 for Primary Five. Asigo says that Bridge’s financing model is meant to help poor families send their children to school at affordable fees.

Bridge currently runs classes from kindergarten level up to Primary five.

“We even give them allowances and in turn, they give us a commitment. Our plan is to have as many pupils as possible to enrol using this model,” Asigo says.

The other way is to integrate modern day technology into education. So the teachers use tablet computers which have downloads of the national curriculum. The tablet computers are also functional tools; for daily tasks like signing in for their day and acknowledging extracurricular school duties.

Bridge Academies have an app where information on pupils, teachers, the school’s suppliers, classes and all management notices can be accessed.

“Technology lowers the costs on running the academy. It standardises the running of operations and to track the trends,” says Asigo. He says through the tablets, management is done centrally in spite of the technology challenges some teachers are yet to adapt to.

Leticia Nabatanzi, a six-year old, attends the school. Her parents say the new school is the only chance their child has at getting an opportunity to compete with other students in the country.

Despite its noble objectives, the Bridge model creates some challenges. One of these is that since most of the children come from very low income homes, they are mostly comfortable speaking their mother tongue and teachers have a problem of communicating to them in English.

Abas Kabanda, one of the teachers at Bridge says since some of the children moved to the school from other schools and, therefore, backgrounds. This means extra time is required for teachers to attend to each of them and make them gel as a unit.

Kabanda has been teaching for six years but Bridge rules require that, despite his wide experience, he has to be retrained. So he had to spend some time at Mukono Town Academy where together with other trainees, he was given extra tutorship for meet Bridge Standards.

But Kabanda is one of the few teachers with some experience. Most of the school’s teachers are recruited direct from Parent Teacher Colleges.

Bridge Academies set up in Uganda in 2015 and are set to sit their first PLE class in 2017.  Currently, there are 49 Bridge Academy centres in the country and they hope to have 100 by the end of the year, says  Musaaazi.

The schools are spread out across the four regions of Uganda, with averaging 200 pupils with 8 teachers.

Asked whether there are any additions to the curriculum to set the school apart from the set Ugandan curriculum, Asigo says they decided to use the Ugandan curriculum because it would take a lot for the children to adapt to a foreign curriculum.

Bridge Academy has 400 academies in Kenya and is widely established across Africa according to the administrators. The school was founded by Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May, an American couple. The other partners of the school include Commonwealth Development Corporation Group, a UK development finance institution, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

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