Monday, July 10, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – part IV:If your marketing is good, you don't have to be

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this.]

When you strip away all of the hype and buzz, the apparent pedagogical and business models of the Bridgeare largely devoid of anything that could be called innovative, let alone cutting-edge. as for the latter, it seems to consist of the tried-and-true formula of hooking customers into a hard-to-quit service through extensive marketing, cutting costs wherever possible, and employing strong-arm collection practices.

The Bridge founders, Weinstein wrote, decided that every school opening thereafter would as soon as possible feature a ceremony and that every new student would be given a free month of school. Kirchgasler, who studied Bridge for his dissertation, pointed out that this often ended up putting parents in what could become a difficult situation. If a family found that they couldn’t make payments, say, in the middle of the term, it was often difficult to transfer a child to a new school. ‘‘Among the families I studied, moving a child to a new school was a gamble,’’ he said. ‘‘Public and informal schools were reluctant to take students back if their new school didn’t work out’’ — potentially leaving a child out of school and making it difficult for a parent to work.

A former Bridge employee told me that the company’s own marketing could sometimes create bad feelings among the people they wanted to serve. ‘‘Many times, they would open a school and invite a local official to a grand-opening ceremony, and the local official took offense,’’ the former employee, who asked that her name not be used, says. The local officials ‘‘wanted to be engaged.’’ Another former employee told me that the free tuition was confusing to many of the poorest parents. ‘‘I believe the word ‘international,’ combined with foreign founders, led parents to expect higher quality than in other schools,’’ she says. ‘‘I believe they did become disillusioned. I believe many of them became disempowered when they wanted changes in their schools — like electricity, permanent structures — but that didn’t happen. They definitely missed the connectedness and mutually beneficial relationships that they would find in other schools.’’

Similar concerns were voiced by Salima Namusobya, executive director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, a civil rights group in Kampala, Uganda, that, along with the union there, has campaigned against Bridge and other private-school operators. Far from educating poor children, she says, Bridge uses aggressive marketing to enroll children who are already in public schools. ‘‘The fact that they have the word ‘international’ in the school name, they think they’re getting an international curriculum.’’

The lack of electricity was just the beginning of the problems with the facilities.

In the public and informal Kenyan schools I visited, school administrators welcomed my impromptu drop-ins warmly, showed me their classrooms and introduced me to their teachers, who spoke frankly about their challenges. Bridge teachers and managers say that sort of openness is not allowed. At some Bridge schools I visited unescorted, staff members said that they would need to contact superiors if I didn’t leave.

One of these schools was Bridge Diamond in Mukuru, a slum of 600,000, just east of central Nairobi. The schoolyard fence was made of patched, bent gray metal and barbed wire. The school building itself was shabby and neglected. In the schoolyard, about 30 feet away from where children enter their classrooms, was a deep trench of fetid garbage and rotting bags of feces; when residents can’t use the communal latrines they use ‘‘flying toilets’’ — defecating in a plastic bag and throwing it as far as they can. The chicken-wire windows were rusted and ripped. Some classrooms were empty. One had 15 students sitting at desks but no teacher.

Staff members at Diamond were eager to show the poor conditions in their school but also urged me to leave quickly. Last summer, a University of Alberta doctoral candidate, Curtis Riep, was gathering enrollment information in Uganda for an international organization of teachers’ unions, which later put out a report on the number of children enrolled in Bridge in that country and the number of untrained teachers at the head of Bridge’s classrooms. He made unescorted visits to three of its schools near Kampala. The acad­emy managers contacted company executives, and Riep was arrested by the Ugandan police, though the charges, criminal trespass and falsely identifying himself, were quickly dropped. Riep calls it ‘‘pure intimidation.’’ May says Bridge acted responsibly because a stranger was at the school.

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