Shannon May's quest to educate 10 million impoverished children is being threatened by a maggot. The larva was reportedly discovered in the boys' urinal in a Ugandan school operated by Bridge International Academies, the for-profit chain founded by May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, in 2009. Bridge moved into Uganda in late 2014 after opening more than 400 schools across Kenya. The company--whose prominent investors include Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, and the World Bank--is creating a standardized, scalable model for inexpensive (about $6 a month) private schools in countries that struggle to educate their children, particularly the poor.

In July, Uganda's Ministry of Education and Sports sent Bridge a written order to immediately close all 63 of its schools in that country because "the sanitation situation was so bad that the health and safety of those children in those schools is at risk." When May finally got hold of the damning report--it was not immediately shared with Bridge--she returned a methodical refutation of the hygiene-related claims. (One charge pertained to a school in the parish of Kauga, where Bridge does not operate.) She accepts the possibility that there was a maggot in Bridge's academy in Magango. The typical response to maggots--which are plentiful in Africa--is treatment with a chemical like chlorine, not a shut down. "Of course it should be addressed," said May, speaking by phone from Nairobi, where the company is based. "But it is not merit for closure."

The ministry leveled additional charges, most of which Bridge has also challenged--things like failure to obtain proper licensing and not teaching the Ugandan curriculum. (Bridge has reports from district officials that show licensing in process for all its Uganda schools. It says it adheres to national curricula in every market, and has sought out guidance from Uganda's National Curriculum Development Centre, documentation of which has been shared with Inc.)

But the focus of the closure order was alleged sanitation violations. Unlike other claims, the declaration of a health emergency allowed the Ministry to act without giving Bridge a chance to respond, as required by Ugandan law. Closing Bridge schools in Uganda would leave 12,000 students without classrooms and 800 people without jobs.

Under siege

May says that members of the Ugandan government have other reasons, not stated in the report, for wanting the company out. Behind the scenes, rumors fly that Bridge schools teach homosexuality, which is illegal in Uganda. That charge is "not true," May says flatly. More substantively, she says, teachers' unions worry that Bridge will someday take over management of public schools. The company is piloting a public-private partnership in 25 schools in Liberia, which is aggressive about improving education, says May.

Regarding the unions, she says: "It has been really disheartening to see any group that does not want to help support schools, to help teachers be better at their craft, and that might be interested in just protecting labor at the cost of what is right for children in the classroom." (Objections to Bridge by the Uganda National Teachers Union are laid out by this statement to Parliament from Margaret Rwabushaija, that organization's chairperson.)

From the start, Bridge's approach to education has attracted both proponents and critics in the realms of academia, policy, and development. In its most controversial practice, teachers read scripted lessons out loud from electronic tablets, which raises the hackles of labor, among others. Bridge's most vocal nemesis is Education International, a global federation of teachers' unions. (The Ministry of Education's report also takes issue with tablet-based teaching.)

May has also experienced pushback in Kenya, where the head of the Kenyan National Union of Teachers holds frequent meetings and press conferences vilifying the company. In January, Kenya's cabinet secretary for education, Fred Matiang'i, descended on a Bridge school, cameras in tow. In a video, he evinced dismay at finding, for example, some students of different age groups in the same classrooms and children taking afternoon naps on blankets on the floor. At the tour's conclusion, however, he told reporters "they do a fantastic job, to be very honest and to be very fair to them. Because if they didn't have our children in their schools, where would they be?"

In Uganda, says May, things appeared to go relatively smoothly. Bridge opened seven nursery and primary schools in 2015, and in February it was on track to launch 56 more by June 2016. The company had worked with ministry and district education officials on licensing and made presentations about tools and practices that might benefit public schools. May says government officials were especially interested in Bridge's homework books, which use technology to ensure students do their assignments, parents see them, and teachers evaluate them.

So the cursory order to close came as a shock. "At the end of July I got a letter. Not a meeting. Not a phone call. Not a request to respond to questions. Just a letter," says May. Bridge applied to the High Court for an injunction because there had been no hearing. Trying to find out what was happening, the company reached out to everyone it could think of--including Uganda's First Lady, recently appointed to lead the Ministry of Education. May estimates that Bridge sends a letter every 10 days to request meetings, with no response.

In August, the court issued a temporary injunction. On November 4, it ruled against Bridge, saying that a hearing had, in fact, occurred. In an appeal, Bridge reiterated that there had been no hearing, and that there was no evidence of health or safety violations, the part of the government's charges that would merit immediate closure. The court will hear that appeal on December 8, the day students take their final exams at the end of term three.

Asked by email to comment on May's characterization of the circumstances, Ismael Mulindwa, Uganda's commissioner for private schools, would say only, "The Bridge schools were closed by the court ruling and that is it for now."

Parents fight back

May acknowledges that the ministry might shut Bridge down in Uganda, but she and her team there are exploring every avenue to prevent that. Among her most persuasive allies are the 20,000 parents whose kids Bridge educates. "We have been really heartened by the fervor of parents across Uganda standing up for their schools," says May. "They are going to their mayors, to the district education officers, even to Parliament." She says four members of Parliament have signed a petition submitted by parents attesting to the quality of Bridge schools and urging that they remain open.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty has taken a toll. In Uganda, the company lost a few more teachers than anticipated in September, which marks the break between term two and term three. Class size has declined from roughly 18 to 16. In Kenya, the company has defended itself with the results of national exams, on which Bridge students perform better than students in neighboring schools. Uganda requires that schools be in operation three years before their students sit for exams, so Bridge has no comparable results to brandish in that country. Legal procedures and the quest for information have been an unwelcome distraction as Bridge expands into Nigeria, Liberia, and India--its first non-African market.

Even under duress, May, who moved to Kenya from California when Bridge launched and is raising her two young daughters there, remains even-tempered, diplomatic, and respectful. "We just continue hoping that there must be a misunderstanding," she says. "If we can effectively reach the First Lady, we look forward to answering her questions and showing her this work that we do."

Published on: Nov 30, 2016