Small Changes, Big Results: Transforming the Future for Girls

Dr. Shannon May

Last year, 13 year-old Josephine Nyakundi was interviewing for a scholarship from an elite private high school in the United States.

“What will you contribute to our school?" the interviewer asked politely.

“One day," Josephine replied. ”I hope to become a world-renowned neurologist." And," she added with a smile, "then you can say that I went to your school!”

Such answers may be common across high school campuses in the United States. But Josephine Nyakundi hails from Ongata Rongai, a community just outside Nairobi, Kenya. 

Josephine grew up in a family of five, surviving on only $160 a month. They all shared a tiny, two-bedroom tin house with no running water, and her community lacked the basic amenities that American children take for granted—like dependable schools, or libraries. What was different for Josephine was that she went to a school that taught her that where she was from would not determine where she could go.

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah, and 5,000 women from across the world are convening for the United State of Women Conference to discuss how to empower girls like Josephine.

As the statistics illustrate, the need for such empowerment is nothing short of dire. In Kenya, for example,  52% of girls don’t attend high school, 16% of women remain illiterate, 26% of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and a girl between the ages of 15 to 24 is three times more likely to be living with HIV than her male counterpart.

While statistics like these are daunting, they are not insurmountable. To change the situation and overcome the odds, the key is education.  Sarah and Gordon Brown’s A World at School finds that a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five, and an educated female population increases a country's productivity and fuels economic growth.

Nine years ago, my husband Jay Kimmelman and I founded Bridge International Academies, an organisation dedicated to rethinking how we educate the world’s most marginalised children. Today, Bridge is educating over 100,000 children across Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, India and soon Liberia. I’m proud to report that of those 100,000 children, approximately 50,000 are girls.

From working with these girls, I’ve learned that education —and particularly education for young women—is part of a much larger, global movement in social justice. Furthermore, I’ve learned that small, relatively simple changes in learning environments can lead to hugely positive, much deeper results.

To improve the learning environment for girls, we started with small, basic behavioural changes in our schools. In training, our teachers are taught to actively engage and encourage the boys and girls in class equally. In all of our over 460 schools, each class must have a girl and boy prefect. To provide female role models, we purposefully recruit female teachers, empower mothers in our communities to join our PTAs and serve as spokeswoman for their schools. Lastly, we enforce a zero-tolerance policy for corporal punishment, a practice that is endemic in public and private schools across the countries in which we operate, to ensure our children—boys and girls—don’t associate education with fear.

These relatively small changes in classroom policy and environment pay big dividends for our children. Because students know they will never be caned for classroom performance or behaviour, they are more open and engaged in the classroom, confidently asking questions and sharing opinions. Outside the classroom, too, students are rising up the ranks in inter-school sports, music, and drama festivals. They are emboldened to be a part of community projects and are passionate about local causes.

While the approach to education in Bridge classrooms empowers all our children—regardless of gender—the impact is perhaps most pronounced, and most important, in the lives of our girls and young women like Josephine. And, in light of this week’s United State of Women Conference, her story seems especially relevant to share.

Earlier this year, Josephine spoke to a group of 1,200 women at the Women Leaders Conference in Nairobi. “We are stronger together,” she said. “At Bridge, we had both men and women teachers who told us that girls could be whatever we want to be.”

Now in the US, Josephine continues to thrive at the Rabun Gap-Nacooche School in Georgia, tackling her new challenges with her characteristic confidence and determination. I have no doubt that one-day she will be a world-renowned neurologist and we will say proudly, “she went to our school.”

At United State of Women, I hope we can think about ways to transform schools into what they were meant to be. Places where girls like Josephine can defy the statistics and change the future for themselves and their communities. This transformation shouldn’t take 70 years, and what’s more, if we all work towards the goal, it doesn’t have to.


Shannon May is a Co-Founder of Bridge International Academies, the largest chain of private schools in Africa. May serves as both the Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Development Officer for Bridge, leading the Development pipeline in Kenya, as well as international expansion. Prior to founding Bridge, she published widely on ecological and economic development, and has served as an advisor to many international organizations, focusing on design, development, and sustainable cities around the world.

Photo Credits: Bridge International Academies

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