George K. Werner served as Minister of Education in Liberia from 2015 to 2018. Caitlin Baron is CEO of the Luminos Fund, a non-profit working in Liberia and across Africa to bring a second chance at education to out-of-school children.
“It has gotten really tough for us,” says James, a father in rural Liberia, of COVID-19 lockdown and school closures. “My son is trying but he is missing his friends and teachers. Children want to be in school.”
“When Coronavirus passes, will your school still be there to help us with our children?” asks Fatu, a Liberian mother of six.
Around the world, over one billion children are out of school. All will face learning losses (data from World War II and other crises offer grim indications on this) and far too many will be lost to learning forever. Estimates suggest the COVID-19 pandemic will cause this generation to lose $10 trillion in future earnings.
Headlines exclaim that the global education system has never seen a moment like this and, in some sense, that is true. However, in Liberia, where we work, this is the second pandemic in six years. Our experiences in Liberia provide important lessons for COVID-19 education system recovery in low-income countries – and the uniquely important role of “last mile teachers.”
In 2014, the Ebola crisis closed schools across Liberia for six months to a year. One and a half million children were excluded from school, in addition to 500,000 children who were already excluded before Ebola roared through the country. As Liberia’s Minister of Education, I led the country’s education response. I traveled with my team to schools across Liberia, speaking with teachers, parents, and children to assess the magnitude of the task to bring children back to learning. I concluded that the education system was failing and bold reform was needed urgently: the Ministry of Education needed to rethink everything about its education delivery system for post-Ebola Liberia. The Luminos Fund, where Caitlin is CEO, was one of several education organizations that launched operations in Liberia as part of the recovery journey following Ebola.
Reflecting on past school closures in Liberia and beyond, and our experience educating vulnerable children, we identify three key steps for education systems to come back strong after a crisis like COVID-19. First, targeted outreach must be conducted to bring the most vulnerable and older students back to school. Next, each child should be assessed to understand the extent of their learning loss, and to meet students where they are in the curriculum. Finally, remediation should be provided to bring students who have fallen behind back up to grade level.
Here is the key, and challenge: all of these steps rely on the efforts and tenacity of frontline educators, but low-income countries do not have nearly enough teachers. UNESCO estimates a global shortage of nearly 69 million teachers, 70% of whom are needed in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, many countries cannot graduate teachers fast enough to fill the shortfall. South Sudan, for example, would need all of its projected graduates from higher education – twice over – to become teachers to fill its gap. Traditional teacher training alone is insufficient to meet demand, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some non-government organizations are helping address the need. The Luminos Fund manages an education program in Liberia that has achieved powerful success with a different model of teacher preparation (James’s son and Fatu’s daughter are students this year). Luminos recruits local, motivated, high potential young people with minimal qualifications as teachers. The program has shown that, with an intensive three-week training followed by ongoing classroom-based coaching, these recruits deliver transformative learning for children who are often the first in their family to learn to read. Luminos teachers are so successful that, in less than one year, their students advance from still learning the alphabet to reading 39 words a minute. After one year of schooling, Luminos students read at a rate that only 15% of Liberian third graders can match.
Today, school systems across Africa and beyond must think expansively about the assets they can deploy to respond to the current crisis – and take action. Status quo thinking is inadequate to respond to the moment.
Here Liberia has another powerful lesson to share with this world. In the provision of basic healthcare, Liberia hosts perhaps the world’s most famous example of the creative extension of government delivery capacity through collaboration with civil society: Last Mile Health. Last Mile Health has reached over 1.2 million of the poorest Liberians through a network of 3,600 community and frontline health workers. Community health workers are paid professionals, recruited from these same poor communities and empowered to provide basic healthcare in consultation with the formal system. This model is now being scaled to reach nine million people with primary care services globally by 2030. Last Mile Health has created a model community health system in Liberia and marshalled a movement to develop the global workforce of community and frontline health workers. The same approach could be used in education and is not dissimilar to how Luminos operates. Far too often, though, the global education sector has viewed community-based educators as a threat, unlike global health’s careful but open-minded exploration of alternative models.
The world may never see another global school closure like the one we are experiencing, but in Liberia, COVID-19 is the second pandemic in six years. Low-income countries – and countries everywhere – need to build resilient school systems that can weather periodic closures and still deliver transformative learning for students. Building a global workforce of frontline education staff from remote communities to serve remote communities – last mile teachers – is a critical part of the formula.
In a sign of these strange times, my kindergartner had his first math class via Zoom recently. This was the first formal lesson since schools closed and families were eager to make the most of it. Parents hovered behind their children across our screen, talking over one another (and ultimately the teacher) as they implored their children to focus. Despite our good intentions, parental anxiety got the best of us. My son came away with little more than a headache.
For many families during COVID-19, having children out of school and needing to catch up on education is a new, stressful feeling. For millions around the world, being out of school or denied an education is a tragic, multi-generation reality.
I’m the mother of two young children and leader of the Luminos Fund, a non-profit that has educated more than 130,000 children who had been kept out of school by conflict and poverty.
To paraphrase Michele Caracappa of New Leaders: everything has changed due to COVID-19, except children’s capacity to learn.
Here are lessons from my work that I hope will give some peace of mind to fellow parents during these challenging, unprecedented times.
1. When this is over, kids can catch up. Children have a remarkable capacity to absorb new information from the world around them, and to progress quickly through curricula when the learning conditions are right. In Liberia, many Luminos students have no prior schooling and come from illiterate families. It’s estimated that one third of all Liberian children are stunted. Yet, despite these heartbreaking challenges, these girls and boys cover three years of school in just ten months — successfully. It’s alright if you haven’t transformed into a homeschooling pro. It will be challenging, but your children can catch up later.
2. Becoming a self-directed learner is a precious life skill. It’s also accompanied by growing pains. For children and adults alike, learning something new or achieving a goal on one’s own (and not because a teacher or coach is making you), is hard and takes initiative. Remind your kids of the long-term reward that comes from pushing through. It may be messy, but some degree of struggle and frustration for both parents and kids is part of the process. At Luminos, we call this “learning how to learn,” and consider it essential to boost a child’s future ability to thrive. Graduates of our program go on to complete primary school at nearly twice the rate of their peers.
3. Creative arts are important, especially in times of crisis. The weeks ahead will bring a great deal of anxiety for parents and children, and mourning in some families. Creative expression is a valuable, accessible way to help children process grief. Indeed, psycho-social support, like art and music therapy, is a central element of our program for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, helping them to process the trauma they have experienced. I’m repeatedly amazed by the creativity — sometimes simple and sometimes heart-rending — that children pour onto paper. Create space for creativity.
4. It’s OK to revisit concepts that children have learned already. Reinforcing learning is as essential as covering new materials. At least for children in early grades, it’s not necessary to introduce new concepts while children are at home. At Luminos, we present each concept in multiple ways to help it take root firmly in children’s minds: linking what they learn in class to what they know of life beyond the classroom.
Our work teaches me that children have a remarkable capacity to catch up when given a second chance. It also teaches me that children outside of a privileged bubble don’t bounce back without support.
The reality is, the lives of my kids, and kids who are similarly privileged to my own, will ultimately return to normal. And they will be surrounded by the love and resources to bounce back from this disruption in their learning. My work with children halfway around the world with a fraction of the material support around them proves to me that this is so.
The long term challenge of this crisis then, is not for my family, but for families in parts of Africa and the Middle East whom Luminos is privileged to serve.
There’s an opportunity, and indeed an imperative, for parents living in a similar state of privilege to my own, to use the anxiety, frustration and uncertainty of this moment not just to build a protective wall for our own families, but to cherish the firsthand insight and empathy we now share with parents in the poor majority.
We never thought we’d find ourselves in a situation where these ideas are needed so much closer to home, in this time of solemn uncertainty and pandemic. But I find solace in knowing we’ll try to make the best of it for our children, families, and communities – just like millions of people in other parts of the world have done, and continue to do, every day.
2018 was a big year for us at the Luminos Fund. Through our Second Chance program, we were able to help 11,457 children get a second chance at a bright future. Children like Nathan and Mechan who, both at age 12, were able to rejoin their peers at school and find encouragement, support, and mentorship from teachers, family, and us.
Each child we are able to support has their own unique story about why they left school, be it financial limits, family hardships, or conflict. What’s exciting is that these stories no longer stop there. For example, an incredible 97% of our students in Ethiopia transitioned back into mainstream school after just 10 months catching up through our Second Chance program.
In 2018 we built upon the incredible success of the Second Chance program in a number of ways. In Ethiopia, we began partnering with the national government to train their teachers to implement our unique model of instruction. In Liberia, we built out a new child protection curriculum for children and parents. And in Lebanon, we expanded our arts education work, providing more ways for our refugee students to reflect on their arduous journeys through creative self-expression. The work across all three countries reflects continuous innovation within the context of our core values of providing joyful learning to children in some of the toughest corners of the globe.
We’re excited about these program developments because we know the economic impact that our work has. One extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10% and the effect can be double for women according to UIS and World Bank. When we see that 97% of our students transition back to school, we know that with every year, their opportunities grow, as do their dreams. Subsequently, each additional year of schooling raises the average annual GDP by 0.37% (UIS).
Nathan, Mechan, and the 11,457 other children were given these opportunities thanks to the support and contributions of our donors. We can’t thank them enough for making our mission of giving children a second chance at education a reality.
Want to learn more about how rich education is possible, even in the poorest corners of the globe? Visit our website to learn, participate, and find out how you can help.
There’s nothing more important to us at Luminos than safely shepherding our children towards their full potential. Making that a reality, especially in the difficult environments in which we work, takes real commitment.
Earlier this year, Luminos embarked on a six-month process of exploration and program development to identify proactive yet practical ways to improve the safety of the children we serve. I am writing this blog now to share news of our new practices, and to invite the global community to be a part of our collective, continuous improvement on the journey to ensure the safety of every child.
Luminos has had a child protection policy in place since inception. All staff who work on our programs are required to sign it. Every teacher in our program attends a specific training on putting the policy into action in their classrooms. As a fairly new organization, we’ve not yet had a reported case of abuse within our programs.
Nonetheless, for any program working with children, anywhere in the world, the risk of abuse is always present. As an organization that works with some of the world’s most vulnerable children, that risk is especially pronounced for us. In Liberia, 20% of students of both genders have reported being sexually abused by teachers or school staff (UNESCO, 2015). In Ethiopia, where corporal punishment is prohibited by law, about 75% of students report witnessing a teacher administer corporal punishment in the classroom in the last week (UNICEF, 2015). In Lebanon, Syrian refugees are at risk for trafficking and exploitation, with Lebanese NGO’s reporting the increasing prevalence of child marriages and forced child labor (US State Department, 2017).
Many of the easy ways to help keep children safe are simply not available in contexts without phone service, with weak legal systems, and with traditions of child rearing that can sometimes put the needs of adults ahead of children.
So, we’re up against a hard reality. But the challenges of the context cannot allow us as the global aid community to be complacent. On the contrary, the difficult environments we operate in need to drive us to think with new levels of creativity around how to truly protect the children we serve.
Excerpt from child protection presentation for our students
Luminos worked with a child safeguarding and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) specialist to review our child protection policy and practices. For this academic year, we have added some important new elements to our program in Liberia that seek to empower both children and their parents to know their rights and create avenues for confidential reporting of any incidents of abuse.
Children receive direct instruction on their rights to a safe classroom and are taught how to report abuse from an independent specialist in child protection. Child protection practices at classroom level are also reviewed by field supervisors.
Parents receive training from program staff on children’s rights and the importance of reporting abuse.
A local phone number for reporting abuse, which connects to our trained specialist, is posted in every classroom.
As the CEO of Luminos, I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken this year to strengthen our child protection practices. The shift we’ve made from a reactive to a proactive stance on child protection is vitally important. We know however, that there’s still more work to be done. We are eager to engage with the global aid community in pushing all of us to be better, and we invite all suggestions and ideas on how we might further strengthen our systems.
The crises in Bangladesh and Biafra in the seventies drove the creation of the modern humanitarian sector, with the realization of how much good could be done when millions are made vulnerable by conflict. The crisis in Goma twenty years later drove a revolution in the humanitarian community’s understanding of the potential to do real harm, as well as good, when stepping into complex emergencies. The crises of Oxfam and other organizations must serve as a wake-up call for all of us on the urgency of upping our game in keeping children safe. Let this be the challenge that spurs us to true breakthroughs in child protection across the humanitarian system.