Caitlin Baron interviews on The Business of Giving

Caitlin Baron interviews on The Business of Giving

On December 2, 2019, Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, joined Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City. The original interview is available at https://denver-frederick.com/2019/12/02/caitlin-baron-ceo-of-the-luminos-fund-joins-denver-frederick/.

Listen Here: Caitlin Baron, CEO of The Luminos Fund, interviews on The Business of Giving

Denver: When a child falls behind in school, it can be very difficult for him or her to ever catch up. It’s made that much harder if they fall a couple of years behind, and it is next to impossible if that child happens to be from the developing world. But there is a remarkable innovation in education that is allowing children to close a three-year gap in just a single year. And here to tell us about it, it’s a pleasure to have with us Caitlin Baron, the CEO of The Luminos Fund.

Good evening, Caitlin, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Caitlin: Good evening. Thank you for having me.

Denver: Tell us the mission of The Luminos Fund and the founding story of the organization.

Caitlin: Fantastic. Even today, there are still 250 million children around the world who never learned to read and write; 60 million of those kids don’t even get the chance to try because they’re denied the chance to go to school. Luminos was created to give those children a second chance.

We were founded as a stand-alone organization in 2016 after six long years of experimentation and program development in the far reaches of rural Ethiopia. We found we had a truly unique model of working in some of the poorest communities to deliver rich quality education to children who hadn’t had the chance to study up until then.

Denver: What is the reason that many of these children have not had the chance to study up until then? What changes where they’re able to go to one of your schools?

Caitlin: The two biggest reasons children are kept out of school in the developing world are poverty and conflict. So, in many of the communities we operate, even free education is too expensive when children are needed at home to work on a farm or to care for their siblings. What happens is that families put off schooling – a year, another year, another year. I can’t tell you how many mothers I’ve met who’ve told me, “I promised my son: Next year, you can study.” And what happens is too much time goes on and, ultimately, the child has really missed the window to begin their schooling, and they live in an environment where there’s simply no second on-ramp or a second opportunity to catch up when you’ve lost out.

Denver: Do you think, Caitlin, that in the international community, that we, by and large, have set the bar too low? That these kids have not had a chance for any kind of schooling and whatever we give them, no matter how minimal, is better than nothing?

Caitlin: I think that that is such an important point, Denver. One of the aspects of our work that I find the most, ultimately exciting and rewarding, which is that we work with children who have literally never been to school, and in 10 months, they become functionally literate and numerate. They’re able to read. They’re essentially covering three years of school in one year.

This is incredibly important because, first and foremost, we don’t have a lot of time to get these kids back on track. But even beyond that, I think one of the things that excites me the most about the work is that we’re proving what’s possible. We’re proving that children, even from some of the poorest families in the world, can learn an extraordinary amount in a really short period of time. We’re proving that teachers – who are essentially young people with minimal qualifications, who are drawn from these same poor communities – can actually be empowered to deliver rich five senses education, even in a classroom lacking in electricity, lacking in an internet signal. I think the thing we take away from the work– that I think is a lesson for education globally– is that we’ve all thought too small about what’s possible.

Denver: Right. Okay. I’m 10 years old, I’m three years behind in school, and I’m going to go to one of your Second Chance programs. How in the world in 10 months are you going to have me catch up to my peers and be able to enter into a government school?

Caitlin: There are a number of things we do differently – some are fairly tactical, and some are a little bit magical. So, for starters, we work with a much smaller classroom than you would typically find in these types of environments. So, we never have more than 25 children in a class.

Denver: That’s about half the size, isn’t it?

Caitlin: That’s about half the size, or even less, of a typical classroom. And then, the children and teachers in our program work incredibly hard. So we have them for a full day, Monday through Friday; in some places, we actually do a half-day on Saturday as well.

Denver: Is that longer than the normal school day?

Caitlin: We calculate that children in our program spend four times as many hours on reading as children would in a normal school. And so, some of it is, quite frankly, more one-on-one attention and a longer day.

But then there’s the magical element. What we’ve found… Look, think about how your own children learned to read. They learned not just through sitting in front of a text, not just through sitting at a desk and engaging in choral recitation. They engage with an alphabet all around them. They had the luxury of growing up in a text-rich environment. The children we work with don’t have those luxuries, so we have to bring that tactile learning environment into the classroom.

A Luminos classroom in Ethiopia

When we first introduce the alphabet to children, we have them make an enormous bowl of mud and roll out long tubes of sort of clay-like earth that one finds in the places we work. We have them form those tubes into each letter in the alphabet and have that dry in the sun. So, their first introduction to the alphabet is very much fingers in mud, forming these letters themselves. We work exclusively with texts that have stories set in their context, with characters who have names like the names of the children in their village. On the numeracy side, we have the children set up small shops in the classroom and engage in the kind of easy sort of back-and-forth mental math that actually they themselves are already doing in the marketplace every day.

So, I think if I can identify two things that I think we do really differently, one is that we look and listen really closely for: What does the child already know? And how can I build from there? The second is: We look and listen really closely to the surrounding environment. Rather than focusing on what our classes don’t have, we focus on what they do have, which is a richness of experience, natural resources around them, and if you have the chance to visit one of our classrooms, you’ll find a fairly simple structure; usually the walls are mud; there’ll be a tin roof; there’ll be a single window that lets in light, no electricity. But you’ll find every single surface in the classroom is covered with the children’s artwork and handmade learning materials, and elements that use the natural resources around the environment to learn.

Denver: And listening carefully to you, Caitlin, it sounds like you try to make it fun.

Caitlin: Children everywhere learn best when they’re happy. That’s just the bottom line, and that is no less true in the poorest corners of the world than it is in the classrooms that your kids and mine attend. And so, we place an enormous premium on what we call joyful learning – recognizing that this classroom needs to be a celebration of the learning process. And that is really different from the environment that most of these kids would have otherwise been learning in.

If you think about the typical school in the developing world, you have a teacher who’s minimally qualified, who has almost no materials, books, et cetera, that she can use with her students. She’s under enormous pressure to deliver results, and she’s standing in front of a class of 80 or more children, trying to teach kids who are, in essence, what we think of as first-generation readers. These are not kids who are learning to read at home.

So, in the context of all that pressure, the net result, for good or for ill, is that it’s often school is not a very happy place. And so, we tried to just fundamentally rethink what that learning environment is because, quite frankly, we believe that children can’t learn – we know they can’t learn quickly unless they’re having fun.

Denver: Let’s talk a little bit more about those teachers because as you said, they are minimally trained. I would presume you have some kind of a training program for them, but they’re really a key element to all this. How are you able to get them from 0 to 60 in such a fashion that they can be as effective as they have been?

Caitlin: It’s a great question. So, we are blessed in the communities we work with a large number of reasonably capable, high potential, young people who, quite frankly, have a limited range of opportunities before them. And so, the profile we target for teachers are young people who have at least a 10th grade education. That’s not the level you’d need to be at in order to be a teacher in a public school in these countries, but it’s far enough along that you definitely know the first three years of the curriculum.

And so, what we can focus on in our program is actually, rather than teaching the “what” of what we’ll be teaching children, in teaching our teachers the “how.” So we do an intensive three-week training program at the beginning of the year. We do two other trainings during the year. But the real magic is that we actually have a coach in each classroom every single week.

Denver: Oh, coaching makes all the difference!

Caitlin: Teaching is not a theoretical endeavor. There’s actually only so much of it you can teach in a classroom, and it’s really in the act of the doing, and doing alongside the teachers, that we really transfer that skill. Then obviously, as the years go on, and the program has been in place for a number of years, those coaches are drawn from the very best of the teaching talent from the previous year.

Denver: And we’ve talked about the communities you’re in, so we should probably discuss: what countries do you operate in?

Caitlin: Our first program was founded and created in rural Ethiopia; that’s still one of our largest programs. We have also launched programs in Liberia in West Africa. Liberia has one of the highest rates of out-of-school children in the world; literally 60% of primary school-aged kids are kept out of school. And then, most recently we have launched a program in Lebanon where we support Syrian refugees who’ve been out of school, sometimes for many years, simply because they’ve been displaced from their homes.

Denver: I know a key element to the success of this program is to get a buy-in from the local communities, and that can be very difficult for a nonprofit, or any organization. What are some of the keys that you found in getting that kind of buy-in?

Caitlin: That’s a great question. First and foremost, we believe really strongly in working through local organizations. And so, our team designs the curriculum, the pedagogy – what is taught and the way it’s taught. We train teachers; then we monitor in the classroom, and we evaluate. But we actually fund local nonprofits to deliver the classes and the work.

There are at least two important reasons why. One, first and foremost, for that buy-in you’re talking about. In Ethiopia, we run the program in four different languages. If we were trying to do that centrally, that just wouldn’t make sense. We have to work through local organizations. But the other reason is that we want to be building capacity in the countries we work for the long-term, and so building up a huge team of our own really doesn’t make sense. We’re really focused on building the capacity of organizations there.

Denver: I know you can’t just replicate something that works in one place and then paste it on to another and think it’s going to work. So, let’s take two of the countries where you’ve been in the longest, those being Ethiopia and Liberia. What would be the difference in those two programs?

Caitlin: It’s a great question. We like to say that replication is about sort of 70% duplication and 30% mission-critical customization.

Denver: That’s a good ratio.

Caitlin: There’s a core element that is very much the same, but there are some critical things we had to change when we moved to Liberia. One is, first and foremost… It’s interesting. For those of us in the US, when we think about Ethiopia – prior to last week’s wonderful news of the Nobel Prize – the most ready image in folks’ heads might still be the famine of the 1980s. And as horrible as that time was, actually, it’s been a really fantastic set of decades since then for Ethiopia; Ethiopia has come a long way. And so what we find with our students there is that most of them have started school, learned something, and been pulled out. What that means for us is that our task is to figure out what those kids know and build forward from there.

In Liberia – a country that survived a 20-year civil war, where the school system was literally entirely shut down, where it was most recently shut down for an entire year once again during the Ebola crisis – we’re just dealing with a different entry point. We found that the kids coming into our program had literally not been acquainted with the alphabet, and so our entry point just needed to be quite different. We’ve taken a much more step-by-step phonics-based approach to learning in Liberia, which is just… it’s just an example of the kind of thing one has to do all the time. Good teaching is not a lecture; it’s a relationship. It’s listening for what the child knows and doesn’t know, calibrating accordingly –

Denver: Meeting them where they are.

Caitlin: Meeting them where they are. And so that’s really core to our philosophy, and so, inevitably, there’s a fair amount of customization as we move from place to place.

“Our work is as much about celebrating the extraordinary aspects of the globe as it is remedying the shortcomings,” says Caitlin Baron.

Denver: As someone who has crammed for a test or two in my time, I know firsthand that a lot of information that is quickly inputted is not always retained. Now, I know you’ve done some longitudinal studies in concert with the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex: what has been the impact of this program, and especially a number of years later?

Caitlin: It’s a great question, Denver. A wonderful thing that we know, year in and year out with our program… because we test kids on their way in, and we test them on their way out, is we know, at the end of their 10 months with us, they know an enormous amount. We know that they know more than other children who’ve been in school continuously since then. And that’s a relatively easy thing for us to test year in and year out.

What’s hard as a delivery organization is to ever really know what happens in the long term. And so we were gifted with an enormous investment from our board a few years back with this amazing evaluation partnership with University of Sussex, where they were able to take a long-term look at what happens for our kids. They followed graduates of our program six years and up.

Denver: That’s a long time.

Caitlin: What they found really blew us away. We found that even six years later, children still had a sustained academic improvement relative to their peers in government school. We found that students were, quite frankly, happier and had higher ambitions for what they wanted to do with their lives. Most importantly, we found that graduates of our program were completing primary school at twice the rate of other children.

Denver: Fantastic.

Caitlin: We’ve tried to stop and think about… because it just makes common sense, like a one-year program, how long can the effect of that last? We really put it to our evaluators: What do you think is the essence of the success here? One of the things they’ve really emphasized to us is the importance of the way in which we work on teaching children to learn how to learn. We teach them to lead their own learning process. And so what that means is that even when they transition back into really cash-strapped, local public schools where, quite frankly, the learning environment is less than ideal, that they have that intrinsic wherewithal to drive forward their own learning.

The other thing I’d say on that is that we know that learning to read is a gatekeeping event in the education process; really, the child can’t actually direct their own learning until they themselves can read. And so, that is a critical, game-changing first benchmark. I think the fact that we can get children there before they head off into the school system is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen a long-term success.

Denver: You teach them how to learn. They then learn how to learn, and that is so valuable.

I’ve had the pleasure to meet a couple of your key partners, corporate partners. Tell our listeners about them.

Caitlin: Luminos is funded by a really wonderful group of corporate and private philanthropists who, I think, have come together around our cause quite simply because I think if you ask any successful person in the world what made them who they are, nobody is going to get through their top three without talking about their education and how much that meant to them. And so I think one of the real points of resonance that we found between our mission and our supporters has been just that appreciation of: None of us got where we are without education; so why not make that possible for others?

Our first major supporter is a New Zealand entrepreneur called Christopher Chandler, founder of the Legatum Foundation.

Denver: Great foundation.

Caitlin: He and his team are the ones who really got this work started. And since that time, we’ve been blessed to see a number of other supporters come on board: the UBS Bank and their clients are major supporters; Cartier Philanthropy is a major supporter; and a number of high net worth individuals who have contributed to us very generously.

Denver: You run a very lean organization; as you say, you work a lot with local partners. But what are some of the outstanding characteristics of your workplace culture that you think sets it apart from other similar organizations?

Caitlin: When I founded Luminos four years ago, I had already been doing this kind of work for a number of years. One of the things I have just come to believe very strongly is that: You can’t do international work well without an international team. And so, one of my priorities in building the organization was to make sure from day one, we had global folks in the senior leadership of the headquarters office. Of course, all of our teams in-country are drawn from those countries, but that it be essential that, up and down the chain, our organization was led by a global team.

I’ve just been so grateful to the degree to which we’ve really been able to live that and honor that. I think that it means that we have an organization that has a different level of wisdom about the work it does. It means that our team is seen as partners to everyone we work with. And it means that our work is as much about celebrating the extraordinary aspects of the globe as it is remedying the shortcomings. So that’s been a key piece of the puzzle.

The other interesting element is whether we intended to or not, pretty much all of us in the senior leadership team spent at least a number of years in the private sector before jumping into the social sector. I think you absolutely need depth on both sides, but we continue to leverage our private sector background in how we think about measuring performance and impact. When we’re able to bring that together with our understanding of what it really means to mobilize a community to change, I think is a really powerful opportunity to bring those two sides together.

Denver: Those are some interesting observations. I don’t think people fully appreciate the way you start an organization so often is the culture of that organization, that founding story. People think they can do it later on. Get the founding right, and if you do that, you’ll save yourself a lot of heartaches.

I’m curious about this: Do you think the Second Chance program could work here in the United States for kids who are several years behind?

Caitlin: It’s a great question. One of the things I would say, first and foremost, is that part of what motivates us to deliver second chances is actually recognizing the degree to which… For all the shortcomings in the US system, one of the things our system does really well is actually provide kids with second chances; so whether you’ve failed out of high school and are now getting a GED, or you’re not able to get into a four-year college, but you can get into a two-year college.

Actually, relative to, for example, Europe and other places, I think in the US context, we actually do a much better job than many other countries in providing children with second chances. Quite honestly, that’s a real point of inspiration for us in our work. In the communities that we work in overseas; there is no “do-over.” You have but one shot. I think as Americans, we know how wasteful that is not to give young people the chance to try again. And so, I think that’s a big part of what inspires us to do this work.

Denver: Let me close with this, Caitlin. Has there been any thought given about continuing the Second Chance program for kids who’ve been through it? Here you’ve done three years in one, you’ve gotten in there with your peers… that program seems like it would serve us well if we were to continue that program. I also wonder how the kids feel who’ve been to this intensive school day, have learned so quickly, and then go back to the old traditional way of going to school.

Caitlin: What’s amazing about our graduates is how incredibly resilient they are, and the degree to which they push through in an admittedly imperfect learning environment. But that being said, the lasting solution would be to empower teachers in public schools in all the countries we work in to teach with the same joyful learning approach that we employ. And so, we have been thrilled in the last two years to actually take the first steps on that journey.

So, in Ethiopia where we’ve worked the longest, we’re now partnering with government to train their teachers to not exactly duplicate our classroom, but pull through those same creative five senses learning techniques in their own setting and in their own way. I think that when we look ahead to the future, the opportunities we’re most excited about, I think we couldn’t be more thrilled to really lean into that opportunity to use our teachers as essentially the coaches for the system as a whole.

Denver: The ambassadors.

Caitlin: Absolutely.

Denver: Well, Caitlin Baron, the CEO of The Luminos Fund, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Where can listeners learn more about this work, or help financially support it if they should be so inclined?

Caitlin: We really encourage everyone listening, please follow us online at luminosfund.org and get to know us through social media, and we would welcome any further support.

Denver: I’m sure you have a donate button there. Well, thanks, Caitlin It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Caitlin: Thank you so much.

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

HundrED Honors Luminos as a Global Education Innovator for the Third Time

HundrED Honors Luminos as a Global Education Innovator for the Third Time

The Luminos Fund’s Speed School initiative, an accelerated learning program for out-of-school children also known as Second Chance, is one of the world’s leading innovations in K-12 education according to Finnish non-profit, HundrED. HundrED recently released its third global innovation collection, HundrED 2020, highlighting one hundred of the brightest innovations in K-12 education.

This is the third consecutive year that the Luminos Fund has been honored by HundrED. Luminos was also awarded in HundrED’s 2018 and 2019 global collections.

The HundrED 2020 collection includes innovations spanning thirty-eight countries. Each innovation was evaluated on its impact and scalability, and submissions were reviewed by teachers, students, leaders, innovators, as well as HundrED Academy Members and community members.

Caitlin Baron, Chief Executive Officer at the Luminos Fund said: “We are thrilled to be recognized again by HundrED in its 2020 collection. This honor is such an affirmation of our ongoing work helping children. Our team couldn’t be happier to continue being part of this community of global education innovators and changemakers. Thank you, HundrED.”

The Speed School initiative was chosen due to its pioneering status and ability to create a scalable impact. Since 2011, Speed School has worked in partnership with Ethiopian NGOs to enable more than 113,000 children in Ethiopia to get a second chance at education. Over 90% of the children who start the Luminos program transition successfully to their local village school. External evaluations show that graduates of our program complete primary school at twice the rate of their peers. In 2016, the program expanded to Liberia where it reaches thousands more children every year. (The Luminos Fund also provides accelerated education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, though that program is not under the Second Chance/Speed School umbrella.)

Saku Tuominen, Chairman & Creative Director of HundrED, said: “Spreading innovations such as Speed School across borders can be a gamechanger for education, worldwide. We will continue to encourage as many stakeholders as possible including schools, educators, administrators, students and organizations to get involved so that we can work towards a positive future.”

Related Links

The Luminos Fund 2020 Innovation Page on HundrED.org, 2019

Speed School Students Complete School At Twice The Rate of Government-Run Institutions, HundrED, 2018

Luminos Recognized by HundrED Global Innovation Prize for the Second Time, The Luminos Fund, 2018

Speed School Program Recognized With Two Innovation Awards, The Luminos Fund, 2017

Video: Caitlin Baron on Speed School, HundrED, 2017

Video: Caitlin Baron: Spreading Speed School Across Borders | HundrED Innovation Summit, 2017


Video: How HundrED Spreads Innovations

The Fight for Education Equality in Liberia: Living Up to My Father’s Example

The Fight for Education Equality in Liberia: Living Up to My Father’s Example

Our people are what make the difference at the Luminos Fund. This post is a part of an occasional series profiling team members and what drives their passion for our work. Here, Abba Karnga Jr., Program Manager, Liberia, reflects on his own educational journey and the importance of education in post-war, post-Ebola Liberia.

Abba Karnga, Jr.

To tell my story, I must start with my father.

My father grew up in the deep jungle in Grand Bassa County, Liberia. At eighteen, he left home. He’d never been to school. He walked from the jungle to Buchanan City, about 100 km, where he realized there were no schools for him to attend. Education beyond Grade 6 was forbidden for Indigenous Liberians.

With the support of American missionaries, my father managed to graduate high school and pursue a master’s degree in the United States. Later earning two doctorate degrees, he devoted his life to expanding educational opportunity for Liberians. Above all, he made sure that education was the most important thing for my eleven siblings and me growing up in Liberia.

For instance, growing up in my family, I remember that if you didn’t go to school for any reason, you wouldn’t eat that day. If you were sick, you’d go to the clinic and then straight back to school. Gifts from my parents were always something practical like a notebook or a backpack that we could use in school.  My father was strict, but it is because of him that I developed a passion for learning that I’ve carried through ups and downs.

Pursuing Education through Civil War, Rigged Exams, and Ebola

In 1991, during the First Liberian Civil War, my family fled to Cote d’Ivoire. We lived in a refugee community with other Liberians who had also fled (it is estimated that half of all Liberians were displaced by that war). From age 11 to 16, I attended a school for refugees. This school was different than schools I had attended in Liberia, and better. I gained a strong foundation in reading comprehension and communication skills: I learned how to learn.

When we returned to Liberia, it was still the war period. I was entering ninth grade and attended a private high school where most of the students were 5-10 years older than me. Most students had dropped out during the war and missed five years of school. There were 85 students in my 12th grade classroom. I learned very little in that school, and most of what I did learn was self-taught.

Abba smiles while observing a lesson.

Abba smiles while observing a lesson.

Teachers at that high school were mostly people from the community who were decent at math or English, but they weren’t qualified teachers and they didn’t put students first. The Liberian government wasn’t paying teachers regularly so bribery in schools was common: teachers often required students to pay for passing grades. Exams might be intentionally difficult or cover content that hadn’t been taught. Teachers took advantage of students in many ways, like making students do chores at the teacher’s house in exchange for passing grades. It is still like this for a lot of children in this country today.

In 12th grade, I remember refusing to pay my teachers for grades. I went to my principal with my report card and said, “These aren’t my real grades.” It was because of my principal that I graduated high school, as my marks (as given by the teachers) weren’t high enough to make me eligible to graduate.

After high school, I applied to different university programs, including in the U.S., and finally enrolled at Cuttington University in Liberia to study education. In my second year, war broke out and Cuttington closed for nearly a year. I returned to Grand Bassa County where my father grew up, I grew up, and my family still lives today, as it was war-free. Soon, however, rebels entered and I found myself in the middle of a war zone. That period was one of the worst experiences of my life: living in constant fear, not having enough food, night raids, and seeing 12-year-olds working as rebel soldiers.

Between 1989 and 2003, roughly 250,000 people were killed in Liberia’s conflict. Not a single family was untouched by war.

I graduated finally from Cuttington in 2007 and got a job as a school principal. This was a good job until 2014 when the Ebola epidemic broke out and all schools closed for seven months. During Ebola, I worked as part of the emergency response as Director of the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign, educating people about the disease and how to respond, identifying cases, and distributing supplies.

When schools reopened, many families did not have the money to send their children back to school, which contributed to the out-of-school problem we see today in Liberia.

A New Chapter Begins

Around that time, I applied for a job overseeing the Liberia country program of an organization that provided accelerated learning to out-of-school children and helped empower communities. Of course, this was the Luminos Fund and I’ve been on the team ever since.

In the Luminos Second Chance program, students arrive unable to read even though most are 10 years old. Ten months later, they are reading over 40 words per minute on average. We train local community members as teachers (we call them “facilitators”) and coach them in appropriate pedagogies and putting children first. I spend a lot of time driving to our different classrooms to check in with facilitators and serve as a mentor. I meet with other local organizations and secure support from the Ministry of Education to use vacant classrooms and help our graduates transition. We also host monthly sessions for parents and communities to get involved, get excited about their children’s potential, and commit to continue these boys’ and girls’ schooling. Teaching and education is like a sport – it works best with proactive coaching.

As I reflect on my life’s journey so far, I sometimes consider what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone to school. Like many Liberians, I would lack the skills, knowledge, and mindset necessary to earn a living and provide for my family. With a national literacy rate of just 48% in Liberia (34% for women), chances are that I would lack the ability to read a single sentence. No country in the world can make progress on development goals if most of its population is illiterate. This is why our focus on foundational literacy and numeracy at the Luminos Fund is so critical.

To this day, with much gratitude to my father, I believe nothing is more important than education. You need human capacity to build a country and you need education to develop human capacity.

The Luminos Fund has an important role to play ensuring that all children in Liberia and beyond have the chance to go to school and learn. I’m proud to be part of the Luminos Fund’s story helping unlock the light in thousands of children through education – and for Luminos to be part of my story, too.

Abba, left, guides a classroom visit in Bomi County with friends of the Luminos Fund in October 2019

Abba, left, guides a classroom visit in Bomi County with friends of the Luminos Fund in October 2019

Event Recap: “Dynamic Philanthropy: A Remedy for the Global Learning Crisis”

Event Recap: “Dynamic Philanthropy: A Remedy for the Global Learning Crisis”

On September 26 during U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) week, the Luminos Fund hosted “Dynamic Philanthropy: A Remedy for the Global Learning Crisis,” an intimate conversation featuring Phyllis Kurlander Costanza, Head, UBS Philanthropy and CEO, UBS Optimus Foundation; Pascale de la Frégonnière, Executive Director, Cartier Philanthropy; His Excellency Dr. Tariq Al Gurg, Chief Executive Officer, Dubai Cares; and Alan McCormick, Managing Director, Legatum Group. Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, moderated.

In the last fifteen years, enormous progress has been made in global education, such as a 40% decrease in the number of children out of school, a doubling of the school system in Africa, and the emergence of near parity in girls’ and boys’ education in the primary phase. However, much work remains. Globally, three-quarters of children and adolescents are still not learning at minimum levels.

Now in its third year, the Luminos UNGA week event convenes key funders, thought leaders, and implementors around the subjects of education and international development. This year, we were delighted to have a packed room of participants all focused on real solutions for the 260 million children around the world who still fail to learn the basics.

Caitlin Baron moderated the discussion

Innovative Approaches to Solve the Global Learning Crisis

At Luminos, we believe in philanthropy’s power to fuel breakthrough innovations that will tackle the global learning crisis. We feel extremely fortunate to work with these four leaders and their respective organizations, and were eager to hear their timely, energizing insights about the power of philanthropy in education development.

Cartier Philanthropy, Dubai Cares, Legatum Group, and UBS Philanthropy/UBS Optimus Foundation have funded an array of innovations that are moving the needle in educational opportunity around the globe. During the event, each speaker discussed his or her organization’s approach to philanthropy, innovation, and international education.

“The power of UBS Philanthropy is bringing clients to the doorstep of the world’s greatest problems,” Phyllis explained, noting that up to 80% of UBS clients are interested in investing in education. “UBS Optimus is a foundation of our clients: we route money from clients towards solving many social challenges. With education, we are trying to move clients from building schools to focusing on the quality of learning happening in the classrooms.”

One key area of innovation for UBS Optimus Foundation has been investment in outcomes-based financing. Phyllis described outcomes-based financing as one way to help build capacity in the space and encourage NGOs to focus on results. UBS has achieved strong returns through Development Impact Bonds (DIB) that can then be re-invested to achieve even more impact.

Meanwhile, Cartier Philanthropy seeks to fund scalable, high-impact innovations while moving toward an unrestricted funding model.

“Cartier Philanthropy believes in unrestricted funding,” Pascale noted. “We work for our grantees. They don’t work for us.”

“Cartier Philanthropy is quite independent of Cartier, which has been great to let us be experimental and find organizations working on exciting ideas that scale. Our work isn’t dictated by how we can further the Cartier brand: we were left free to draft our own strategy. Test, try, learn, fail, and try again is a philosophy we believe in,” she continued appreciatively.

Tariq described Dubai Cares’ founding vision to improve children’s access to quality primary education and, more broadly, increase funding for education as this sector receives far less investment than health.

“The Millennium Development Goals were set in 2000 and the 2nd Goal was universal access to primary education. Five years later when the UN met, they said Goal 2 would not be met by the deadline. Dubai Cares was founded in 2007 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. HRH is a strong believer in youth and education. He wanted to convince others to invest more in education, as health always gets more investment compared to education. Dubai today is where it is because of its focus on youth and education. Since 2007, Dubai Cares has worked to provide quality education around the globe.”

“The job of philanthropy is to pilot and test innovations, and do your best to see them to scale,” Tariq continued. “Philanthropists’ job isn’t system strengthening. But, partnership with government is key if you want to influence the mainstream. We have to work within the priorities of governments if we are serious about achieving systems change – or help the government to prioritize an issue if we feel it is important.”

Legatum has a unique relationship with the Luminos Fund. A Legatum Foundation grant launched Luminos as an independent organization in 2016. Alan currently serves as Chairman of the Luminos Fund’s Board of Directors.

Pascale de la Frégonnière, Alan McCormick, and Phyllis Kurlander Costanza

From left: Pascale de la Frégonnière, Alan McCormick, and Phyllis Kurlander Costanza

Alan explained, “We run a purpose-driven investment business at Legatum. The mission at the heart of our business is to generate and allocate capital that helps people prosper – and we’ve funded 2,000 projects across the developing world. Our philosophy is to test ideas and then bring others to invest in proven solutions. The best way to help people succeed is to give them the freedom to innovate.”

Describing the Luminos Fund’s origins, he noted, “When we saw how the program makes children numerate and literate in 10 months we were blown away.”

Words of Encouragement

As the event drew to a close, panelists offered advice based on their experience in philanthropy.

“We can’t do this alone,” Tariq said. “We need more donors to collaborate, like how Co-Impact is bringing funders together.”

Phyllis shared recommendations for prospective grantees: “Learn how to ask for money and go big.” Funders are pitched frequently and potential grantees must stand out from the crowd to succeed.

“Reading the news, it’s easy to focus on problems,” Alan cautioned. “Get out and look for solutions and innovations. The innovations out there today give me such hope. Be hopeful and persevere.”

H.E. Dr. Tariq Al Gurg discusses Dubai Cares' focus on education

H.E. Dr. Tariq Al Gurg discusses Dubai Cares’ focus on education

Images by Hannah Cohen Photography

Back-to-School 2019: Luminos Trains 100 Teachers, Supervisors, and Ministry of Education Officials at 10-Day Workshop in Liberia

Back-to-School 2019: Luminos Trains 100 Teachers, Supervisors, and Ministry of Education Officials at 10-Day Workshop in Liberia

Kaitlynn Saldanha is Senior Research Analyst at the Luminos Fund where she works on programs as well as monitoring and evaluation. She joined Luminos in 2019 after working at PEAS, Teach For America and Gray Matters Capital. She holds an MPhil in Education and International Development from the University of Cambridge and a BA from Middlebury College. In August 2019, she supported our annual facilitator training in Liberia. Here are her reflections from the field.

Kaitlynn Saldanha, Luminos Senior Research Analyst

It’s early afternoon in Liberia following a heavy rain. You walk into a classroom to 14 adults using their hands to create a steady, handsome beat. Some swing their hips from side to side. Others get low to the ground engaging their full body as they chant each letter of the short words written on the blackboard. They follow the leader at the front – their peer – who raises a knee to stomp each time he claps.

“Can. Can. C-A-N. Can.
Of. Of. O-F. Of.
He. He. H-E. He.
Get. Get. G-E-T. Get.
Put. Put. P-U-T. Put.”

A word and its spelling is repeated three times total, getting faster each round. The leader at the front pauses to explain the meaning of each word before starting the next activity – this time a cheer for each word. Chanting and cheering is one way that Second Chance students learn high frequency words that they see often in text. At Luminos, chanting and cheering form part of our approach to joyful learning — with positive results.

Here is a video of Luminos facilitators chanting the italicized words above:

In August 2019, I attended a Luminos training for Second Chance facilitators (what we call our teachers) in Liberia. The training was a 10-day residential ‘bootcamp’ where Luminos facilitators and implementing partners (BRAC, ROCH and LIPACE) received training in the Second Chance curriculum and pedagogy prior to the start of school. In 2019-20, the partners and facilitators who attended this training will run 65 Second Chance classrooms serving just under 2,000 students across Montserrado, Bomi and Lofa counties. Like all Luminos trainings, the training was experiential, designed such that facilitators experienced firsthand what it is like to be a student in a Second Chance classroom. For instance, facilitators spent the training working in small groups, practicing phonics exercises like “Blending Ladder” and “Elkonin Sound Boxes,” acting out the meaning of “Mop” and “Hop,” narrating short stories and demonstrating concepts (like how to use a number line, types of sentences and punctuation) in front of the class. With 80 Luminos facilitators, 6 supervisors, Ministry representatives (including the County Education Officer of Bomi County, District Education Officers, the Assistant Minister for Early Childhood Education, plus 5 government master trainers) and 4 Luminos staff present at the training, it was a full few days for Luminos in Liberia. Below are a few of my reflections from the week.

Luminos Liberia Program Coordinator and in-house phonics expert, Alphanso Menyon (left), models how to decode or sound out words by breaking them down into individual sounds for a new Second Chance facilitator.

Reflect. Learn. Adapt. Repeat. As those of us who work in international development know, responding quickly to challenges and feedback that arise in the field is critical to ensuring that programs achieve desired impact and outcomes. As someone who is new to the Luminos Fund but not new to international development, Second Chance is truly special in the way that it has created a learning culture where feedback is encouraged, received and responded to at every level. Iteration is embedded in the program’s DNA. For instance, during the training, Luminos Program Manager, Abba Karnga Jr., asked facilitators and partners again and again to share feedback and reflections. He continuously drew on facilitators’ lived experience delivering the Second Chance program and did a brilliant job of creating a safe space for candid conversations on corporal punishment (still all too common in the region), integrity and professionalism, and the importance of knowing the ability of each and every student.

During the training, Luminos supervisors (who monitor Second Chance classrooms and provide ongoing classroom-based support to facilitators) met as a group, alongside Luminos Liberia-based and U.S.-based staff, to reflect on program data and problem solve on challenges. Sessions like these ensure that Second Chance continues to learn, adapt and respond to the needs on the ground. They are also a powerful mechanism for elevating the role and voices of supervisors and facilitators, removing hierarchy and building collective ownership for the Second Chance program, which ultimately drives stronger outcomes for Luminos students.

Balancing Autonomy and Structure. Scripted lessons can earn a poor reputation for limiting teacher autonomy, and in some cases, for being ineffective. Second Chance strikes a delicate balance of providing young and motivated (though often inexperienced) teachers the tools and support they need to succeed, while also empowering them to exercise professional judgement, take risks and lead learning in their classrooms. While our Second Chance Facilitator Manual provides a helpful block-by-block guide for each day, facilitators still develop and lead their own lessons. For instance, the Second Chance curriculum includes two activity-based learning (ABL) periods per day where facilitators are provided guidance on the content that is to be taught or reviewed, but the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of teaching and learning are to the discretion and creativity of the facilitator. During the 10-day training, facilitators were guided on how to use the Facilitator Manual as a tool to support them (as opposed to a script), and encouraged to bring their own ideas and imagination to their teaching as much as possible.

Build People, Build Mindsets. In Liberia, Luminos is not just building a program – we are changing people’s understanding of what is possible to achieve with the most marginalized children. Is Second Chance supporting out-of-school children to become functionally literate and numerate in 10 months? Yes! External evaluation results show that Second Chance students in Liberia are identifying 40 words per minute on average, compared to 4 words per minute at the start of the program (for comparison, just 6% of Liberian Grade 2 students can read 40 words per minute). How did we get here?

Facilitators practice lesson plans.

The training commenced with an inspirational opening speech by Liberia’s Assistant Minister for Early Childhood Education, Minister Thelma, who had visited several Luminos classrooms last year and was impressed by how well Second Chance students were learning. Throughout the training, facilitators, government representatives (including the 5 master trainers from the Ministry who participated in the full 10 days of training) and partners, were reminded again and again of Luminos guiding principles: “Every child can learn. Help a child learn how to learn”. These principles, while obvious to many of us, are not yet realized in every classroom and school in the communities where we work in Liberia. Until they are, trainings like the one held in August are not just for rehearsing phonics drills (though these are important too!) but for building the mindsets necessary to carry out the work.

Let Experience Speak. This year many facilitators are returning for their third or fourth year teaching with the Second Chance program. This is tremendous in and of itself and a testament to the positive experience they’ve had working for Luminos and Second Chance. It also means that these professionals have deep, valuable experience teaching in low-resource communities. They know what works — and also what doesn’t — in supporting out-of-school children to learn.

During last month’s training, Luminos leveraged the knowledge and experience of veteran ‘lead’ Second Chance facilitators to support training newer facilitators. We will continue using this approach in future trainings. When we think about the local knowledge and know-how that’s being built for Second Chance in Liberia, there is a lot to be excited about, especially when we think about further scaling of Second Chance in Liberia and beyond.

Second Chance classes in Liberia started on September 9th! We look forward to sharing more updates from facilitator trainings throughout the year. Stay tuned!


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