A Heart for Liberia: James Earl Kiawoin

A Heart for Liberia: James Earl Kiawoin

The Luminos Fund is expanding to help more out-of-school children catch up than ever before. Our country leaders are spearheading this effort: a group of dynamic, knowledgeable, and dedicated individuals who live and breathe our mission to ensure all children experience joyful learning. In this new series, “Luminos Leaders,” we will share their stories with you, starting with Liberia Country Manager, James Earl Kiawoin.

Q: Tell us a bit about your background. Did you grow up in Liberia?

I was born in Liberia in the middle of the civil war. Then my family went to the Ivory Coast and Ghana where we were refugees for two years before coming back to Liberia. I started primary school in the Ivory Coast but continued the rest of my education in Liberia where I finished high school at age 14. I was too young to do anything, so I went to the African Leadership Academy (ALA) for another two years. ALA is a pan-African prep school meant to develop the next generation of African leaders. ALA was a real game-changer in terms of what my life could have been and what it became after that. It was the first time that I got access to real, proper education—global education that was preparing me with a skill set and a mindset dedicated to social change and social justice. With ALA, there was a mission around preparing students to go back to their homes and do actual work to advance their communities.

Growing up in Liberia, many of my friends’ parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. Or kids would go to school, and they weren’t interested or motivated and would stop going. As a child, I didn’t understand the gender dynamics, culture factors, or financial issues. I just thought, oh, they don’t want to go to school because school’s boring. Today, I’m able to step back and understand those dynamics: the fact that if the public school systems are not strong, parents will think that their kids are better off staying on the farm. In most of the communities Luminos serves in Liberia, there’s no real no role model effect. Kids don’t see people graduate from high school and so school doesn’t make sense to them because they haven’t seen anyone do it.

Q: What makes Liberia special? What do you love about the country?

When you trace the history of Liberia back to free slaves returning to a place they knew nothing about—there’s this sense of daring and entrepreneurship in the Liberian spirit. That’s one of the things that’s always brought me back to Liberia.

When I was growing up, before attending ALA, I had no idea that I could do anything meaningful for Liberia. It was just: you go to school, you try to survive the war, you just try to eat and live. When I went to ALA, that was the first time that I actually realized that there’s something we can do in this country. We can change the narrative for children who come after me. We can help build the national education system. We can help build systems across all sectors to do good for people!

“When you trace the history of Liberia back to free slaves returning to a place they knew nothing about—there’s this sense of daring and entrepreneurship in the Liberian spirit.”

James Earl Kiawoin

Q: The core of our mission at the Luminos Fund is education. Tell us more about your own education. Why education is important to you?

After completing the ALA program, I did my undergrad at Colorado College in Political Science. I went back to Liberia to work for two years on the Ebola crisis and then returned to the States for a master’s degree in Public Affairs with a focused on international development from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. I’ve been really, really fortunate with all the places I’ve gone to school.

For me, education opens doors for people to cultivate their own potential and innate talent. For most families in Liberia, there’s no other pathway out of their current situation. The way you pull yourself out of poverty, for the most part, is to go to school and get a job to take care of your family. For the longest parts in Liberia’s history, people have not been able to go to school because of the war or their family didn’t have the resources. It’s really important that we are able to create access to high quality education so that people can do things for their families and in their own communities.

“For me, education opens doors for people to cultivate their own potential and innate talent.”
– James Earl Kiawoin

Q: Why did you decide to join the Luminos Fund team?

It was a combination of a personal desire to help Liberia, and also knowing that I could do more at scale, even through a small organization. The Luminos Fund is so different from previous parts of my career that focused on strategy and were far removed from day-to-day implementation. At Luminos, I’m actually in the field once a week; talking to Abba [Luminos Liberia’s Program Manager], talking to parents, and talking to teachers. There was an appeal to being in direct communication with those who are benefitting from the program. It’s a very dynamic job. At Luminos, every day there’s something new from government engagement to people management and trying to ensure the motorbikes run!

Q: What’s your favorite part of your role?

I love being able to see the students in class and learning. The teachers are there, classrooms have the proper materials, and there’s all this chanting going on and active, play-based learning.

At the front of everybody’s mind is that we have to ensure that these children are reading and writing properly, and that they can transition to traditional schools. Whenever you enter Luminos classrooms that’s on the fullest display: everyone is so committed to helping these kids learn how to read and develop the desire to learn.

Q: What inspires you?

The will of individuals to craft big societal change is really inspiring. Whenever I come across those people who are willing to ask hard questions or to put it all on the line to solve hard problems, it’s really inspiring.

Q: What inspires you about the Luminos Fund?

This commitment to excellence. Watching Folley and Emmanuel [Luminos Libera Program Associates] in the field, seeing them coach the teachers, and do the running records, it’s very visible that everyone wants these kids to succeed. Everyone really buys into the vision that every child can learn, and our job is to ensure we teach them how to learn.

At Luminos, everyone’s actions reflect our mission. When we’re collecting receipts to ensure that we’re good stewards of our resources, it’s reflecting that mission because, if we can do more with this money, more children can learn. When we’re tweaking the curriculum based on feedback or driving consistent use of data to improve program outcomes, it’s all geared toward that simple vision that children should be reading; that they should be in school in order to cultivate their potential.

To learn more about Luminos’ work in Liberia, visit our Liberia page.

Easy As 1-2-3: Innovative Community-Driven Collaborations for Helping Out-Of-School Children Catch Up

Easy As 1-2-3: Innovative Community-Driven Collaborations for Helping Out-Of-School Children Catch Up

On Wednesday, December 8th, the Luminos Fund had the honor of leading a virtual panel discussion at the 2021 WISE Summit titled, “Easy as 1-2-3: Innovative Community-Driven Collaborations for Helping Out-of-School Children Catch Up.” Luminos was honored with a WISE Award in 2017 and remains a proud member of the WISE community.

Moderated by Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, the session explored Luminos’ model of deep partnership with community-based organizations and shared lessons for the broader education community to drive greater positive impact for some of the most marginalized children and communities. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education and Development, the Open University | Luminos Advisory Board member
  • Benjamin M. Freeman Jr., Executive Director, Liberia Institute for the Promotion of Academic Excellence (LIPACE) | Luminos partner
  • Abba G. Karnga Jr., Liberia Program Manager, Luminos Fund
  • Nikita Khosla, Senior Director of Programs, Luminos Fund

Why Luminos works with community-based organizations

Luminos works in partnership with community-based organizations (CBOs) and governments through a hub-and-spoke operating model to deliver our catch-up education programs. In each country we work in, a small, expert Luminos team is responsible for curriculum, pedagogy, training, monitoring and evaluation, and government adoption, and Luminos funds local CBOs to implement the program. Second Chance, our catch-up education program, is delivered through these local partners whose capabilities Luminos helps build, support, and oversee throughout the program. Each community Luminos operates in is unique with different traditions, dialects, and needs. As such, it is critical that we contextualize our work to align with these varying circumstances. Who better to know and deeply understand these needs than the people who live and work there? This is why we partner with local organizations like LIPACE in Liberia, led by panelist Benjamin M. Freeman Jr. (Ben).

As Nikita Khosla explained, thanks to CBOs, Luminos is able to rapidly adapt to new geographies and quickly learn how to help meet children where they are. These community partnerships allow Luminos to be highly responsive to local conditions and needs and teach in children’s local language using contextually relevant stories and experiences to enrich learning. In addition, this community-based model helps build local capacity and creates a sustainable model for the future. As Nikita noted, Luminos hopes that our holistic, community-based approach to catch-up education for out-of-school children will grow beyond our organization.

Navigating the power dynamics

There is an inherent dynamic between larger, international NGOs and smaller CBOs. Nikita explained that to navigate this dynamic, Luminos intentionally creates a flat hierarchy from the start. We co-establish a common goal—ensuring all children are learning—and work towards that together. In addition, Luminos conducts quarterly learning sessions with our partners where we ask, “How can we improve the program?”

The first time Ben needed to provide constructive feedback to Luminos, he was hesitant. Ben shared that it was through the quarterly learning sessions that he grew to trust Luminos as an organization that valued the voices and opinions of its partners. Now, providing feedback comes more easily.

Luminos Liberia Program Manager, Abba G. Karnga Jr., noted that this was a crucial part of the puzzle to get right.

“We have to talk about the things that are working, and the things that are not working,” he said.

With that information in hand, Luminos can actively problem-solve. For instance, Nikita shared a recent example from Liberia where Luminos provides midday meals. After receiving feedback from our partners that students did not like the new fortified porridge, we changed the hot meals back to rice and beans.

Working with CBOs during COVID

For Luminos, working with CBOs allowed learning to continue for our students during the pandemic. Because our teachers are local, we were able to hold outdoor micro-classes that parents felt comfortable sending their children to attend. Through our partners, we distributed at-home learning resources and provided emergency food supplies to families in need. On the partner side, Ben noted that the CBO network Luminos created “ensured that we could go beyond the technological gaps that we were experiencing to bring effective COVID awareness and continue to ensure children were learning.”

What can the global community learn?

To wrap up the session, Caitlin posed the question, “What might the Luminos team be getting right, what are the shortcomings, and what might the global community take away more broadly?” to Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, a long-time evaluator of Luminos’ program and member of our Advisory Board.

Kwame reflected that the research shows Luminos’ model can close learning gaps for out-of-school children; it is essential for the global community to look at models like these that can close those learning gaps rapidly. Working with CBOs who have deep knowledge and investments in communities means that Luminos can recruit teachers and make a meaningful difference. “We tend to think about the program much more in terms of the child,” said Kwame, “but it also about the community. It takes a village to educate the child.”

Thank you to WISE and all the participants for such a dynamic and engaging session, and all our community partners. Learn more about WISE and the 2021 WISE Summit here, and read more about Luminos’ community teaching model here.

The Journey Back to School

The Journey Back to School

Kirstin Buchanan is Special Assistant to the CEO at the Luminos Fund where she provides essential executive, communications, fundraising, and event planning support. She holds a MA in International Affairs and BA in International Relations from Boston University, as well as a certificate in Latin American studies.

I grew up in the Caribbean and have seen how institutional and societal inequalities impact access to opportunities, including to quality education. Growing up, I developed a passion for supporting and amplifying the voices of vulnerable and marginalized communities and the issues they face. I believe that there is extraordinary innovation within communities and, when given the resources to adequately express it, they are some of the greatest architects of truly transformative solutions. This belief, in part, led me to the Luminos Fund.

COVID learning recovery is not a level playing field

Nearly two years into the global pandemic that saw the shuttering of schools everywhere, we are witnessing a gradual return to a sense of normalcy and a hopeful reimagining of a more resilient, flexible, and equitable education system. However, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the problem of learning loss and its impact on individuals and societies. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were cut off from their education.

Andenet, eight years old, lives in the Bona District of rural Ethiopia. She is the youngest of five siblings. While Andenet’s mother, Aster, was able to save enough money to send two of her younger children to school, she couldn’t afford to send Andenet, too.

“It was difficult to send her to school because I couldn’t afford the cost of education materials for three children,” says Aster.

Around the world, millions of children face similar barriers to learning. Over 59 million primary-school-aged children were out of school before COVID-19 swept the globe; over half of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO). In addition to financial constraints, children like Andenet are often kept out of school due to conflict, violence, cultural practices, gender, and distance, among other factors.

The pandemic has brought the critical challenge of barriers to learning to the forefront of global discourse: a challenge affecting marginalized communities long before stay-at-home mandates, national lockdowns, and global school closures. Today, UNESCO estimates that as many as 24 million additional children may not return to school following the pandemic. Traditional barriers to learning, coupled with the impacts of the pandemic, risks a lost generation of learners with lasting impacts on their futures, the future of their societies, and the world.

It has never been more urgent to build resilience within education systems: to equip them to not only cope in the face of crises like COVID-19, but also to think more expansively and innovatively about addressing the confluence of barriers hindering children’s journeys back to school.

Andenet and her mother Aster outdoors
Andenet and her mother Aster

Building resilience for children to learn

To build children’s resilience to learn, wherever they are and regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, I believe we must address learning barriers at their root, incorporating affected communities in the development of lasting solutions. The barriers to education are unique to each context, and it is important to engage the people most affected in the search for solutions that are specific to their needs.

Working with communities to harness their wealth of local knowledge and resources, and address barriers to education at the source, is integral to the Luminos model. Implemented in close collaboration with community-based organization partners, Luminos catch-up education programs are free of charge to students and their families and are carefully designed to meet the most marginalized and hardest-to-reach students and communities where they are. Andenet’s mother, Aster, notes that without Luminos’ free program, Andenet would have remained out of school indefinitely. In today’s COVID-19 moment, such programs are more important than ever.

Luminos classes are taught by high-potential, young adults from the community who we train: we build their capacity as teachers to bring children like Andenet back on the path to learning. We help develop intrinsic learners at no cost to families, while fueling local education systems with much-needed trained resources. In Ethiopia, the program includes monthly community savings for mothers, helping them build business management skills and develop sustainable financial practices to augment household and community income. This in turn helps to reduce financial barriers for children to transition to government schools to continue their education.

The way forward

Through my role at Luminos, I’ve seen the value of working in lockstep with communities to ensure that children everywhere can learn. Across program countries, Luminos students are journeying back to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, in keeping with national guidelines and COVID-19 protocols. While I brim with hope and anticipation for their futures after a tumultuous period of global learning disruptions, I know that the work is not done.

There are no ‘quick fix’ solutions to addressing the many barriers to learning for children. Sustainable solutions demand innovation, partnerships, and the prioritization of community members as agents of their own development. Advocating for such solutions is an integral part of my own journey: and my journey has only just begun.

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

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

The Luminos Fund’s catch-up education program for out-of-school children, Second Chance (also known as Speed School in Ethiopia), is one of the world’s leading K-12 education innovations according to global education nonprofit, HundrED. During this week’s HundrED Innovation Summit, Luminos was selected as a member of the HundrED 2022 Global Collection. This marks the fifth consecutive year that the Luminos Fund has been honored by HundrED, starting in 2017.

The annual Global Collection highlights 100 of the most impactful and scalable innovations tackling the biggest challenges in education. HundrED’s goal is to inspire a grassroots movement by helping pedagogically sound, ambitious innovations spread and adapt to multiple contexts across the world.

“We have seen first-hand how education innovators over the last two years have not been overwhelmed, but have risen to the occasion and put students and their education first,” says HundrED’s Head of Research, Crystal Green. “Our hope is that we might collectively imagine a better future and begin thinking about what it will take to get there.” HundrED has made it their mission to seek out and share the most inspiring innovations in K-12 education.

In another year challenged by the global COVID-19 pandemic, HundrED sought innovations with a proven impact as schools, teachers, and students have adapted around school closures, shortened academic years, and more. We at Luminos are inspired by our fellow education nonprofits across the globe as they have continued to adapt and refine new ways of teaching and learning. This year’s HundrED Global Collection includes innovations implemented across 43 countries. The final 100 innovations were narrowed down from an original list of over 2,700 innovations from around the world.

In the words of Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, “We are honored to be a part of the HundrED Global Collection for the fifth year running. The dedication and hard work of our staff to ensure the most vulnerable children get a second chance to learn never ceases to amaze and inspire me.”

This year, HundrED saw innovations underling the importance of social-emotional learning, supporting teacher professional development, engaging parents in education, and teaching 21st century skills to students. Luminos’ program centers on this holistic approach and was chosen due to its pioneering status and ability to create a scalable impact.

Since 2011, Luminos’ program has worked in partnership with Ethiopian NGOs to enable more than 137,827 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. During COVID-19, Luminos pivoted our programs quickly to support our students’ learning with remote learning resources, “micro-classes” (small, distanced groups of students), and eventually reopened classrooms following government health and safety guidance.

To learn more, view the Luminos Fund 2022 Innovation page on Hundred.org and explore the profiles of our fellow innovators!

Related Links

The Luminos Fund 2022 Innovation Page on HundrED.org, 2021

HundrED honors Luminos as a Global Education Innovator for the Fourth Time, The Luminos Fund, 2020

Video: The Luminos Fund Innovation, 2020 Summit

This short video was created for HundrED’s 2020 Summit last year and gives an overview of our innovative program:

Event Recap: “Getting Ghana Back to School”

Event Recap: “Getting Ghana Back to School”

On September 23, the Luminos Fund hosted its fifth annual U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) week event, “Getting Ghana Back to School.” (View the webinar recording online here or below.)

This year’s conversation centered on the education challenges posed by COVID-19 in Ghana, examining powerful new research by the Center for Global Development (CGD) and Institute for Educational Planning and Administration (IEPA), and reflecting on the way forward. Moderated by Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, the webinar featured a diverse panel of Ghanaian luminaries, education leaders, and experts including:

  • Dr. Might Kojo Abreh, Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Global Development; Senior Research Fellow and Head of Grants and Consultancy, Institute for Educational Planning and Administration (IEPA)
  • Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education & Development and Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Development, The Open University; Member, Luminos Fund Advisory Board
  • Patrick G. Awuah Jr., Founder & President, Ashesi University
  • Corina Gardner, Executive Director, IDP Foundation
  • Yawa Hansen-Quao, Executive Director, Emerging Public Leaders

“It is powerful for us to look to countries and nations that have historically led in education, to guide us on leading our way back from this COVID moment.”

Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

New CGD-IEPA Research

Ghana is a leader in education access on the continent, nevertheless, COVID-19 poses significant education challenges, particularly for Ghana’s most vulnerable children. Dr. Might Kojo Abreh shared highlights from Phase I of the new CGD-IEPA research on the effects of COVID-19 and 2020 COVID-related school closures in African contexts, and offered advice for informed COVID-19 response strategies.

Dr. Abreh identified two key findings of the household survey results in Ghana. First, dropout rates among children remained fairly consistent with pre-COVID school closures dropout rates. Second, grade repetition rates among children have doubled when compared to pre-COVID school closures. The research findings suggest that dropout and repetition rates are disproportionately higher among boys and children from the poorest households.

Dr. Abreh concluded his presentation with a few reflections: household perceptions of emergency response management and mitigation efforts are important, and informed and effective COVID-19 education response strategies must include factors such as location, wealth, and zone disparity as key considerations.

“At the heart of this equation is an issue of equity and social justice. In periods of resilience and progress making in emergencies, we must ensure full recovery in terms of participation in education,” said Dr. Might Kojo Abreh.

A Dynamic Panel Conversation

As Executive Director of Emerging Public Leaders, Yawa Hansen-Quao is uniquely placed to help shape the way forward for Ghana’s education recovery. When asked about the experience of rising bureaucrats in the Ghanaian Ministry of Education during this moment, Yawa noted that it has been an overwhelming period for Ghanaian leadership tasked with troubleshooting this crisis and adequately rising to meet the moment. Yawa noted, “I think the crisis of COVID forced us all to adopt new technologies and I was glad to see the Ministry champion new initiatives like Ghana Learning TV.”

Patrick G. Awuah Jr., Founder and President of Ashesi University, reflected on what this period has meant for Ashesi and the higher education sector in Ghana more broadly. He noted the University’s decision to shift to a completely online model during the height of COVID-related school closures. “One of the things that was really critical was we wanted to make sure no one was left behind,” said Patrick. For Ashesi, this has meant a period of exploration, innovation, and thoughtful recalibration to find learning solutions that support the needs of all students, as innovations in the education sector today must include considerations for the integration of education and technology – and the global challenge of remote learning access.

Another important component of the Ghanaian education ecosystem is the affordable non-state school sector. Yet, Corina Gardner, Executive Director of IDP Foundation, noted that, despite being among some of the first of the population to struggle with income during closures, the non-state school sector is often excluded from broader emergency funding response efforts. “As a funder watching what happened with COVID over the past 18 months, while a lot of organizations understandably diverted funds into health and into COVID emergency response, we really felt that this was the time to double-down on education,” said Corina. Corina believes that the non-state school sector has demonstrated remarkable determination, resilience, and growth.

Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education and Development at The Open University, rounded out the conversation by focusing on the challenge of out-of-school children in Ghana. Dr. Akyeampong noted, “We have to look at systems, or things that we have done that can guide us forward in addressing the challenges [brought by COVID-19]”. Moving forward, he encourages the global community to think more expansively about engaging local communities as part of the solution. Additionally, he encouraged listeners to expand participatory, foundational education programs for out-of-school children to ensure “a policy of leaving no out-of-school children behind.” As Dr. Akyeampong said, “We need to believe that every child can learn, and if they are not doing so… it is because we need to do a better job at meeting their learning needs.”

“For us at Luminos, the work that we do is often described as accelerated learning,” Caitlin Baron noted. Looking toward the path ahead for education in Ghana, she added, “But I always say what’s important about it is not that it’s fast, but that it’s deep. By going deep into foundational literacy and numeracy, we set children up for a lifetime of learning.”

Further reading and resources:

“Getting Ghana Back to School” Luminos Fund event recording

Abreh, M. K., Agbevanu, W. K., Jangu Alhassan, A., Ansah, F., Bosu, R. S., Crawfurd, L., Araba Mills, C., Minardi, A. L., & Nyame, G. (2021, July 6). What happened to dropout rates after COVID-19 school closures in Ghana? (CGD-IEPA).

Abreh, M. K., Agbevanu, W. K., Jangu Alhassan, A., Ansah, F., Bosu, R. S., Crawfurd, L., Araba Mills, C., Minardi , A. L., & Nyame, G. (2021, August 11). How did students recover learning loss during COVID-19 school closures in Ghana? (CGD-IEPA).

McManus , J., Njogu-Ndongwe, F., Caballero , E., & Mously Fall , S. (2021, July 21). Challenges and opportunities as students return to school in West Africa. (IDinsight).

Shotland , M., Caballero, E., Thunde, J., Nzomo, K., & Mtambo, D. (2021, June 24). Distance Learning Evidence Review Report. (IDinsight).

Please email info@luminosfund.org for further information or questions.

71 Commercial Street, #232 | Boston, MA 02109 |  USA
+1 781 333 8317   info@luminosfund.org

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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