Growing up in Liberia, Otis had the chance to briefly attend school, but was pulled out when his parents could no longer afford to pay school fees for all of their children. School fees prompt hard choices for many families in Liberia. In this West African country of 4.9 million people, between 15-20% of 6–14 year-olds are out of school. Feeling the strain of supporting their family of eleven, Otis’s mother and father made the difficult decision to send Otis to his aunt’s house where he helped with household chores.
Despite having to leave school, Otis’s brief, early exposure to learning had him hooked. Eager to continue learning, Otis asked his older brother to teach him, and soon Otis was learning basic letters and numbers.
Early last year, at ten years of age, Otis finally had the chance to return to the classroom again. He enrolled in the Luminos Fund’s free catch-up education program for out-of-school children, known as Second Chance. In a class of 30 students, Otis rapidly began to build on his basic knowledge of letters and numbers with the help of his teacher. Like many of his classmates, Otis loves Luminos’ play-based activities best. For Otis, experiencing joyful learning has made all the difference on his education journey.
“I like school because it is helping me learn how to read!” says Otis. His rapid progress has not gone unnoticed by his parents.
“I can now see him writing on everything in the house—and he can spell some words now,” says Otis’s father.
Otis’s mother, Sata, has noticed the writing, too. She remarked that Otis is now able to read a few small things and hopes that Otis will be able to read for the family since Sata herself is not literate. Both of Otis’s parents have seen the impact of Luminos’ Second Chance program in their communities firsthand.
“I know children who are now in 7th grade after they finished the program years ago,” says Sata.
Most Luminos students transition into public schools at the 3rd or 4th grade level after they graduate. Continuing to 7th grade means these students successfully completed primary school and are continuing their education!
Otis’s father agreed with Sata, saying, “Second Chance has helped the community because a lot of students are now in the public school.”
“Second Chance has helped the community because a lot of students are now in the public school.”
Luminos takes a holistic approach to education. Not only do we run catch-up education programs for out-of-school children, but we also recruit and train local young adults as teachers for our classrooms and engage parents in the learning journey.
Parents of Luminos students like Otis participate in monthly parent engagement groups where they step inside the classroom. During meetings, students may read a passage or demonstrate their writing skills in front of parents and community members. This is especially motivating for parents as they see the vast progress their children have made because of Second Chance. Parent engagement meetings also emphasize the importance of child protection and safeguarding, and challenge gender-based stereotypes that constrain women and girls. Parents in these groups commit to one another that they will keep their children in school, creating a network of accountability.
“I enjoy the work,” says Sata. “I’m happy to help the program that is helping my child.”
When asked about their dreams for Otis, his father replies, “I dream that he will be educated and do everything he wants to do.”
Sata chimes in, “I dream that he will learn a lot and become a better person tomorrow to help the family.”
With Otis’s parents behind him and the Luminos program providing a path back into mainstream education, his future of learning looks bright. For Otis, education isn’t something he wants to keep to himself. “Education is important because it will help me learn—and help my younger sister,” says Otis proudly.
“Education is important because it will help me learn—and help my younger sister.”
“He helps us understand what we cannot understand. He responds to our questions always.” These are the words of eleven-year-old Second Chance student, Sofonias, describing what he likes best about his teacher, Elias (pictured above). It is also a perceptive description of the importance and power of a teacher: bringing understanding and answers to thirsty learners. Elias, like so many teachers around the globe, has quietly transformed his students’ lives forever.
Take Sofonias as an example. After losing his father at age seven, his mother needed him to help her make ends meet for the family. School was not an option; a cost that could not be afforded. Still, Sofonias was eager to learn, picking his friends’ brains to understand basic addition and subtraction when the pandemic forced schools to close. Yet before joining Luminos’ free Second Chance program, Sofonias was still unable to read and write at age 11.
Today, Sofonias says reading and writing are his favorite subjects, “I like doing classwork—especially when I receive a check mark from my teacher! Coming to school gives me some pride.” Learning to read, write, and do math transforms a life forever—and teachers like Elias are the ones who make it happen.
Elias became a Second Chance teacher four years ago after finishing high school. Originally unable to place into the government university or afford a private university, Elias’ career options felt limited. Part of Luminos’ unique model includes recruiting young adults in the communities we serve as teachers and providing them with rigorous training and ongoing coaching. Our primary requirement is a 10th-grade education, creating a career path for promising men and women. Elias was a perfect candidate and grew into a remarkable teacher.
“I enjoy teaching all subjects,” Elias says. “When I started, I was inclined to reading and writing but now I enjoy teaching every subject.” Elias’ students see him as warm and friendly, someone they enjoy learning from.
One of his students, an eleven-year-old boy named Mussie says, “He always advises us not to be afraid and to be confident. I like that.”
With an anticipated global teacher shortage of 69 million teachers according to UNESCO, tapping into the potential of local young adults like Elias has never been more important. In the May Devex piece “How to treat the learning crisis like a health crisis,” Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, expounds upon this point noting, “If the global community truly wants children to catch-up in COVID-19’s aftermath, we must fill the global teacher shortage to power this effort… Building a workforce of community teachers is an urgent opportunity, as stretched systems grapple with learning loss.”
Today, on World Teachers’ Day, we celebrate the incredible work our teachers are doing in classrooms around the world. To our all our teachers: thank you. You inspire us every day with your devotion to the students in your classrooms and your dreams for their futures.
Several years ago, photographer Rosie Hallam visited a pilot of the Luminos Fund’s Second Chance program in Sidama, Ethiopia. It was a trip she never forgot. Rosie met Second Chance student, Selamawit (also referred to as Selamaw in some news coverage), on that trip and spent the day with her family, taking a series of extraordinary portraits. This month, Rosie won the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious 2021 Earth Photo competition with her portraits of Selamawit and her parents in a piece entitled, “A Right to an Education.” We spoke with Rosie about winning the award, getting to know Selamawit’s family, and visiting Second Chance classrooms in Ethiopia all those years ago.
Luminos: Congratulations on winning the 2021 Earth Photo competition! What does winning this award mean to you?
Rosie: It’s very exciting! And somewhat surprising in a way, because I felt the images I selected for the competition were quite subtle in how they might represent what Earth Photo 2021 was about.
I imagined a lot of people would think about climate change—images that people see daily of droughts and fires. But for me, it’s about the subtleties of stories. Telling individual tales about people. Amongst all the photographs I took in Ethiopia, Selamawit’s family particularly stood out for me. There was something about their dignity—I remembered them immediately and went straight to those images for the competition.
It’s a tale about a family. It could be one of millions of families around the globe. It’s quite a subtle tale of how they live their lives on a day-to-day basis.
I think education programs—lifting people up out of grinding poverty—are an amazing way of helping people, their communities, wider society, and the country as a whole.
It’s great that these photographs give people the opportunity to learn about the work that organizations like the Luminos Fund are doing. Photography is such a great way of telling those stories.
Luminos: Out of all your work, why did you choose to submit these three photos for the 2021 Earth Photo competition?
Rosie: It touched me a lot—it was just an amazing program. I don’t think any sort of charitable program has touched me as much as [Second Chance] has. Just how simple it seemed and yet how unbelievably effective it was. It literally transformed people’s lives with relatively small amounts of money.* People weren’t being given thousands of dollars, it was small seed funds. From that they were growing businesses and not just lifting themselves out of poverty, but everyone around them.
I met a lovely woman who was running a café, built from her savings group seed funding back then. Her son had completed the Second Chance program, and now all her other children were going to school because she now had the money to send them. Second Chance didn’t just impact that one child who did the catch-up program, it impacted all [the rest]. And then they’ll have children and their children will go to school. This small seed funding can impact dozens if not hundreds of people. I just thought it was amazing.
*In Ethiopia, as part of our program offering, Luminos runs savings groups for mothers of Second Chance students. Women meet weekly to save, form a business plan, and receive business and literacy training. They also receive seed funding to launch their business and are connected to local microfinance groups at the end of the school year. Eventually, mothers increase their economic stability and ability to cover the costs of future schooling when children transition to government schools.
Luminos: Where did Selamawit live and what was her life like?
Rosie: Selamawit lived in a small village with her mother, Meselech, father, Markos (also referred to as Marco in some news coverage), and three other siblings. The school was in the center and traditional huts were spaced around it. Selamawit hadn’t been in school before because her family couldn’t afford it. She was roughly 9 or 10—the same age as my daughter at the time.
Meselech hadn’t had an education and Selamawit was her first child who was able to go to school. This was at the very beginning of the program, and already her daughter could now write her name and was learning to read. I think the mother thought it was brilliant. Meselech was really engaged in the program and fully encouraging of her daughter: she said Selamawit was working hard and would continue her education after the program.
Selamawit enjoyed being at school and learning—being able to write her name was big news. The classrooms were absolutely amazing. As you approached the school you could always hear which one was the Second Chance classroom by the level of noise. All the kids were answering and everything was very visual—lots of handmade things and the students are all wearing hats. That’s what was so lovely about it—it was really vibrant. Seeing children that were so keen to learn and that were so engaged with what was going on. That’s what I really remember from going into the classrooms: these great levels of energy.
Selamawit studied at school, but then she also did all her daily chores: sweeping out the house, picking coffee beans, going to the well to collect water like all the other children. The day I visited her family, I stayed with them all morning and we ate lunch together. To watch that meal being prepared from nothing, all from the land, was mind-blowing for me. It was a really humbling experience.
Everything they needed they had to go and get. If they wanted to eat, they went into the field at the back of the house and picked some crops. To cook the food they had to go collect the firewood to build the fire. They had to go to the well to get water. To make coffee, they would pick beans from a few coffee plants on their land, dry them out, and roast them before grinding them for coffee. Every single thing they ate and drank came from their land.
You realize how fragile people are. You look at things like environmental changes—you’d only need a flood or a drought and that’s a family who’s not eating anymore.
The whole program was amazing really. I’m glad it’s still going, and I’m glad you’re running it.
Luminos: Why do you think education is important?
Rosie: I think education is important in every single society. In London, where I live, some people are more advantaged than others. Some people have better opportunities to get a decent education than others. It’s the same around the globe. Education is both a basic human right and a smart investment. It is critical for development and helps lay the foundations for social wellbeing, economic growth and security, gender equality, and peace. These really are the cornerstones of life. Everybody benefits from having a better education.
“Education opens doors for changing one’s life. Education gives you multiple avenues to success. By education, it means for me every type of education – in and out of school. Anything new and useful that we learn will contribute to change our lives.”
Tegitu, Second Chance teacher
Tegitu experienced the joy of education early as a child. She attended primary and secondary school, and looked forward to continuing onward to grades 11 and 12. “If I were a man, I would be able to go to [the next town over], stay in a rented house with a group of other students and would complete my preparatory education and join university. I couldn’t go to the next town to continue my education – because I am a woman. My parents couldn’t let me go in fear of other risks.” As a result of being unable to continue her education and go on to teacher’s college, Tegitu wasn’t qualified to work as a government school teacher. However, bright young adults like Tegitu hold incredible potential. Luminos has had great success recruiting and training local young adults with at least a 10th grade education to serve as teachers in our Second Chance classrooms. In a Luminos classroom in the Sidama region of southern Ethiopia, Tegitu found her own second chance to pursue her love for education and became a Luminos teacher four years ago.
This Women’s History month, we want to honor the many incredible women who are integral to the Luminos Fund’s mission of providing transformative education programs to thousands of out-of-school children by teaching every day in our Second Chance classrooms. Luminos teachers (a mix of both men and women) have made it possible for us to reach 152,051 children with joyful, quality learning. Luminos strives for gender equality in all our classrooms (49% of Luminos students in Ethiopia are girls this year), and women like Tegitu help students form a solid foundation for their education. Recently, we accompanied Tegitu for the day as she shared what she loves about teaching and education, and her hopes for her students and women in Ethiopia.
Hopes for the Future
Tegitu has high hopes for the future of women in Ethiopia and says, “I dream Ethiopian women will conquer key positions in government and the community with at least equal numbers as men. I wish men could share the burden of women at home. I wish I could abolish all domestic violence against women.” For girls, Tegitu sees education as a critical way to counter structural marginalization. “If girls have a good education,” she says, “they can stand up for themselves.” Ultimately, Tegitu believes education leads to a better life for girls and their future families.
“I want to see my students become outstanding students recognized at the regional and national level. I want them all to complete high school and get some kind of training that enables them to lead a successful life. Above all, I dream young people will grow up in high discipline, loving their country, and becoming hard workers.”
Tegitu, Second Chance teacher
Luminos is proud to have inspiring, empathetic teachers like Tegitu in our Second Chance classrooms. Their tireless efforts transform the lives of some of the most marginalized children around the world, unlocking the light of learning to create brighter futures across communities and generations.
After a long, dark year, 2021 promises hope, joy, and possibility—the chance to start imagining the world both as what it used to be and what it can become. When the Luminos team gathered virtually for the first time this year, CEO Caitlin Baron asked everyone to share one reflection or insight from 2020 that we wanted to carry forward in 2021. Team members shared diverse reflections, including the joy of reconnecting with old friends and building deeper relationships with our colleagues around the world thanks to video platforms and texting apps.
Nikita Khosla, our Senior Director of Programs, noted that even with all its challenges, 2020 enabled us to support our Luminos students and their families more deeply and holistically. When stay-at-home orders rolled out in the communities we serve, Luminos stayed close every step of the way to understand the impacts of this new reality: lower incomes, less food, and psychological strain in addition to the COVID-19 health crisis. How would our programs in Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia adapt to better serve their needs while remaining true to our mission of unlocking the light of learning in all children? As Liberia Program Manager, Abba Karnga Jr., reflected, this year strengthened Luminos’ ability to adapt rapidly in changing contexts. Thanks to our Liberian team’s innovation and generous, flexible support from our supporters, we were able to assist communities with sanitizing stations and emergency food relief, in addition to providing distance learning.
Yet throughout this period of emergency response, the future of the children we serve loomed heavy in our minds. Education is critical to ensuring today’s children are prepared and empowered for the future. Learning to read unlocks the door to progression through education and on to achieving their full potential. For every extra year of schooling, there is a 9% increase in an individual’s hourly earnings. Yet for every three months out of school, children can lose up to a year of learning. And according to a recent World Bank report, COVID-related school closures risk pushing an additional 72 million primary school children into “learning poverty”—being unable to read and comprehend a simple text by age 10—exacerbating a learning crisis that existed long before COVID-19. At Luminos, our mission to ensure children everywhere get the chance to experience joyful learning is now more urgent than ever before, and we have the tools to help.
As Michelle Kaffenberger of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme noted to CNN recently, “The crisis doesn’t end when schools reopen. The crisis is going to keep going, if adequate remediation is not taken when children come back.” As schools reopen, it is critical that educators meet children where they are. In our Second Chance classrooms, this means continually assessing students to ensure everyone is progressing and providing extra support to those who are struggling. For example, in Liberia, in addition to twice-weekly hour-long sessions where teachers help students who are struggling, we are also holding short weekend classes to help students keep up with the curriculum in this uniquely shortened 2020-21 school year. Our focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills ensures that students have the foundation to thrive in the future. Critically, our program teaches students how to learn, a skill that can be applied both in their continuing education and throughout their lives.
As we look to the year ahead with a sense of hope and optimism, our students remind us that they are eager to learn. Before our Second Chance classrooms reopened earlier this month, a Liberian student named Charles told us, “School is preparing me for tomorrow. I love this school because they are helping me be good for tomorrow.” Our students have hopes and dreams for incredibly bright tomorrows. In a recent Luminos survey, over 35% of Second Chance students in Liberia dreamed of going into a medical profession to help those around them. Others dreamed of becoming president and holding public office, traveling the world, or becoming business professionals. We can’t wait to see what they do.
As our Communications Director, Maretta Silverman, noted in our team’s round-robin reflection, 2020 reminded us how important it is to show others what they mean to us and how much we care, through new ways and old. So, as we head into 2021, we at Luminos would like to thank you—our supporters, partners, advisors, and friends—for joining us on this journey. When we envision what could be, we see a world where children everywhere experience joyful learning, and no child is ever denied the chance to learn. Let’s get to work.