Haftom’s Story: Learning & Resilience in Tigray, Ethiopia

Haftom’s Story: Learning & Resilience in Tigray, Ethiopia

As the sun beats down, Haftom looks out over barren fields, watching the wind blow clouds of orange dust across the conflict-marked landscape of Tigray.

Here, in the northern region of Ethiopia, the impacts of war linger.

“Before the war, all the sheep and cattle were safe,” says Haftom. “Now, after the war, they’re not around. It’s a problem. Now we only have meals twice a day, and they’re small.”

War devasted Tigray and disrupted education for millions of children, resulting in over 1.5 million children being shut out of school for three years.

Dust blows across drought-stricken fields near Haftom’s home. Cruel spiked weeds are the only vegitation remaining. (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

From 2020 to 2022, war devasted Tigray and disrupted education for millions of children, resulting in over 1.5 million children being shut out of school for three years. In the Atsbi district, where Haftom lives, severe drought followed the conflict, creating widespread food insecurity.

“This situation has built up over the past few years: the conflict, people losing their properties and not being able to farm, plus the lack of rain, all adds up to a very dire situation,” reports the Atsbi District Education Head, Gebre Asefa. “It’s hugely impacting the community.”

After a peace agreement was announced, Luminos moved quickly to relaunch our education program in Tigray. Building on our history of operating in Tigray prior to the conflict, we customized the program to meet the unique needs of children in the region. Luminos commissioned a study revealing the war’s impact on children, which showed alarming learning loss and psychological trauma: 62% of children feared being killed and 72% experienced shooting at close range.

In response to the study results, our Tigray program includes trauma-healing, an emphasis on socio-emotional learning, and midday meals to address the significant food insecurity.

Gebre Asefa, Atsbi District Educatino Head. (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

Haftom completes an assignment during class. “I would like to be a teacher, because if I’m educated, I can teach others. I want to give them my knowledge,” says Haftom.​ (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

At age 13, Haftom stepped into a brightly decorated Luminos classroom, beginning his education journey for the first time.

“I came to school without any knowledge. I didn’t know if I could learn. But as I kept coming, I continued to learn from the lessons, and that made me very happy to come to school.”

Haftom, Luminos student

“I came to school without any knowledge,” Haftom explains. “I didn’t know if I could learn. But as I kept coming, I continued to learn from the lessons, and that made me very happy to come to school.”

Through the joyful, free Luminos program, Haftom is learning foundational reading, writing, and math skills. “Before I started school, I only knew one letter,” Haftom remembers, “but now I can read and write, and I know all the letters — in English and Tigrinya!”

Haftom’s confidence grew during the school year, and now he excels in math, Tigrinya, and environmental science. “I’m able to help other students who are struggling with writing and all the subjects,” Haftom notes proudly.

Haftom presents with his group in front of the class. “I’m very happy to have this chance for learning,” Haftom says. “It’s important to get an education. If you get knowledge, you can have a better life.” (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

Tigray continues to face significant challenges. As Haftom notes, “We have a problem. We have a financial problem. My older brother and sister can no longer go to school, and we have a shortage of food. We get breakfast and dinner, but only a small portion. I’m happy to eat lunch at school.”

The midday meals Luminos provides in Tigray are a lifeline for our students, providing critical nutrition and energy to learn and engage.

While the challenges and needs in Tigray are great, Luminos eagerly looks to serve more children like Haftom, with hope for the region’s recovery.

Haftom with his mother, Kahsa, outside Haftom’s classroom. “I was very happy for Haftom to start the program,” says Kahsa. “We couldn’t afford to send him to school before. I was not educated myself, but I’m happy for Haftom to complete his education so he can get employment and lead a modern life. He’s a good student.” (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

Haftom smiles outside of his classroom. Haftom’s favorite subject is math. “I like all the subjects, but I like math the most,” says Haftom.  (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

Read this story and others from our various country programs in our 2023 Annual Report!

To learn more about our Ethiopia program, click here.

To read Luminos’ summary report of our commissioned independent study on learning loss, trauma, and resilience amongst primary-school-aged children in Tigray, click here.

Photo credit for this story: Mara Chan

Annie’s Story: Transformative Learning in Liberia

Annie’s Story: Transformative Learning in Liberia

In a quiet community near the banks of the Farmington River in Liberia, 10-year-old Annie lives just minutes from her local government school. Sadly, when her mother could no longer afford the modest fees, Annie dropped out of school, fell behind on her education, and needed help catching up.

When the free Luminos program launched in her community, Annie suddenly had the opportunity to learn to read, write, and do math in just one school year.

“I was excited to come back to school. I was happy because I got a second chance to learn,” says Annie.

“I was excited to come back to school. I was happy because I got a second chance to learn”

Annie, Luminos student in Liberia

The same year that Annie attended the Luminos program, IDinsight, a global research and advisory organization, conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of the Luminos program in Liberia, which proved that Luminos students learn a remarkable amount. The results show that Liberian children enrolled in the one-year Luminos program learn 90% of what the average Liberian will learn in their lifetime.

Annie with her mother, Mary, outside their home. (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

Annie admits it was challenging at the beginning.

“The math was hard for me.” She pauses, then smiles. “But I learned the times table.”

“I didn’t know how to read before, but now I can read,” Annie adds with confidence. By the end of the program, Annie’s Luminos teacher described her as a “super reader.”

The Luminos program goes beyond teaching children to read, write, and do math. The classroom instills confidence in children, most of whom have never experienced how it feels to be successful at school.

Annie now takes initiative, is eager to read in front of her peers, and participates in classroom activities.

“I feel happy to go to the school,” she says.

Annie’s Remarkable Reading Progress (words per minute):

By the end of the Luminos program, Annie was reading over 100 words per minute and successfully transitioned into grade 4 in her local government school.

Annie’s aspirations are as bright as her smile when she speaks of her future: “I want to continue my education. I want to go to college. I want to be a nurse when I get older.”

New RCT Shows Huge Learning Gains in Luminos Liberia Program

In 1 year, a Luminos student learns

%

of what the average Liberian will learn in their entire life*

*Based on Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling

Results of a new IDinsight RCT of the Luminos program in Liberia prove that, with the right support, children can learn a remarkable amount in a short period of time.

At the end of the 2022-23 school year, Luminos students read four times as many words per minute and completed two times as many addition and subtraction problems as children in control communities.

Effects were similar in size for girls and boys, younger and older children, children who were previously enrolled in school and dropouts, and children who started with lower baseline learning levels compared to higher baseline learning levels.

Compared with government school children in the same communities, children in the Luminos program started the school year with much lower literacy and numeracy scores, but ended the school year with similar numeracy scores and substantially higher literacy scores than their peers in school.

No other externally evaluated program in Liberia has come close to the learning gains that IDinsight documented through the RCT of the Luminos program. Learn more in this summary of the RCT.

“The Luminos Fund is demonstrating that there is a way to reach the most marginalized children and to run an accelerated program that, within 10 months, can give them the building blocks that will prepare them to transition to and succeed in the mainstream education system.”

Jeffery McManus, Senior Economist at IDinsight

Read this story and others from our various country programs in our 2023 Annual Report!

To learn more about our Liberia program, click here.

Photo credit for this story: Mara Chan and Derrick Michael

Luminos Publishes 2023 Annual Report

Luminos Publishes 2023 Annual Report

The Luminos Fund is proud to share our 2023 Annual Report.

With one in five children in Sub-Saharan Africa out of school, Luminos’ mission to ensure all children gain the foundational learning skills necessary to catch up and thrive has never been more important. This is especially true for the most marginalized children.

With your support, the Luminos Fund reached 59,069 out-of-school children in the 2023-24 school year — our largest annual reach. To date, Luminos has helped more than a quarter of a million children experience joyful, foundational learning.

OVER A QUARTER OF A MILLION

total children provided a second chance at education

“Because I’m getting an education, I can read words and do math like addition and subtraction. This makes me proud of going to school.”

Leul, Luminos student in Ethiopia

2023 was an incredible year thanks to your support. We continued to expand across all our country programs, including relaunching our program in Tigray, Ethiopia to serve children who missed out on over three years of learning due to a devastating conflict. Results from a key new study by IDinsight in Liberia proved that children in Luminos classrooms make dramatic learning gains. Luminos classrooms in Lebanon continued to remain a lifeline for children’s learning. Through close partnerships with government, we launched our newly developed accelerated learning curriculum in The Gambia as well as supplemental teaching and learning materials in Ghana. In sum, Luminos developed over 5,000 pages of teaching and learning materials in 2023 to better support our students and teachers.

Step Inside a Luminos Classroom

Explore elements of the Luminos program through the interactive illustration below! Hover over the numbers to learn more about our program.

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1

Serving the Most Vulnerable

Luminos serves out-of-school children aged 8-14, including both girls and boys in relatively equal numbers. We reach the most marginalized communities with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 5 children is out of school.

2

Joyful, Activity-Based Learning

Lessons are joyful, inclusive, engaging, and interactive, incorporating local learning materials, games, songs, and stories throughout the day.

3

Small Class Sizes

With 25-30 students per class, Luminos classrooms are small in contrast to regional norms of 50-60.

4

Engaging Families

Parents play an important role in their child’s learning journey. Luminos invites parents into our classrooms and organizes monthly meetings so they can share in the joy of their children’s progress.

5

Foundational Learning

The Luminos program focuses on building foundational reading, writing, and math skills through a structured pedagogy emphasizing phonics.

6

Intensive, Accelerated Timeline

The Luminos program typically runs five days a week for 10 months, covering grades 1-3.

7

Meeting Students Where They Are

Teachers are equipped with simple assessment tools to track and respond to their students’ learning levels, ensuring all students are making good progress.

8

Community Teachers

Luminos trains local, high-potential young adults to become community teachers and provides regular feedback and coaching throughout the year.

9

Community Partners

Luminos partners with community-based organizations to co-create and co-implement our programs.

10

Data-Driven

Through weekly student assessments, skilled classroom observation, and external evaluations, Luminos continuously tracks learning progress and provides additional support as needed.

11

Government Partners

Luminos partners with ministries of education to strengthen education systems and build capacity to deliver our program at scale.

12

Transition

Over 90% of Luminos students advance into local government schools, joining their peers.

​Meet Luminos Students and Teachers

Our students, teachers, and the communities that surround them are overcoming daunting obstacles to achieve incredible things. In the 2023 Annual Report, we feature the voices of students from across our country programs who have achieved remarkable learning gains.

They include students like Annie in Liberia, who started the Luminos program unable to identify letters and ended the school year as a “super reader” in the words of her teacher. Annie’s progress illustrates the remarkable learning gains  in Luminos’ Liberia program, as demonstrated in IDinsight’s randomized controlled trial results.

You’ll also meet Haftom, a Luminos student in Tigray, Ethiopia who is catching up on years of learning lost to conflict and gaining confidence in a joyful Luminos classroom. In Tigray, where war devastated the region and disrupted education for millions of children, our program includes trauma-healing, an emphasis on socio-emotional learning, and midday meals to address the significant food insecurity.

In addition, you’ll meet Gifty, a Luminos teacher in Ghana who is achieving her dream of helping out-of-school children in her community. Supported by the Luminos program’s ongoing training, coaching, and structured pedagogy, Gifty is transforming the lives of her students by building their foundational reading, writing, and math skills, as well as their sense of identity and self-belief.

We are honored to share their inspiring stories and more in the 2023 Annual Report.

Thank you for supporting our work. Together, we can ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning.

Africa Day and the AU’s Year of Education: Prioritizing Foundational Learning for a Brighter Future

Africa Day and the AU’s Year of Education: Prioritizing Foundational Learning for a Brighter Future

By: Kirstin Buchanan

Each year, May 25 marks Africa Day – a time to celebrate the rich culture, traditions, and diversity of the continent and its people. As a member of the African diaspora raised in the Caribbean, Africa Day is an opportunity for me to celebrate the strong cultural identity and common heritage that intricately connect us and an important reminder that together, we can lay the foundations for a brighter future.

This year, the African Union declared 2024 the “Year of Education,” calling on governments to accelerate progress toward achieving regional and global education targets.

With nearly 90% of 10-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa unable to read and understand a simple text, this declaration brings renewed hope for unlocking Africa’s immense potential, emphasizing the critical role of education. For the Luminos Fund, it underscores the importance of our education mission: to ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning.

Luminos student in The Gambia writes in his student workbook during class.

In The Gambia, Luminos student Ebrima practices his handwriting during class. Learning to write is a critical part of foundational literacy. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund) 

A Day of Celebration and Reflection

Africa Day commemorates the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on May 25, 1963. Since its founding, the OAU, known today as the African Union (AU), has served as the pillar of regional cooperation, focused on achieving shared development goals and promoting peace and stability through unity. Africa Day has become a day of both celebration and reflection on the region’s progress toward these goals.

Education is a crucial piece of the puzzle on Africa’s path to continued prosperity. The Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25), adopted by AU heads of state and government, provides the framework for transforming education systems and equipping Africa’s youth to become agents of change for advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The theme for the AU’s Year of Education, “Educate and Skill Africa for the 21st Century,” is a timely reaffirmation of these commitments. Multiple years of compounding crises, from pandemics to climate change, have reversed much of the continent’s progress in education and underscored the urgency for building more equitable education systems that are resilient to future crises.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in five primary-school-aged children are still out of school. Even beyond access, one in four children does not complete primary school, and most children enrolled in school are not learning. At most, only one in five children achieves the minimum proficiency level in reading upon completing primary education (UNESCO).

Prioritizing foundational learning for all children is one of the most important tools for addressing the learning crisis. With strong foundations in literacy and numeracy, children and youth are empowered to access a world of knowledge and ideas that will enable them to build higher-order skills and unlock pathways to improved livelihoods. For the most marginalized children, the ability to read, write, and do math builds belief in their own potential, resulting in the confidence and motivation to succeed in future learning environments.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Luminos is helping out-of-school children get a second chance at education. I fondly remember one of my first experiences entering a Luminos classroom in Ethiopia – students’ faces lit up with joy as they practiced counting play money through a song, sung to the tune of a local nursery rhyme. Throughout the room, an array of colorful artwork, including numbers and the letters of the alphabet, bring life to the otherwise barren thatch and bamboo walls. By focusing on joyful, foundational learning, we provide children with a safe and inclusive environment where they can feel comfortable and enjoy the learning process. This, in turn, helps develop a love of learning in students that continues well beyond their time in the Luminos program.

Indeed, this was the experience of Luminos alumna, Degnesh, who is now proudly enrolled in grade 4 at her local government school. After many years out of school, Degnesh enrolled in the Luminos catch-up program in 2021. There, she built foundational reading, writing, and math skills, as well as her love for learning.  “When I entered the Luminos classroom, I could not identify letters,” says Degnesh. “Now I’m reading at home and at school. The program made me love education.”

Luminos alumna Degnesh outside her classroom holding her school books.

Luminos alumna, Degnesh, says, “I was sad to leave [the Luminos program], but at the same time, I was very proud of myself. Now I have the attitude that I can achieve anything I want.” (Photo: Michael Stulman/Luminos Fund) 

Beyond the individual impacts, strong foundational learning systems serve as the cornerstone for building flourishing societies by promoting productive citizenship, sustainable development, gender equality, improved health, social cohesion, and stability. In the words of the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, “Investing in education is the greatest investment we can make in our common future, in peace, and sustainable development, and particularly in gender equality.

 A Critical Inflection Point

Addressing the learning crisis has long been an expressed priority for African governments. Many governments have endorsed the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning, a global initiative launched at the 2022 United Nation’s Transforming Education Summit (TES), signaling their commitment to ensure foundational learning for all children and advance progress toward SDG 4 targets. The AU’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of Education presents an opportune, yet critical moment for governments to further build on these commitments and prioritize foundational learning in national policy agendas.

African governments and ministries of education can chart a path to a brighter future for generations to come by investing in strengthening education systems. While this takes many forms, evidence-based strategies include prioritizing implementation of structured pedagogies and instructional methods, ongoing teaching development and coaching, and robust monitoring and evaluation.

In addition to strong political leadership, substantial collaboration will be required.

SDG 4: Quality Education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Targets:

  • 4.1 Free primary and secondary education
  • 4.2 Equal access to quality pre-primary education
  • 4.3 Equal access to affordable technical, vocational and higher education
  • 4.4 Increase the number of people with relevant skills for financial success
  • 4.5 Eliminate all discrimination in education
  • 4.6 Universal literacy and numeracy
  • 4.7 Education for sustainable development and global citizenship
  • 4.8 Build and upgrade inclusive and safe schools
  • 4.9 Expand higher education scholarships for developing countries
  • 4a Increase the supply of qualified teachers in developing countries

Education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia during an inter-ministerial exchange facilitated by Luminos in Ethiopia. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund) 

Through my experience at Luminos, I have learned that there is power in unity – no one country can solve the learning crisis alone. This notion of strength in unity was the impetus for a recent inter-ministerial exchange facilitated by Luminos, which convened a range of education leaders and experts from Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia for a series of discussions on advancing foundational learning in Sub-Saharan Africa. This power in unity is also the very pillar on which the African Union was formed.

 This Africa Day, let us celebrate the unity and collaboration that has paved the way for the continent’s progress to date. Let us also unite in our commitment to work together to unlock the light of learning in every child through joyful, foundational learning, so they may bring to fruition the AU’s aspirations to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.

Kirstin Buchanan

Kirstin Buchanan is the Communications and Advocacy Manager at the Luminos Fund where she amplifies student voices and program stories, in addition to helping drive content, messaging, and fundraising strategy. Kirstin leads the development and implementation of the communication strategy relating to the organization’s advocacy and government engagement work. She also leads engagement with the Luminos Fund Advisory Board.  

How to Build Effective International Education Programs

How to Build Effective International Education Programs

Across the globe, access to universal education is often seen as a key goal for many international education programs — and it is tempting to think that learning follows a simple pattern: build schools, hire teachers, and children will learn.

Yet the fact that nine out of ten children in low-income countries cannot read by age 10 is proof that delivering effective education, especially in low-resourced settings, is hard.

Teaching children who are often the first in their families to learn to read is an extraordinarily daunting task — especially if doing so in a language they don’t speak at home, with minimally trained teachers, and little to no classroom materials. Adding to these challenges is the fact that many, if not most, of the international education interventions set up to improve school learning fail: currently, three out of five of the largest global funders of basic education have no evidence of impact at scale.

At the Luminos Fund, we know that effective education projects are rooted in iterative design – a process centered on continuous improvement and refinement. In this approach, organizations continuously evaluate their program implementation to assess their impact and make ongoing adjustments accordingly. For education projects and organizations, impact means students are learning, and the depth of that impact is the depth of a student’s learning gains.

Successful education initiatives marry the best of global learning science with local insights and apply an iterative approach to implementation. At Luminos, we have identified six key capabilities needed to create our organizational culture of iterative design:

1. A Deep Commitment to an Ongoing Journey

At Luminos, our iterative process is an ongoing cycle with three key stages: design, learn, adapt. From the moment our program is launched in the classroom, Luminos is iterating on our approach in response to the data we collect. Our learnings inform the nature, extent, and pace of our program adaptations. These adaptations occur across all aspects of our programming, including curriculum design, assessments, service delivery program support, and staffing capacity and structures. Once one cycle ends, the next one begins.

2. A Focus on One Thing — Foundational Learning — and Doing It Well

While the needs of children in the developing world are vast, they cannot all be effectively addressed simultaneously by one international nongovernmental organization. Focusing on what you do best allows you the time and capacity to refine your approach until you reach excellence. At Luminos, we do one thing: provide joyful, foundational learning to marginalized children. Our singular focus enables iteration, allowing us to home in on the adjustments and adaptations needed to achieve maximum impact for our students.

3. Consistent Classroom-Level Implementation

In pursuit of foundational learning and in support of our community teachers, Luminos applies a structured pedagogical approach to our curriculum. Structured pedagogy involves breaking down complex concepts into smaller, manageable units and presenting them in a logical sequence in order to progressively build upon a child’s foundational knowledge. For example, when teaching students to read, we begin our phonics-based approach by ensuring students can identify letters, then the letter sounds, before blending those sounds into words of increasingly greater complexity, eventually progressing to reading individual words and then sentences.

This framework makes it easy for us to track how consistently our curriculum is implemented across classrooms, and whether individual students or whole classrooms are on track with set learning targets. By laying out clear expectations for children’s learning, our structured pedagogy, combined with our classroom observations and other data collection, allows us to know immediately if we are meeting our learning targets or not, and make adjustments accordingly.

4. Data Collection and Analytics

The ability to quickly and accurately collect data, and then process and learn from that data, is crucial to making adaptations. Across all Luminos’ program sites, we collect data through classroom observations made by supervisors and Luminos staff, student assessments, and external program evaluations. This data provides a clear picture of what is and is not working, and it enables us to focus our adjustments accordingly.

5. A Staff Committed to Excellence, and a Staffing Structure to Match

Iterative design is foundational to Luminos and is reflected in our Beliefs and Values. Among other things, staff commit to using research, data, and classroom observations in the tenacious pursuit of excellence to learn what works and take the initiative to problem solve and adjust our programming accordingly.

6. Extensive Communication and Consensus Building with Partners

From start to finish, Luminos works hand in hand with our community partners and government stakeholders to ensure the successful delivery of our programs. An iterative approach is often new for community and government partners. Sharing data on actual student learning levels and inviting collaboration on solutions is critical for bringing partners along on the iterative design journey.

Looking to the Future

While iterative design is a well-known model in other industries, it is rarely practiced among global education reformers. In a world in which 90% of children in low-income countries have not learned to read by age 10, effective interventions are essential to addressing the problem. We believe the way to get to those effective education interventions is by employing an iterative design approach. Education reform through iterative design is a hard journey, but our results in the classroom tell us that it is the only one worth pursuing.

Learning more in the Iterative Design element of the Luminos Method!

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+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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