Transforming Liberia’s Education: A Journey from the Classroom to the Ministry of Education

Transforming Liberia’s Education: A Journey from the Classroom to the Ministry of Education

Hailing from rural Grand Bassa County, Liberia, Abba G. Karnga Jr. was destined to be an educator. From a young age, Abba’s father instilled in him a deep passion for learning and a commitment to shaping Liberia’s future through education.

With over a decade of service to the education sector, including seven years at the Luminos Fund, Abba has soared to new heights in his mission to improve Liberia’s education system: on April 2nd, Abba was confirmed as the new Assistant Minister of Basic Education at the Liberian Ministry of Education.

This milestone marks a significant achievement for Abba and highlights his inspiring journey from the classroom to becoming a key figure in Liberia’s education system. His story is not just one of personal accomplishment but also a testament to the transformative power of education.

Following in His Father’s Footsteps

Growing up, Abba’s father had never been to school, which was not uncommon for indigenous Liberians. After the country’s founding in 1822, political tensions led to the marginalization and systematic exclusion of indigenous Liberians from political, economic, and social life. Through determined persistence, and with the support of American missionaries, Abba’s father graduated high school and pursued higher education in the United States.

Abba encourages a Luminos student during the reading portion of an assessment. (Photo by Mara Chan/Luminos Fund)

Following in his father’s footsteps, Abba was determined to go to school, but his path to education was not easy. Liberia’s prolonged political instability and civil wars, ending in 2003, caused the deaths of an estimated 250,000 people – mostly civilians. The country’s education system was yet another casualty of the conflict. Thousands of Liberians, including Abba, had their education disrupted and many students dropped out of school altogether.

During the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1997), Abba and his family were forced to flee their home and seek refuge in Cote d’Ivoire when Abba was just 11 years old. As a refugee, education provided a much-needed sense of stability and hope. Over time, Abba built not only his foundational literacy and numeracy skills, but also his deep love for learning.

When his family returned to Liberia, Abba entered grade 9 in an education system with severe teacher shortages, resulting in overcrowded classrooms and poor-quality teaching. Despite these challenges, Abba graduated high school, and enrolled at Cuttington University in Liberia to study Education. However, the Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003) disrupted his schooling yet again. When peace prevailed, Abba returned to school, graduated in 2007, and began his career as a school principal, starting his journey to reform Liberia’s education.

“High-quality education ensures the human capacity needed to drive the development and well-being of any nation, no matter where it is situated,” says Abba. “To transform Liberia, we must prioritize education for our people.”

“High-quality education ensures the human capacity needed to drive the development and well-being of any nation, no matter where it is situated. To transform Liberia, we must prioritize education for our people.”

Abba G. Karnga Jr., Assistant Minister of Basic Education, Liberian Ministry of Education

During a coaching session, Abba provides feedback to Luminos-trained teacher Matthew, who was recruited by community partner LIPACE. (Photo by Mara Chan/Luminos Fund)

Liberia’s Education Landscape

Liberia is a beautiful, inspiring, and very challenging context for raising children to fulfill their true potential. With a population of 5.3 million people, more than half of Liberians live in poverty. Furthermore, 44% of children of primary school age are out of school. Malnutrition and lack of access to basic technology further complicate learning. The Ebola outbreak in 2014, and more recently COVID-19, pushed thousands more children out of school.

During an interactive math lesson, Abba supports a group of students playing a learning game with flashcards. (Photo by Mara Chan/Luminos Fund)

“When schools reopened after Ebola, 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,” says Abba. This reality motivated him to help bring children back on the path to education.

In 2016, the Luminos Fund expanded our accelerated learning program from Ethiopia to Liberia as part of the country’s recovery journey post-Ebola. Abba joined Luminos in 2017 as a Program Manager and played a key role in shaping the program, helping double its size and strengthening partnerships with parents, community partners, and the Ministry of Education.

“I have always been inspired by programs that give hope to the less fortunate and vulnerable children of Liberia. The idea that a child in the most challenged parts of the country, who had never had the opportunity to learn the alphabet, can learn to read and write over the course of 10 months through the Luminos program — that was mind-blowing to me, and I knew that I had to be part of such magic,” reflects Abba.

“I have always been inspired by programs that give hope to the less fortunate and vulnerable children of Liberia. The idea that a child in the most challenged parts of the country, who had never had the opportunity to learn the alphabet, can learn to read and write over the course of 10 months through the Luminos program — that was mind-blowing to me, and I knew that I had to be part of such magic.”

Abba G. Karnga Jr., Assistant Minister of Basic Education, Liberian Ministry of Education

Each week, Abba would visit Luminos classrooms, providing regular mentoring and coaching for teachers and Luminos community partners.

“Abba worked tirelessly to improve every aspect of the Liberia program. He has an eye for identifying great teachers and played a major role in developing our training content and approaches to training teachers,” says James Earl Kiawoin, Luminos Country Manager in Liberia. “Several of our most outstanding supervisors got their training from Abba and learned by observing how he inspired students, coached facilitators, led trainings, and was laser focused on improving learning outcomes.”

Above all, Abba always encouraged students, serving as true exemplar of leading with passion. He never passed on an opportunity to share with students his belief in their capabilities, or give an impassioned speech on the importance of education.

“My time at Luminos was the most valuable phase of my career as an educator so far,” says Abba. “I witnessed and influenced a lot of transformations. I saw children who started the program not knowing even a single letter progress to reading above 50 words per minute. I also saw young high school graduates with limited teaching experience enter the program and become great teachers – some even became program supervisors.”

A New Journey Begins

Today, sitting at his desk at the Ministry of Education in Liberia, Abba draws inspiration from the words that are plastered on the hallway: “Children are Born Ready to Learn.” In his new role as Assistant Minister of Basic Education, Abba is responsible for developing and implementing programs that support the improvement of basic and secondary schools in Liberia and strengthening partnerships with development partners to ensure alignment with the Ministry’s priorities.

Throughout his youth and career, Abba never gave up on his pursuit of an education despite the challenges before him, much like his father. Abba has since devoted his life to expanding educational opportunities for other Liberians, to ensure that no child is denied the chance to learn.

“This new role gives me the opportunity to bring the commitment and skills that I have exhibited in various organizations over the last thirteen years at the national level,” says Abba.

Abba tests Luminos student Princess on her reading fluency. (Photo by John Healey for the Luminos Fund)

“I am passionate about seeing Liberian students compete with other students globally, and I am committed to ensuring that our students have all the resources necessary for success.”

Addressing the Learning Crisis: 3 Takeaways from a Government Learning Exchange

Addressing the Learning Crisis: 3 Takeaways from a Government Learning Exchange

The Luminos Fund builds strong government partnerships based on collaboration and deep trust to scale our impact and promote systemic change.  In each country, Luminos works closely with ministries of education to strengthen education systems, share best practices, and build capacity to bring joyful, transformative learning to millions of vulnerable, out-of-school children.

Leveraging this partnership ethos, Luminos and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education jointly hosted an inter-ministerial exchange visit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in March 2024. The visit 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. The visit also provided an opportunity to forge the new connections necessary to develop bold responses to the challenge before us all—addressing the global learning crisis.

Despite significant progress in expanding access to the classroom in recent years, far too many children fail to learn even the most foundational skills of reading, writing, and basic math. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of children do not learn to read by age 10. Education systems must undergo fundamental shifts to ensure that every child develops the basic skills they need to succeed, and governments need to prioritize foundational learning.

During the inter-ministerial exchange visit, participants discussed the learning crisis in Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia, and identified evidence-informed approaches that improve learning outcomes and ensure learning for all students. Here are three takeaways from the discussion:

1. The learning crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa goes beyond access

Despite commendable efforts in Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia to expand education access, millions of children remain out of school, often due to a variety of socio-economic barriers including poverty, child labor, and displacement. UNESCO research suggests that children and parents’ negative perceptions of the return on investment for attending school play a considerable role in the out-of-school challenge in low-income contexts. While the rates of out-of-school children remain a key concern, the quality of education for children within the school system is equally alarming. Among 10-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of children are in school but not learning (World Bank).

2. Language of instruction is a complex, but necessary factor to consider for ensuring learning for all students

Mrs. Catherine Appiah Pinkrah, Executive Director of Ghana’s Complementary Education Agency, contributes to the discussion following a presentation on the learning crisis in Ethiopia.

Luminos’ government partners in Ethiopia, Ghana, and The Gambia have each adopted strategies to account for language diversity through the expanded use of mother tongue or area language as the language of instruction. For instance, Ethiopia is an ethnically and linguistically diverse country, with over 80 languages and dialects across its different regions. The language of instruction used in each school is determined by the primary ethnic group present in each community. Students are encouraged to use their mother tongue language in classrooms first, before being introduced to additional languages including national and regional languages. However, factors such as migration and displacement, which have been exacerbated by increased conflict in recent years, further diversify communities and pose key challenges for mother tongue-based multilingual education. Ghana faces a similar challenge where many children, parents, and teachers have relocated to regions or communities where the mother tongue language is different.

3. There is need for greater government investments in foundational learning

In Ghana, the share of the education budget allocated to basic education declined from 39.2% in 2019 to 20% in 2023, with tertiary education receiving the largest proportion of funding among basic, secondary, and tertiary education levels (UNICEF). This trend is similar in Ethiopia and The Gambia. Committing to prioritizing foundational learning in the early years can be a powerful approach to tackling the learning crisis– with long-term benefits for preparing children to obtain higher-level knowledge and competencies in later years.

Dr. Belay Hagos Hailu (center), Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Educational Research at Addis Ababa University, and Luminos Adivsory Board Member, shakes hands with Dr. Alemayehu Hailu Gebre (right), Luminos Senior Director of Programs in Ethiopia. (Photo by Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)

At Luminos, we believe equipping children with foundational learning skills is essential to unlocking a child’s full potential. The Luminos program teaches children to read, write, and do math – to learn how to learn – through a joyful, structured pedagogy that meets children where they are in their learning journey. In just one school year, Liberian children enrolled in the Luminos program learn 90% of what the average Liberian will learn in their lifetime.

If the international development community is to address the urgent learning crisis facing children, effective collaboration and coordination between stakeholders is essential. Through partnerships with governments, Luminos distills effective teaching and learning strategies within education systems, in alignment with the national education priorities in each country. Indeed, a key objective of the African Union’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of Education, under the theme “Educate an African fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality, and relevant learning in Africa,” is to galvanize collective action towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) across the continent.

This exchange visit was a timely effort to not only share best practices, but also to advocate for effective and proven solutions to ensure learning for all children.

Fatou: Transforming Lives through Teaching in The Gambia

Fatou: Transforming Lives through Teaching in The Gambia

Doctors. Teachers. Engineers. Leaders in Government. Dreamers in The Gambia.

Sitting in front of Fatou are 29 children who are eager to learn, pursue their passions, and make a positive impact on the world.

“I want to be a teacher so that I can help other children read and write,” says Pendi, a 13-year-old Luminos student.

Only a few months ago, like his classmates, Pendi was among the 89,190 primary-aged children who are out of school in The Gambia.

As their teacher, Fatou has a critical role in reaching the most vulnerable children and ensuring they achieve the foundational skills needed to succeed in life.

“We are helping both the children and the community,” says Fatou. “There are certain children who have never been to school, and some of them have been to school but dropped out,” she explains. “Bringing all children back to school, back to class, and teaching them is important to me.”

Fatou inside her classroom. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)

“We are helping both the children and the community. There are certain children who have never been to school, and some of them have been to school but dropped out. Bringing all children back to school, back to class, and teaching them is important to me.”

Fatou, Luminos teacher

In The Gambia, Luminos is working hand in hand with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) to ensure all children have a second chance at education. Working together, we developed an accelerated learning curriculum and launched a pilot program. Over the next three years, we will scale to reach up to 26,500 children in The Gambia. However, finding qualified candidates for teaching positions in rural and marginalized communities can be challenging. UNESCO estimates that almost 69 million additional teachers need to be trained globally if there is any hope of achieving universal education by 2030. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is particularly critical, with 70% of countries facing acute teacher shortages.

In The Gambia program, government partners recruit teachers. They identify young adults from existing government initiatives, creating a sustainable pipeline of teachers and setting the foundation for long-term government adoption of our model.

Students in Fatou’s class raise their hands to answer a question. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)

Fatou participated in a multi-week training before classes began, and she receives ongoing coaching from Luminos and our community-based partners.

“Being a teacher, I’m learning something from it, helping myself. Teaching is also helping others to learn something, which is a big thing and very important,” says Fatou.

Luminos provides high-quality, interactive training so teachers can experience the kind of learning we want them to recreate for their students: fun, effective, caring, and safe.

“I have improved in a lot of things like how to manage the class,” she says.

Fatou leads a reading lesson in class. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)

In the classroom, Fatou is responsible for conducting regular assessments of student learning and tracking their progress.

“I have seen a lot of changes. In the beginning, it was discouraging. I was asking the students about letters and words, and they could not say them. Now, if I ask them to say any letter, they can say it. It is the same thing with reading,” she says. “They are encouraging me to do more because now they can write and they can read,” says Fatou.

“My dream for my students is that they can become like me one day. Not necessarily a teacher, but if you are educated, you can achieve many things.”

Fatou, Luminos teacher

Teachers like Fatou are instrumental in unlocking the light of learning so children can reach their full potential and fulfill their aspirations. Together with MoBSE, we can transform education in The Gambia and take one step closer to our vision of a world where no child is denied an education.

“My dream for my students is that they can become like me one day. Not necessarily a teacher, but if you are educated, you can achieve many things.”

Watch the video below to learn more about our program in The Gambia and partnership with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education:

Read this story and others from our various country programs in our 2022 Annual Report!

To learn more about our The Gambia program, click here.

The Luminos Fund's 2022 Annual Report spread on a wooden table.

Photo credit for this story: Lena Nian

Leveraging the Power of Partnership in The Gambia

Leveraging the Power of Partnership in The Gambia

In The Gambia, the Luminos Fund is working hand in hand with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) to tackle one of the most pressing education issues today — how to ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning. Together, we have created and launched an accelerated learning program that brings transformative education to out-of-school children.

The launch of this program marks a major milestone in our partnership with MoBSE. By leveraging the power of partnership, we are reaching the most vulnerable out-of-school children in The Gambia and helping them to catch up to grade level, reintegrate into government schools, and prepare for lifelong learning.

A Timely and Mutually Beneficial Partnership

The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, is home to more than 70,000 out-of-school children. With a population of just over 2.5 million people, the number of out-of-school children presents significant challenges for the country’s efforts to achieve quality education for all. For the most marginalized children, the effects of missed education often extend over a lifetime. As disruptions to learning caused by the global pandemic and other crises increasingly threaten children’s futures, education systems must act now to help the most vulnerable children get back on the path of learning, and strengthen their capacity to adapt to emergent challenges.

The Constitution of The Republic of Gambia acknowledges that basic education is a right to which every child in the country is entitled. While the government has made commendable efforts to increase enrollment rates for primary-school-aged children and provide education services to children outside of the formal school system, ensuring the functional literacy and numeracy of out-of-school children continues to be a challenge.

In 2021, The Gambian government requested Luminos’ expertise and support to develop a new accelerated learning curriculum that provides foundational learning to children who have missed out on basic education in their early years. We are piloting the curriculum in 20 classrooms during the 2022-23 school year, serving children aged 8-14 who have either never enrolled in school, or dropped out two or more years ago. The pilot program is a timely and relevant solution to the out-of-school challenge and aligns with key priorities identified by MoBSE and relevant stakeholders. It is also an opportunity to evaluate the impact of the curriculum and further refine it before scaling the program to reach even more out-of-school children.

The program provides students with foundational literacy and numeracy skills, helping them to catch up on three years of learning in just one school year, then reintegrate into local government schools. We partner closely with community-based organizations to maximize impact and deliver the program using an intensive, child-centered, and activity-based learning approach.

In The Gambia, our classes are taught by community teachers — young adults recommended by the communities we serve, as well as by MoBSE’s Second Chance Programme and the Gambia National Teacher Training College.

Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs at Luminos notes, “When we began this pilot, the majority of the students could not recognize their letters or their numbers, and as time has progressed, we have noticed marked improvement with children confidently recognizing letters, numbers, and even beginning to read short words. In terms of education, every single child’s success is something to be celebrated. The pilot will allow us to change the lives of each and every student who has enrolled.”

“The pilot will allow us to change the lives of each and every student who has enrolled.”

Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs, The Luminos Fund

The Journey so Far and a Way Forward

The challenges facing global education systems today cannot be addressed by any one institution, organization, or individual alone. Through innovative partnerships, founded on mutual respect and trust, we can reverse the learning crisis and ensure support for the most marginalized children.

“The issue of education is not something that any one person or organization can address in silos. The experience that these [community] partners will get from this partnership [with Luminos] can scale up when they implement other programs that they have or when they partner with other organizations in the future.”

Mr. Momodou Jeng, Director of Curriculum Research Evaluation and Development Directorate, Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, The Gambia

At Luminos, our model is powered by innovative partnerships at all levels of society. These partnerships have been integral to our program’s impact and success. In each country of operation, Luminos partners with ministries of education to strengthen education systems by sharing best practices, prioritizing shared goals, building capacity, advising on national education policies, and supporting research.

Since 2021, Luminos has been on this partnership journey with The Gambian government, working jointly to address the out-of-school challenge. Following regular working group discussions to develop the multiple phases of the accelerated learning curriculum, learning exchange visits to the Luminos program in Liberia, and stakeholder consultations with local community partners and research experts, we have developed a practical plan to support out-of-school primary-aged children in The Gambia to receive a second chance at education.

Our experience delivering the Luminos program across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East shows that to build sustainable and resilient education solutions, you must draw from and amplify local systems and resources. Through our partnerships with government and the communities that we serve, we are able to refine, implement, and scale effective accelerated learning programs that are locally driven and contextualized to align with national priorities and goals.

Luminos is grateful for the expertise, enthusiasm, and commitment of The Gambian government to work collaboratively in addressing the country’s out-of-school children challenge. The road ahead will be long, but our journey has just begun. Luminos looks forward to growing our partnership with MoBSE in the months ahead and bringing thousands of out-of-school children back on the path of learning. By unlocking the light of learning, children can reach their full potential and fulfill their aspirations. Together, we can transform education in The Gambia and take one step closer to our vision of a world where no child is denied an education.

“It’s a good thing to have Luminos coming on board to partner with us in this great endeavor of providing education to all the children living in The Gambia. We value the partnership, and we look forward to a stronger, strengthened relationship and collaboration so that we’ll be able to achieve our goals.”

Honorable Minister Claudiana A Cole, Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education

Transforming Education Systems through Innovative Government Partnerships

Transforming Education Systems through Innovative Government Partnerships

By: Kirstin Buchanan

Today, seven in ten young children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story.

The profound learning crisis facing young children today is not one that any single organization or government can address alone. Bringing children back on the path of learning and strengthening education systems to keep them there in the long term will require innovative partnerships built on mutual learning and trust.

This belief was the impetus for a powerful peer-to-peer exchange between the Ministries of Education in Ethiopia and Ghana, facilitated by the Luminos Fund in July 2022.

A Holistic Approach

The Luminos Fund takes a holistic approach to education that works in tandem with all levels of society and is supported by a network of partnerships, including with ministries of education. Though these partnerships vary from country to country, they have common goals: strengthening education systems, sharing best practices, prioritizing mutual goals, and building capacity to bring joyful, transformative learning to millions of vulnerable children.

In Ethiopia, the government first began adopting the Luminos program into government public schools in 2017 with a small pilot of 35 classrooms. Today, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is implementing our approach across the school system, and as its preferred solution to reach out-of-school children.

Inside a Luminos classroom in Ethiopia, students work in small groups as their teacher, Tegistu, walks around to support students who need help. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)

To accelerate this process, the Ministry created the Accelerated Learning Unit—to which Luminos provides technical support on curriculum development, strategies, and national education policy—to oversee the delivery of across government schools. Partnerships such as this enable Luminos to deliver quality education at scale while prioritizing an approach that puts the interests and needs of local communities at the center of decision-making. They also serve as a testament to the value of government partnerships in bringing about systems change.

In each program country, working closely with governments is key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Luminos program.

What Can Ghana and Ethiopia Learn From Each Other?

In addition to partnering with ministries of education on the delivery of the program, Luminos also convenes governments and other key stakeholders to champion proven education solutions and share best practices for scaling accelerated learning programs that ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning.

Luminos Ethiopia Country Director and Regional Strategic Advisor, Dr. Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, greets Mr. Francis Asumadu, Acting Executive Director of the Complementary Education Agency (CEA) for the Ghanaian Ministry of Education. (Photo: Obeng Baah for the Luminos Fund)

In July 2022, Luminos facilitated a learning visit for members of the Ethiopian MOE to explore our newest country program in Ghana and meet with their peers in Ghana’s Ministry of Education. This learning exchange was a unique opportunity to share best practices from Luminos’ flagship program in Ethiopia and bring visibility to the ongoing work within the education sector in Ghana. The visit included four days of highly productive workshops, meetings, and classroom visits. Here are three key takeaways:

1. There’s a strong desire for collaboration.

Both Ministries are keen to find innovative ways of strengthening government-to-government and multistakeholder partnerships, and leveraging these partnerships to provide quality education to out-of-school and marginalized children. Building relationships with other ministries and partners that are providing social services to the most vulnerable families will be critical to ensuring holistic, sustainable support for all learners. The Ghanaian and Ethiopian Ministries of Education are also keen to continue to forge collaborations on key sector issues including improving student retention and strengthening monitoring and evaluation within government schools.

2. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to program delivery and scaling.

To develop high-impact and contextually relevant education solutions to the learning crisis, catch-up education programs will need to be adapted based on the needs, capacity, and context of the communities they serve. Building and strengthening engagement with community-based organizations, parents, and other members of the community is key to ensuring the effective delivery of programs.

3. Accelerated learning programs must be aligned with national strategies, policies, and goals.

Rather than working in silos, nonprofit organizations and ministries of education must work together within a framework established by government, which can generate impact in both informal and formal education systems.

What’s Next

To tackle today’s education crisis, we must act together. Increasingly, our work with governments forms a fundamental piece of the puzzle in scaling our reach and impact. Through these partnerships, we are embedding effective accelerated learning and teaching strategies into the fabric of education systems and creating structures that ensure out-of-school children remain a priority for national education planning. It is only through deep, innovative partnerships with government, local communities, and key education stakeholders that we can truly transform education systems in service of the most vulnerable children.

Kirstin Buchanan serves as the Development & Communications Associate at the Luminos Fund where she amplifies student voices and program stories, in addition to helping drive content, messaging, and fundraising strategy. She holds a MA in International Affairs and BA in International Relations from Boston University, as well as a certificate in Latin American studies.

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

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