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.”

The Power of Writing

The Power of Writing

As Tizta’s fingers curl around a pencil, her words come to life through poetry, showcasing the writing skills that she developed as a recent graduate of the Luminos Fund program in Ethiopia.

One of eight children, Tizta moved from her rural community to live with her aunt and cousin in the eastern city of Dire Dawa when she was ten years old. At the time, she had been out of school for more than two years and had aged out of the mainstream school system. In Dire Dawa, Tizta enrolled in the Luminos program, where she caught up on missed foundational literacy and numeracy skills in ten months, enabling her to transition into grade 4 in a government school this year.

Learning

Learning is the key to knowledge

It answers the missing days

In short, when the lesson starts

I know not knowing is the main problem.

A poem by Luminos alum,

Tizta, age 12

When we talk about early childhood literacy, there is a tendency in the international education sector to focus on the critical importance of teaching children to read. This emphasis on reading is reinforced by the widespread use of literacy assessment tools, like the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), that test the ability of children to read letters, words, and sentences — but not their ability to write them. Yet true literacy can only be achieved through the combination of reading and writing skills.

A Luminos student in Liberia practices writing the alphabet in the early weeks of the program. (Photo: John Healey for the Luminos Fund) 

Writing unlocks new forms of communication, self-expression, and creativity. There is also extensive evidence that learning to write enhances reading and comprehension skills. [1] As students learn to spell words, they internalize the relationships that exist between letter combinations and sounds, ultimately improving their ability to identify and blend those sounds to read words. At the same time, as students build familiarity with the conventions of writing (how to write letters between the lines in their notebook, how to add spaces between words, how to use punctuation, etc.), they become that much better equipped to navigate text on a page.

Writing unlocks new forms of communication, self-expression, and creativity.

Tizta outside her government school classroom.

Education is very important! If you don’t get an education, you can’t reach where you want to go. It’s important to get an education so that you can achieve your dreams and become what you want to become.” says Tizta. (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund) 

This is particularly important in the context of Luminos classrooms, where many students have limited prior exposure to print materials. As students progress to reading more complex sentences and stories, writing about those stories is a highly effective way to stretch and test their levels of comprehension and engagement with the core ideas in a text.

For Tizta, learning to read in the Luminos program was transformational, but so too was learning to write. When asked about her proudest accomplishment at school, Tizta shared, “The fact that I’m able to read — and the fact that I can write, because it allows me to write my poems.” Tizta first became interested in poetry after reading a book with a poem about Ethiopia. Now, when she has time, she likes to sit quietly by herself and write her own poetry. “Because I’m able to write,” she explains, “I can put my ideas into my poems.”

“Because I’m able to write, I can put my ideas into my poems.”

Tizta, Luminos alum

Learning to Write in the Luminos Program

In Luminos structured pedagogy programs in Ethiopia, children begin learning to write from day one. Our program is broken into three phases, each corresponding to a grade level in government schools. In Phase 1 (grade 1), children are introduced to new letters – and learn decodable syllables or words that use these letters – each day. [2] 

Through a combination of “I do, we do, you do” activities, our students learn to recognize the sounds of the new letters, to read the letters, and to write the letters. In addition, students learn how to write at least one decodable word each day. In this phase, students practice writing in a variety of fun and engaging ways. They may start by tracing letter shapes in the air and working in groups to form the letters out of bottle caps, stones, or clay, before writing the letters on slate boards or in their notebooks. Students may finish a lesson by creating flashcards that are later used for a variety of interactive reading activities.

In Phases 2 and 3 (equivalent to grades 2 and 3), students are introduced to at least one reading passage a week. To help students read these texts with fluency, teachers focus on five vocabulary words from the passage each day. Students first practice reading the words by blending their component letter sounds together, and then spelling the words through dictation exercises. Finally, they demonstrate their understanding of the meaning of the words by using them in sentences (both orally and in writing).

A Luminos student notebook in Tigray, Ethiopia. (Photo: Noorun Khan/Luminos Fund)

At the beginning of the week, students write the full reading passage in their notebooks. We introduced this routine to ensure every child would have access to the text, even if they did not have their own their own copies of the textbook, and it has proved to be a very effective activity to improve handwriting and familiarity with sentence structure. As the week progresses, students annotate the passages in their notebooks: finding and underlining the vocabulary words of the day and identifying verbs and other grammatical structures. By Phase 3, students are asked to write answers to comprehension questions, including more open-ended inference questions. 

For our students, the writing journey often starts with something as basic as learning how to properly hold a pencil for the first time. Their journey to mastering letters, words, and then complete sentences unlocks the power of writing. Luminos students often share how proud they are to write their names and the names of their family members – a quiet dignity from this hard-earned skill.

At Luminos, we believe that equipping children with foundational literacy and numeracy skills is essential to unlocking their full potential. After her experience in the Luminos program, Tizta has dreams of becoming a doctor or a teacher. Whichever path she chooses, she hopes to continue to write poems and do poetry readings in her spare time. While the education sector tends to measure success by focusing on gains in reading, Tizta’s poetry is a beautiful reminder of the transformative power of writing.

Tizta with her former Luminos teacher, Ms. Saron. Today, Tizta’s poems often feature her teachers and importance of education. When she grows up, Tizta says, “I want to become a teacher after completing university. I want to be a teacher so that I can educate those who haven’t had a chance to get an education.” (Photo: Mara Chan/Luminos Fund)

[1] Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. ccny_report_2010_writing.pdf (carnegie.org)

[2] Decodable words are words that include only the letter-sound relationships that students have been explicitly taught. For example, if they have been taught the most common sounds represented by the letters a, c, and t, “cat” would be a decodable word while “can” would not. Learn more in our “Phonics 101” blog here.

Yousef: Finding Refuge and Hope in the Classroom | Lebanon 

Yousef: Finding Refuge and Hope in the Classroom | Lebanon 

Joyful, bright-eyed, and brimming with hope for the future. These are just a few words that describe 9-year-old Yousef. 

Despite having to overcome several challenges at a young age, his optimism shines brightly. Yousef was an infant when his family fled their home in Syria and settled in Lebanon. As he grew, his education was postponed because his parents could not afford to enroll him in school. Despite these obstacles, this aspiring pilot continues to dream big.  

In Lebanon, Luminos works closely with two community-based organizations, reaching more than 7,000 children like Yousef to date — providing a safe, welcoming environment where students can catch up on foundational skills and develop their full potential. 

After successfully completing the Luminos catch-up program, Yousef transitioned into public school to continue his education. 

“Education is important because it helps me in the future to get a job and be an independent and effective member in society.” 

Yousef, Luminos alum

“Education is important because it helps me in the future to get a job and be an independent and effective member in society,” Yousef says. “I want to reach university level and get a degree in aviation.” 

Yousef with his mother, Watfa. (Photo: Chris Trinh for the Luminos Fund) 

But Yousef’s path to lifelong learning — and aviation — is not an easy one. As a result of teacher protests over salaries, public schools in Lebanon have faced significant disruptions and closures. The country has endured a series of ongoing social, economic, political, and health crises in the past few years, which have created a dire situation for children, especially the Syrian refugee children Luminos serves. Due to a nationwide economic crisis, prices of basic goods have skyrocketed, and many families have limited access to electricity, which substantially restricts the delivery of basic services.  

“Life has become hard and complicated,” says Yousef’s mother, Watfa. “The electricity and many other problems made Yousef feel sad. I am worried about everything, especially not being able to afford my children’s basic necessities.”  

Today, through an additional Luminos program, Yousef is receiving homework support for math and English (English is one of the two standard languages of instruction in Lebanon). His motivation for learning grows more and more each day. 

“I love my classmates and my teachers,” says Yousef. “After classes, I usually revise my lessons and then I get ready to go to the public school in the afternoon schedule.”  

Colorful posters and letters of the alphabet decorate classrooms in Lebanon. (Photo: Chris Trinh for the Luminos Fund)

According to his teacher, Amal, Yousef has shown significant improvements and is thriving as a self-confident, intrinsic learner.  

“Yousef usually interacts with the pictures shown in stories and connects them with his surroundings. He has proved to be an independent learner. He answers and solves the questions individually,” says Amal.  

By providing a safe and nurturing space to learn, Luminos programs help mitigate the devastating impact of compounded crises and school closures.  

Beyond learning, our classrooms offer a sense of stability and hope — not only for our students, but their teachers and parents, too.  

“Hope has motivated us to curb pessimism. This hope is reflected in the students’ faces. When we see the learners’ diligence and interest in discovering knowledge, our confidence in the coming days is boosted.” 

Amal, Luminos teacher

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

To learn more about our Lebanon program, click here.

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

Photo credit for this story: Chris Trinh

Konjit: Journeying through Conflict to Education in Ethiopia

Konjit: Journeying through Conflict to Education in Ethiopia

Konjit lives with her family in Konso, a small farming town in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia.

She loves writing and excels in reading. When Konjit grows up, she wants to be a doctor so that she can help people. But five years ago, Konjit’s life was upended when her family was forced to flee their home.

“Everything was stolen and burned,” says Konjit. “We started from nothing here.”

Since late 2020, inter-communal conflict in the region has displaced more than 228,000 people, and thousands of children are out of school.

Konjit had never been to school, but along with her guardian, Abebe, the stabilizing force in her young life has become a Luminos classroom.

“Education is important for changing my future. If I’m educated now, I will get a job and help my family.”

Konjit, Luminos student in Ethiopia

Konjit (right) plays a clapping game outside the classroom with her friend. (Photo: Michael Stulman for the Luminos Fund)

“Everybody welcomed me,” she says warmly. In just one school year, Konjit is learning to read, write, and do math in a joyful and safe learning environment.

“At first, Konjit was shy, but now she has confidence in herself,” says Konjit’s teacher, Tiblet.

Last year, Luminos expanded to Konso to serve children displaced by violence, like Konjit, who face numerous barriers to education. In recent years, drought has brought an additional challenge by exacerbating food insecurity in the region. As part of our Konso effort, Luminos provides a free lunch for students.

“This might be the only meal they have today,” explains Tiblet. In addition to Konjit, Abebe has two other children in the Luminos program: Andinet, age 10, and Ashalo, age 8. He recognizes their family is unfortunately still an outlier.

Konjit (left) and her classmates enjoy the free lunch Luminos provides to students in Konso. (Photo: Michael Stulman for the Luminos Fund)

“Education is key to all growth… This is an important program, and I hope the government can expand it. If all schools had this approach, a generation with concrete knowledge can be created.”

Abebe, guardian of Luminos student Konjit

“The conflict has a big impact on education. Many children have no second chance at education because of conflict,” says Abebe. “There’s only a small portion of displaced children who are in school.”

Providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for children like Konjit is critical to ensuring that they are not left behind. The Luminos program not only offers education and nourishment but also instills a sense of hope and possibility for a better future.

“Education is important for changing my future. If I’m educated now, I will get a job and help my family,” says Konjit.

“Education is key to all growth,” Abebe agrees. He is committed to supporting Konjit’s learning journey.

“When Konjit comes home, I help her with her assignments. I want her to have a good education to get a job and I’m willing to help her all the way,” he says. “This is an important program, and I hope the government can expand it. If all schools had this approach, a generation with concrete knowledge can be created.”

Luminos is working with the Ethiopian government to do just that. Since 2017, the Ministry of Education has been rolling out the Luminos model nationally to reach out-of-school children, through a program known as the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), reaching over 65,000 children.

Konjit (right) studies in class. (Photo: Michael Stulman for the Luminos Fund)

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

To learn more about our Ethiopia program, click here.

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

Photo credit for this story: Michael Stulman

Luminos Liberia Students Make Substantial Literacy Gains in 2021-22

Luminos Liberia Students Make Substantial Literacy Gains in 2021-22

Read the full report summary ↑

In 2016, the Luminos Fund launched its accelerated, catch-up learning program in Liberia to help address the country’s urgent education needs – including one of the world’s highest recorded rates of out-of-school children. To date, Luminos has helped 12,650 Liberian children catch up on learning and reintegrate into local government schools. In addition, Luminos has trained 497 young adults on our pedagogy and model, and supported them to deliver the catch-up program in classrooms.

During the 2021-22 school year, the Luminos program increased children’s oral reading fluency (ORF) by 28 correct words per minute (CWPM), with girls progressing 3 CWPM more than boys. Students also made substantial gains in numeracy, with a 28 percentage point improvement in addition and a 20 percentage point improvement in subtraction. Our latest report, “Liberia 2021-22 Endline Evaluation Report,” summarizes results from the 2021-22 Luminos program endline evaluation conducted by Q&A Services. [1]

In 2021-22, the Luminos program ran for 9 months—from November to August— in line with the Ministry of Education’s 2021-22 official academic calendar; this calendar was shifted slightly compared to a standard, September – June calendar due to COVID-19. Luminos students attended class for 7 hours per day from Monday to Friday, with approximately 5 hours per day devoted to reading and 2 hours to numeracy.

Luminos supported 3,150 out-of-school students across 105 classes and five counties (Bomi, Bong, Grand Cape Mount, Margibi, and Montserrado) in Liberia. Every year, Luminos works closely with a small group of community-based partners, each of which manages a cluster of classrooms, to deliver the program.

The results of the evaluation show that the Luminos Fund’s Liberia program positively impacted student reading and math outcomes across all EGRA and EGMA subtasks in the 2021-22 school year. 

Evaluation Overview

The evaluation aimed to demonstrate the impact of the Luminos Liberia program on student literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional outcomes during the 36-week 2021-22 program. Q&A Services assessed the literacy and numeracy levels of a random sample of students across all Luminos classes in the first two weeks of the program (baseline) and again in the final week of the program (endline). The RTI/USAID-developed Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) and Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) tools, adapted for Liberia, were used at both baseline and endline to assess students on a variety of early grade reading and math skills. A socio-emotional learning (SEL) assessment was also conducted with a subset of the student sample using the International Social Emotional Learning Assessment (ISELA) tool. For more details on the evaluation and methods used, please see the full report summary.

Overall Results

The results of the evaluation show that the Luminos program positively impacted student achievement in both reading and math.

Literacy

On reading, students showed improvement across every EGRA subtask, including an improvement of 50 percentage points on letter identification, 46 percentage points on oral reading fluency (ORF) of Grade 2 level text, 39 percentage points on familiar words, and 33 percentage points on reading comprehension. For ORF, students could read 29 CWPM at endline, compared to 1 CWPM at baseline, an improvement of 28 CWPM.

Numeracy

On numeracy, students again showed improvement across every single EGMA subtask, including an improvement of 35 percentage points on number identification, 33 percentage points on number discrimination, 28 percentage points on addition, 20 percentage points on subtraction, and 22 percentage points on word problems. While the program impacted student achievement on mathematics, improvement was less significant than for literacy. This makes sense given that 5 hours of the Luminos school day (approximately 70% of instructional time) is devoted to literacy and 2 hours each day (30% of instructional time) is devoted to numeracy.

Conclusion

The results of the evaluation show that the Luminos Fund’s Liberia program positively impacted student reading and math outcomes across all EGRA and EGMA subtasks in the 2021-22 school year. Results show that the average student improved by 28 CWPM within the 9-month program, with girls improving 3 CWPM more than boys. These results are incredibly impressive given the short (9-month) timeframe for the Luminos program. Results for the SEL assessment show improvement on self-concept, particularly for girls, suggesting possible impact of the Luminos program on broader student development; however, further research is required. When compared with similar programs in Liberia and globally, year on year the Luminos program is showing strong learning outcomes, particularly on literacy.

To read the full report summary, including additional background on our Liberia program and a more detailed overview of the evaluation and methods used, click here.

References:

  1. Simpson, A. “Luminos Fund Endline Evaluation 2021-22, Liberia,” Q&A Services, December 2022.

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