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.

Mignot: An Aspiring Doctor Learns to Read & Do Math

Mignot: An Aspiring Doctor Learns to Read & Do Math

Over 200 miles south from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a Luminos classroom is buzzing with learning.

Out-of-school children who either never enrolled in school before or dropped out are taking their second chance at education and running with it.

Mignot, a ten-year-old girl, is eager to share what she loves most about the classroom.

“My favorite activity is singing songs because I learn about so many things when I sing the songs. And I never forget the songs, so I never forget what I have learned,” she says.

Luminos classrooms are joyful, safe environments where learning is interactive and engaging.

Our free, one-year catch-up program has been a transformative experience for Mignot, who dropped out of a government school a few years ago.

“She couldn’t read or write, but now she loves to read when she gets home,” beams Mignot’s mother, Alemitu.

Mesfin Yacob, Sodo Zuria Woreda School Improvement and Supervision Directorate Team Leader.

Letters of the alphabet decorate the inside of Mignot’s classroom.

“Mignot is one of my students that really excelled. She is now one of the top students in this classroom. I am very proud of her.”

Derese, Luminos teacher in Ethiopia

“Mignot is one of my students that really excelled. She is now one of the top students in this classroom. I am very proud of her,” says her teacher, Derese. “The best thing about being a teacher is seeing my students improve. It is quite amazing how they transform within such a short period of time.”

He adds, “Educating girls is important for our country because they make up half of the population and can have a huge impact on the community.”

The Luminos program is transformative for vulnerable children like Mignot. Children learn to read, write, and do math, and over 90% of Luminos students continue their education after our program: advancing into government schools with their peers.

Setting up impactful classrooms like this is ambitious and necessary, especially in today’s global learning crisis — and occasionally met with skepticism.

“At first, I thought it was impossible. I just couldn’t accept it. I had so many questions about the program,” admits Mesfin Yacob, the government’s district-level Team Leader who provides support to all the classrooms in Mignot’s community. But after seeing Luminos students and teachers interact with enthusiasm and determination, and the dramatic learning gains that Luminos students make, Mesfin changed his mind.

“After I saw the results, I believed in the program,” he explains.

Mesfin Yacob, Sodo Zuria Woreda School Improvement and Supervision Directorate Team Leader.

Mesfin Yacob, Sodo Zuria Woreda School Improvement and Supervision Directorate Team Leader.

“I have been able to see closely how the lessons are given and how the teachers are committed. The follow up by teachers is quite amazing. They do much better than the regular teachers. Even highly paid teachers do not show this level of commitment and output. The classrooms are lively and have a lot of learning resources,” says Mesfin.

He adds, “I am now a champion of the program.”

Mignot has every intention of continuing her education until she can reach her dreams.

“I would like to become a doctor,” she says, “so that I can be able to help people and save their lives.”

Mignot with her mother, Alemitu.

Mignot with her mother, Alemitu. When Alemitu describes Mignot’s progress through Luminos’ program, she says, “She [Mignot] couldn’t read or write, but now she loves to read when she gets home.”

Read this story and others from our various country programs in our 2021 Annual Report!

Photo credit for this story: Mekbib Tadesse

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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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