Kirstin Buchanan is Special Assistant to the CEO at the Luminos Fund where she provides essential executive, communications, fundraising, and event planning support. She holds a MA in International Affairs and BA in International Relations from Boston University, as well as a certificate in Latin American studies.
I grew up in the Caribbean and have seen how institutional and societal inequalities impact access to opportunities, including to quality education. Growing up, I developed a passion for supporting and amplifying the voices of vulnerable and marginalized communities and the issues they face. I believe that there is extraordinary innovation within communities and, when given the resources to adequately express it, they are some of the greatest architects of truly transformative solutions. This belief, in part, led me to the Luminos Fund.
COVID learning recovery is not a level playing field
Nearly two years into the global pandemic that saw the shuttering of schools everywhere, we are witnessing a gradual return to a sense of normalcy and a hopeful reimagining of a more resilient, flexible, and equitable education system. However, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the problem of learning loss and its impact on individuals and societies. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were cut off from their education.
Andenet, eight years old, lives in the Bona District of rural Ethiopia. She is the youngest of five siblings. While Andenet’s mother, Aster, was able to save enough money to send two of her younger children to school, she couldn’t afford to send Andenet, too.
“It was difficult to send her to school because I couldn’t afford the cost of education materials for three children,” says Aster.
Around the world, millions of children face similar barriers to learning. Over 59 million primary-school-aged children were out of school before COVID-19 swept the globe; over half of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO). In addition to financial constraints, children like Andenet are often kept out of school due to conflict, violence, cultural practices, gender, and distance, among other factors.
The pandemic has brought the critical challenge of barriers to learning to the forefront of global discourse: a challenge affecting marginalized communities long before stay-at-home mandates, national lockdowns, and global school closures. Today, UNESCO estimates that as many as 24 million additional children may not return to school following the pandemic. Traditional barriers to learning, coupled with the impacts of the pandemic, risks a lost generation of learners with lasting impacts on their futures, the future of their societies, and the world.
It has never been more urgent to build resilience within education systems: to equip them to not only cope in the face of crises like COVID-19, but also to think more expansively and innovatively about addressing the confluence of barriers hindering children’s journeys back to school.
Building resilience for children to learn
To build children’s resilience to learn, wherever they are and regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, I believe we must address learning barriers at their root, incorporating affected communities in the development of lasting solutions. The barriers to education are unique to each context, and it is important to engage the people most affected in the search for solutions that are specific to their needs.
Working with communities to harness their wealth of local knowledge and resources, and address barriers to education at the source, is integral to the Luminos model. Implemented in close collaboration with community-based organization partners, Luminos catch-up education programs are free of charge to students and their families and are carefully designed to meet the most marginalized and hardest-to-reach students and communities where they are. Andenet’s mother, Aster, notes that without Luminos’ free program, Andenet would have remained out of school indefinitely. In today’s COVID-19 moment, such programs are more important than ever.
Luminos classes are taught by high-potential, young adults from the community who we train: we build their capacity as teachers to bring children like Andenet back on the path to learning. We help develop intrinsic learners at no cost to families, while fueling local education systems with much-needed trained resources. In Ethiopia, the program includes monthly community savings for mothers, helping them build business management skills and develop sustainable financial practices to augment household and community income. This in turn helps to reduce financial barriers for children to transition to government schools to continue their education.
The way forward
Through my role at Luminos, I’ve seen the value of working in lockstep with communities to ensure that children everywhere can learn. Across program countries, Luminos students are journeying back to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, in keeping with national guidelines and COVID-19 protocols. While I brim with hope and anticipation for their futures after a tumultuous period of global learning disruptions, I know that the work is not done.
There are no ‘quick fix’ solutions to addressing the many barriers to learning for children. Sustainable solutions demand innovation, partnerships, and the prioritization of community members as agents of their own development. Advocating for such solutions is an integral part of my own journey: and my journey has only just begun.