On December 2, 2019, Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, joined Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City. The original interview is available at https://denver-frederick.com/2019/12/02/caitlin-baron-ceo-of-the-luminos-fund-joins-denver-frederick/.
Denver: When a child falls behind in school, it can be very difficult for him or her to ever catch up. It’s made that much harder if they fall a couple of years behind, and it is next to impossible if that child happens to be from the developing world. But there is a remarkable innovation in education that is allowing children to close a three-year gap in just a single year. And here to tell us about it, it’s a pleasure to have with us Caitlin Baron, the CEO of The Luminos Fund.
Good evening, Caitlin, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Caitlin: Good evening. Thank you for having me.
Denver: Tell us the mission of The Luminos Fund and the founding story of the organization.
Caitlin: Fantastic. Even today, there are still 250 million children around the world who never learned to read and write; 60 million of those kids don’t even get the chance to try because they’re denied the chance to go to school. Luminos was created to give those children a second chance.
We were founded as a stand-alone organization in 2016 after six long years of experimentation and program development in the far reaches of rural Ethiopia. We found we had a truly unique model of working in some of the poorest communities to deliver rich quality education to children who hadn’t had the chance to study up until then.
Denver: What is the reason that many of these children have not had the chance to study up until then? What changes where they’re able to go to one of your schools?
Caitlin: The two biggest reasons children are kept out of school in the developing world are poverty and conflict. So, in many of the communities we operate, even free education is too expensive when children are needed at home to work on a farm or to care for their siblings. What happens is that families put off schooling – a year, another year, another year. I can’t tell you how many mothers I’ve met who’ve told me, “I promised my son: Next year, you can study.” And what happens is too much time goes on and, ultimately, the child has really missed the window to begin their schooling, and they live in an environment where there’s simply no second on-ramp or a second opportunity to catch up when you’ve lost out.
Denver: Do you think, Caitlin, that in the international community, that we, by and large, have set the bar too low? That these kids have not had a chance for any kind of schooling and whatever we give them, no matter how minimal, is better than nothing?
Caitlin: I think that that is such an important point, Denver. One of the aspects of our work that I find the most, ultimately exciting and rewarding, which is that we work with children who have literally never been to school, and in 10 months, they become functionally literate and numerate. They’re able to read. They’re essentially covering three years of school in one year.
This is incredibly important because, first and foremost, we don’t have a lot of time to get these kids back on track. But even beyond that, I think one of the things that excites me the most about the work is that we’re proving what’s possible. We’re proving that children, even from some of the poorest families in the world, can learn an extraordinary amount in a really short period of time. We’re proving that teachers – who are essentially young people with minimal qualifications, who are drawn from these same poor communities – can actually be empowered to deliver rich five senses education, even in a classroom lacking in electricity, lacking in an internet signal. I think the thing we take away from the work– that I think is a lesson for education globally– is that we’ve all thought too small about what’s possible.
Denver: Right. Okay. I’m 10 years old, I’m three years behind in school, and I’m going to go to one of your Second Chance programs. How in the world in 10 months are you going to have me catch up to my peers and be able to enter into a government school?
Caitlin: There are a number of things we do differently – some are fairly tactical, and some are a little bit magical. So, for starters, we work with a much smaller classroom than you would typically find in these types of environments. So, we never have more than 25 children in a class.
Denver: That’s about half the size, isn’t it?
Caitlin: That’s about half the size, or even less, of a typical classroom. And then, the children and teachers in our program work incredibly hard. So we have them for a full day, Monday through Friday; in some places, we actually do a half-day on Saturday as well.
Denver: Is that longer than the normal school day?
Caitlin: We calculate that children in our program spend four times as many hours on reading as children would in a normal school. And so, some of it is, quite frankly, more one-on-one attention and a longer day.
But then there’s the magical element. What we’ve found… Look, think about how your own children learned to read. They learned not just through sitting in front of a text, not just through sitting at a desk and engaging in choral recitation. They engage with an alphabet all around them. They had the luxury of growing up in a text-rich environment. The children we work with don’t have those luxuries, so we have to bring that tactile learning environment into the classroom.
When we first introduce the alphabet to children, we have them make an enormous bowl of mud and roll out long tubes of sort of clay-like earth that one finds in the places we work. We have them form those tubes into each letter in the alphabet and have that dry in the sun. So, their first introduction to the alphabet is very much fingers in mud, forming these letters themselves. We work exclusively with texts that have stories set in their context, with characters who have names like the names of the children in their village. On the numeracy side, we have the children set up small shops in the classroom and engage in the kind of easy sort of back-and-forth mental math that actually they themselves are already doing in the marketplace every day.
So, I think if I can identify two things that I think we do really differently, one is that we look and listen really closely for: What does the child already know? And how can I build from there? The second is: We look and listen really closely to the surrounding environment. Rather than focusing on what our classes don’t have, we focus on what they do have, which is a richness of experience, natural resources around them, and if you have the chance to visit one of our classrooms, you’ll find a fairly simple structure; usually the walls are mud; there’ll be a tin roof; there’ll be a single window that lets in light, no electricity. But you’ll find every single surface in the classroom is covered with the children’s artwork and handmade learning materials, and elements that use the natural resources around the environment to learn.
Denver: And listening carefully to you, Caitlin, it sounds like you try to make it fun.
Caitlin: Children everywhere learn best when they’re happy. That’s just the bottom line, and that is no less true in the poorest corners of the world than it is in the classrooms that your kids and mine attend. And so, we place an enormous premium on what we call joyful learning – recognizing that this classroom needs to be a celebration of the learning process. And that is really different from the environment that most of these kids would have otherwise been learning in.
If you think about the typical school in the developing world, you have a teacher who’s minimally qualified, who has almost no materials, books, et cetera, that she can use with her students. She’s under enormous pressure to deliver results, and she’s standing in front of a class of 80 or more children, trying to teach kids who are, in essence, what we think of as first-generation readers. These are not kids who are learning to read at home.
So, in the context of all that pressure, the net result, for good or for ill, is that it’s often school is not a very happy place. And so, we tried to just fundamentally rethink what that learning environment is because, quite frankly, we believe that children can’t learn – we know they can’t learn quickly unless they’re having fun.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit more about those teachers because as you said, they are minimally trained. I would presume you have some kind of a training program for them, but they’re really a key element to all this. How are you able to get them from 0 to 60 in such a fashion that they can be as effective as they have been?
Caitlin: It’s a great question. So, we are blessed in the communities we work with a large number of reasonably capable, high potential, young people who, quite frankly, have a limited range of opportunities before them. And so, the profile we target for teachers are young people who have at least a 10th grade education. That’s not the level you’d need to be at in order to be a teacher in a public school in these countries, but it’s far enough along that you definitely know the first three years of the curriculum.
And so, what we can focus on in our program is actually, rather than teaching the “what” of what we’ll be teaching children, in teaching our teachers the “how.” So we do an intensive three-week training program at the beginning of the year. We do two other trainings during the year. But the real magic is that we actually have a coach in each classroom every single week.
Denver: Oh, coaching makes all the difference!
Caitlin: Teaching is not a theoretical endeavor. There’s actually only so much of it you can teach in a classroom, and it’s really in the act of the doing, and doing alongside the teachers, that we really transfer that skill. Then obviously, as the years go on, and the program has been in place for a number of years, those coaches are drawn from the very best of the teaching talent from the previous year.
Denver: And we’ve talked about the communities you’re in, so we should probably discuss: what countries do you operate in?
Caitlin: Our first program was founded and created in rural Ethiopia; that’s still one of our largest programs. We have also launched programs in Liberia in West Africa. Liberia has one of the highest rates of out-of-school children in the world; literally 60% of primary school-aged kids are kept out of school. And then, most recently we have launched a program in Lebanon where we support Syrian refugees who’ve been out of school, sometimes for many years, simply because they’ve been displaced from their homes.
Denver: I know a key element to the success of this program is to get a buy-in from the local communities, and that can be very difficult for a nonprofit, or any organization. What are some of the keys that you found in getting that kind of buy-in?
Caitlin: That’s a great question. First and foremost, we believe really strongly in working through local organizations. And so, our team designs the curriculum, the pedagogy – what is taught and the way it’s taught. We train teachers; then we monitor in the classroom, and we evaluate. But we actually fund local nonprofits to deliver the classes and the work.
There are at least two important reasons why. One, first and foremost, for that buy-in you’re talking about. In Ethiopia, we run the program in four different languages. If we were trying to do that centrally, that just wouldn’t make sense. We have to work through local organizations. But the other reason is that we want to be building capacity in the countries we work for the long-term, and so building up a huge team of our own really doesn’t make sense. We’re really focused on building the capacity of organizations there.
Denver: I know you can’t just replicate something that works in one place and then paste it on to another and think it’s going to work. So, let’s take two of the countries where you’ve been in the longest, those being Ethiopia and Liberia. What would be the difference in those two programs?
Caitlin: It’s a great question. We like to say that replication is about sort of 70% duplication and 30% mission-critical customization.
Denver: That’s a good ratio.
Caitlin: There’s a core element that is very much the same, but there are some critical things we had to change when we moved to Liberia. One is, first and foremost… It’s interesting. For those of us in the US, when we think about Ethiopia – prior to last week’s wonderful news of the Nobel Prize – the most ready image in folks’ heads might still be the famine of the 1980s. And as horrible as that time was, actually, it’s been a really fantastic set of decades since then for Ethiopia; Ethiopia has come a long way. And so what we find with our students there is that most of them have started school, learned something, and been pulled out. What that means for us is that our task is to figure out what those kids know and build forward from there.
In Liberia – a country that survived a 20-year civil war, where the school system was literally entirely shut down, where it was most recently shut down for an entire year once again during the Ebola crisis – we’re just dealing with a different entry point. We found that the kids coming into our program had literally not been acquainted with the alphabet, and so our entry point just needed to be quite different. We’ve taken a much more step-by-step phonics-based approach to learning in Liberia, which is just… it’s just an example of the kind of thing one has to do all the time. Good teaching is not a lecture; it’s a relationship. It’s listening for what the child knows and doesn’t know, calibrating accordingly –
Denver: Meeting them where they are.
Caitlin: Meeting them where they are. And so that’s really core to our philosophy, and so, inevitably, there’s a fair amount of customization as we move from place to place.
Denver: As someone who has crammed for a test or two in my time, I know firsthand that a lot of information that is quickly inputted is not always retained. Now, I know you’ve done some longitudinal studies in concert with the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex: what has been the impact of this program, and especially a number of years later?
Caitlin: It’s a great question, Denver. A wonderful thing that we know, year in and year out with our program… because we test kids on their way in, and we test them on their way out, is we know, at the end of their 10 months with us, they know an enormous amount. We know that they know more than other children who’ve been in school continuously since then. And that’s a relatively easy thing for us to test year in and year out.
What’s hard as a delivery organization is to ever really know what happens in the long term. And so we were gifted with an enormous investment from our board a few years back with this amazing evaluation partnership with University of Sussex, where they were able to take a long-term look at what happens for our kids. They followed graduates of our program six years and up.
Denver: That’s a long time.
Caitlin: What they found really blew us away. We found that even six years later, children still had a sustained academic improvement relative to their peers in government school. We found that students were, quite frankly, happier and had higher ambitions for what they wanted to do with their lives. Most importantly, we found that graduates of our program were completing primary school at twice the rate of other children.
Caitlin: We’ve tried to stop and think about… because it just makes common sense, like a one-year program, how long can the effect of that last? We really put it to our evaluators: What do you think is the essence of the success here? One of the things they’ve really emphasized to us is the importance of the way in which we work on teaching children to learn how to learn. We teach them to lead their own learning process. And so what that means is that even when they transition back into really cash-strapped, local public schools where, quite frankly, the learning environment is less than ideal, that they have that intrinsic wherewithal to drive forward their own learning.
The other thing I’d say on that is that we know that learning to read is a gatekeeping event in the education process; really, the child can’t actually direct their own learning until they themselves can read. And so, that is a critical, game-changing first benchmark. I think the fact that we can get children there before they head off into the school system is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen a long-term success.
Denver: You teach them how to learn. They then learn how to learn, and that is so valuable.
I’ve had the pleasure to meet a couple of your key partners, corporate partners. Tell our listeners about them.
Caitlin: Luminos is funded by a really wonderful group of corporate and private philanthropists who, I think, have come together around our cause quite simply because I think if you ask any successful person in the world what made them who they are, nobody is going to get through their top three without talking about their education and how much that meant to them. And so I think one of the real points of resonance that we found between our mission and our supporters has been just that appreciation of: None of us got where we are without education; so why not make that possible for others?
Our first major supporter is a New Zealand entrepreneur called Christopher Chandler, founder of the Legatum Foundation.
Denver: Great foundation.
Caitlin: He and his team are the ones who really got this work started. And since that time, we’ve been blessed to see a number of other supporters come on board: the UBS Bank and their clients are major supporters; Cartier Philanthropy is a major supporter; and a number of high net worth individuals who have contributed to us very generously.
Denver: You run a very lean organization; as you say, you work a lot with local partners. But what are some of the outstanding characteristics of your workplace culture that you think sets it apart from other similar organizations?
Caitlin: When I founded Luminos four years ago, I had already been doing this kind of work for a number of years. One of the things I have just come to believe very strongly is that: You can’t do international work well without an international team. And so, one of my priorities in building the organization was to make sure from day one, we had global folks in the senior leadership of the headquarters office. Of course, all of our teams in-country are drawn from those countries, but that it be essential that, up and down the chain, our organization was led by a global team.
I’ve just been so grateful to the degree to which we’ve really been able to live that and honor that. I think that it means that we have an organization that has a different level of wisdom about the work it does. It means that our team is seen as partners to everyone we work with. And it means that our work is as much about celebrating the extraordinary aspects of the globe as it is remedying the shortcomings. So that’s been a key piece of the puzzle.
The other interesting element is whether we intended to or not, pretty much all of us in the senior leadership team spent at least a number of years in the private sector before jumping into the social sector. I think you absolutely need depth on both sides, but we continue to leverage our private sector background in how we think about measuring performance and impact. When we’re able to bring that together with our understanding of what it really means to mobilize a community to change, I think is a really powerful opportunity to bring those two sides together.
Denver: Those are some interesting observations. I don’t think people fully appreciate the way you start an organization so often is the culture of that organization, that founding story. People think they can do it later on. Get the founding right, and if you do that, you’ll save yourself a lot of heartaches.
I’m curious about this: Do you think the Second Chance program could work here in the United States for kids who are several years behind?
Caitlin: It’s a great question. One of the things I would say, first and foremost, is that part of what motivates us to deliver second chances is actually recognizing the degree to which… For all the shortcomings in the US system, one of the things our system does really well is actually provide kids with second chances; so whether you’ve failed out of high school and are now getting a GED, or you’re not able to get into a four-year college, but you can get into a two-year college.
Actually, relative to, for example, Europe and other places, I think in the US context, we actually do a much better job than many other countries in providing children with second chances. Quite honestly, that’s a real point of inspiration for us in our work. In the communities that we work in overseas; there is no “do-over.” You have but one shot. I think as Americans, we know how wasteful that is not to give young people the chance to try again. And so, I think that’s a big part of what inspires us to do this work.
Denver: Let me close with this, Caitlin. Has there been any thought given about continuing the Second Chance program for kids who’ve been through it? Here you’ve done three years in one, you’ve gotten in there with your peers… that program seems like it would serve us well if we were to continue that program. I also wonder how the kids feel who’ve been to this intensive school day, have learned so quickly, and then go back to the old traditional way of going to school.
Caitlin: What’s amazing about our graduates is how incredibly resilient they are, and the degree to which they push through in an admittedly imperfect learning environment. But that being said, the lasting solution would be to empower teachers in public schools in all the countries we work in to teach with the same joyful learning approach that we employ. And so, we have been thrilled in the last two years to actually take the first steps on that journey.
So, in Ethiopia where we’ve worked the longest, we’re now partnering with government to train their teachers to not exactly duplicate our classroom, but pull through those same creative five senses learning techniques in their own setting and in their own way. I think that when we look ahead to the future, the opportunities we’re most excited about, I think we couldn’t be more thrilled to really lean into that opportunity to use our teachers as essentially the coaches for the system as a whole.
Denver: The ambassadors.
Denver: Well, Caitlin Baron, the CEO of The Luminos Fund, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Where can listeners learn more about this work, or help financially support it if they should be so inclined?
Denver: I’m sure you have a donate button there. Well, thanks, Caitlin It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Caitlin: Thank you so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.