“Imagine the power of 100,000 stories!” That’s what comes to mind for Ahmed Badr when he considers all the out-of-school children who’ve been given a voice through the work of the Luminos Fund.
Upon first impression, Ahmed is unassuming, quiet, likable, and inviting, with a confident boyish charm. He gives nothing away in his gait or demeanor. No clues to indicate anything other than normalcy in his past. He appears to be a regular guy just living an ordinary life. That is, at least until he tells you the extraordinary tale of his childhood.
Ahmed was born in Iraq. He remembers his feelings of excitement to stay the night at his grandmother’s house. When he was picked up by his father the next day, things felt different — something wasn’t right. Ahmed soon learned that his home had been bombed the night before by militia troops. The ripple effect of this devastation carried Ahmed and his family quite unexpectedly from Baghdad and into Syria as Iraqi refugees. Two and a half years later, they were in the United States building a new life.
There was something poetic about listening to Ahmed recount his story at the Norwood Club in New York City, on a frosty evening just a few weeks ago in January. He was surrounded by the inspiring artwork of Syrian children who, currently in Lebanon, are participants in the Luminos Fund’s refugee education program. Luminos is actively working in Lebanon because we believe all children should experience joyful learning, regardless of circumstances. We see art therapy as an integral component in redeeming the joyful journey of childhood after trauma.
“Art is expression. It is prose and poetry through paper and paint. It captures and carries the heart, the imagination, the soul, the very voice of each child. It transports them to us, to the very people who should hear and respond by recognizing them as individuals who matter. Art is agency. It is empowerment. It is story telling.” – Ahmed Badr
For Ahmed, agency, empowerment, and storytelling are the three legs of a sturdy stool. Together they provide a platform for displaced children – young people like him, like the Syrian refugees, and like the out-of-school children in Ethiopia and Liberia whom Luminos serves. A platform upon which they can stand and activate their own power and engage productively with the world.
If you have not heard him speak before, you should find an opportunity to listen. Ahmed’s outlook is refreshing. Although there certainly exists no shortage of geopolitical complexity in his existence as an Iraqi American, Ahmed feels no dissonance in the parts of him that represent his early years and his current life. Instead, he believes his different vantage points equip him with a unique voice, an instrument that can help the world convert its confusion into cooperation.
When he scans the room and imbibes the artwork of Luminos children, Ahmed sees victors, not victims. They have struggled, yes. Travailed unimaginable traumas. However, their knowledge, wisdom, and experiences make them vital voices in the great global discourse. They need to be heard so they can help the world step into the shoes of its better self. Ahmed’s current work, as a writer, speaker, social entrepreneur, and poet, is focused on accomplishing just that.
“What often happens is that people don’t think they have a story to tell. But everything changes when they begin to realize that one of their most powerful attributes is the very narrative of their lives. The work we should be doing – as educators, social entrepreneurs, and international development professionals – is elevating the voices of the displaced. And this is important: we should elevate them and not replace them.” – Ahmed Badr
Ahmed is on a crusade to help displaced young people feel valued, validated, and listened to. He wants to help activate the power that is already in them. Like the team at Luminos, Ahmed believes that the agency, empowerment, and storytelling that is born through joyful learning can help unlock the light in every child, so that every child can unlock light throughout the world.
“The creative offerings in the insights and imaginations of these children need to be seen and engaged, so that the world can truly see them and also itself. The work Luminos does – this combination of creativity and education – has an effect that will cascade across generations. As each child experiences joyful learning, they will take that seed and plant it in the heart of their present communities and in the spirit of their future children. 100,000 will impact millions. You can’t help but get excited about that.” – Ahmed Badr
Ahmed Badr spoke at the Norwood Club in New York on January 31st, 2019. He was the much appreciated guest of the Luminos Fund, at an event very generously hosted by Madeleine Schachter and supported by docents from Christie’s. The event showcased the artwork of Syrian from Luminos’ refugee education program in Lebanon. Discover more about Ahmed Badr and his work here.
Globally, the Luminos Fund has helped over 120,000 children get a second chance to learn.
2018 was a big year for us at the Luminos Fund. Through our Second Chance program, we were able to help 11,457 children get a second chance at a bright future. Children like Nathan and Mechan who, both at age 12, were able to rejoin their peers at school and find encouragement, support, and mentorship from teachers, family, and us.
Each child we are able to support has their own unique story about why they left school, be it financial limits, family hardships, or conflict. What’s exciting is that these stories no longer stop there. For example, an incredible 97% of our students in Ethiopia transitioned back into mainstream school after just 10 months catching up through our Second Chance program.
In 2018 we built upon the incredible success of the Second Chance program in a number of ways. In Ethiopia, we began partnering with the national government to train their teachers to implement our unique model of instruction. In Liberia, we built out a new child protection curriculum for children and parents. And in Lebanon, we expanded our arts education work, providing more ways for our refugee students to reflect on their arduous journeys through creative self-expression. The work across all three countries reflects continuous innovation within the context of our core values of providing joyful learning to children in some of the toughest corners of the globe.
Most importantly in 2018, we gained proof that the lives of children in our program are transformed for the long term. A six year external evaluation from the University of Sussex showed that graduates of our program are completing primary school at almost twice the rates of their peers.
We’re excited about these program developments because we know the economic impact that our work has. One extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10% and the effect can be double for women according to UIS and World Bank. When we see that 97% of our students transition back to school, we know that with every year, their opportunities grow, as do their dreams. Subsequently, each additional year of schooling raises the average annual GDP by 0.37% (UIS).
While we love the numbers, we love the students even more. You can meet some of our students and read their stories, highlighting the resilience of the kids and families we work to support, and the commitment of Luminos Fund teachers, partners and donors. If you’re interested in hearing more about the kids we work with, the teachers who support them, and the next part of these kids’ stories, follow along on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Nathan, Mechan, and the 11,457 other children were given these opportunities thanks to the support and contributions of our donors. We can’t thank them enough for making our mission of giving children a second chance at education a reality.
Want to learn more about how rich education is possible, even in the poorest corners of the globe? Visit our website to learn, participate, and find out how you can help.
Thomas Hatch is a Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). In December, he posted two articles with his reflections on Luminos’ unique approach to accelerated learning. These posts have been reproduced here with permission from International Education News.
Expanding Second Chance in Liberia and Lebanon
Second Chance’s efforts to carry out such an unconventional pedagogical approach in what are usually remote areas depends on building an alternative infrastructure for learning that incorporates local materials, training for local youth, partnerships with government schools, and support for parent self-help groups. Rather than creating this infrastructure itself – and growing a larger organization to do it – the Luminos Fund’s efforts to expand Second Chance build on the expertise, resources, and relationships that local implementing partners have already established. Those partners include NGO’s that have a record of accomplishment and a presence in the communities where Second Chance seeks to work. Luminos provides training, materials, guidance and oversight for the partners, but the partners hire and train facilitators, supervisors and project coordinators.
Second Chance’s expansion to Liberia uses this local approach to test the viability of program in what Baron described as an “under-resourced” context. Khosla was more emphatic: “It’s exactly the same program, but, oh my god, the challenges are so different.” Those challenges include an out of school rate in Liberia of over 50% for children of primary school age (compared to about 35% in Ethiopia); extreme poverty and a lack of basic necessities; an economy growing at about half the rate of Ethiopia’s; and public spending on education also at about half the rate of Ethiopia’s.
All of these factors contribute to much higher costs. With so little money for education, textbooks are scarce – roughly 1 textbook for every 28 students, according to Khosla. That means textbooks have to be imported and delivered to the schools, and the inadequate roads lead to high transportation costs that compound the problem. As a result, initial costs to set up a Second Chance classroom in Liberia run about $10,000 per classroom, where it only cost about about $6000 in Ethiopia. Although Luminos’ aims for a 300$ per pupil cost once the program reaches scale, the per student costs in Ethiopia work out to only about $150.
Early on in the work in Liberia, the staff also discovered that the impoverished conditions meant that many of the students were going through an entire day without food. As Khosla explained, “In Ethiopia they have a 1 ½ hour lunch break where they go home everyday to eat lunch and then go back. We thought the same model would work in Liberia, but there’s no food. “Kids were coming to school so hungry,” Baron added, “it was a fool’s errand not to address that need, but that means we are delivering rice and beans to mothers who are cooking food.” Baron pointed out that this “small” change in the schedule in Liberia introduces a whole new series of problems to be addressed – where to get the food, how to import it, how to prepare it – that requires establishing a whole new supply chain, with new job responsibilities and added costs. “And there are hundreds of weak points in the chain,” lamented Baron. For example, there are periods for traditional religious practices where it is unsafe for children to be out collecting the wood needed to fuel the fires for cooking. With no firewood, students can end up going several days without food, unless the staff at Second Chance make the local adjustments that enable he work inside the classroom to take place.
The difficult conditions and hardships in Liberia affect the Second Chance facilitators as well. For example, although initial assessment results in Liberia indicated that students’ literacy learning was far behind the students in Ethiopia, further analysis showed that the facilitators also had much lower scores on related literacy assessments than their peers in Ethiopia. Similarly, Khosla pointed out that the content of the training for the facilitators is quite basic “because the focus is on the early grades. But we are finding in Liberia that it’s not basic. There are still some issues that facilitators have with teaching parts of speech for example, so we are figuring out how we can fill some of those gaps in content knowledge.” These results are not surprising, however, given that the local youth the program relies on for facilitation have had to live through a series of wars and an Ebola crisis that interrupted their own schooling and development.
The transportation problems also complicate the training efforts; discouraging facilitators from getting together to share information, reflect on what they are doing, and address common challenges. Khosla explained, “If you have to deviate from the main road, then you are in the bush, and then you are in the bush for at least 10 miles to reach one school. So for us to tell the facilitators to meet up often is logistically impossible.” The Second Chance leaders solved this problem and the problem of distributing salaries to a widely dispersed staff of facilitators (who need to be paid once a month, in person, in cash, since they don’t have bank accounts) with one adjustment: they pay the facilitators at the end of the day, after they have attended their monthly learning community meetings. “It’s a good way to ensure they come to the meetings,” Khosla noted.
The initial work in Liberia revealed challenges for Luminos’ strategy of relying on local partners as well. In Ethiopia, Luminos’ has a team of five working with fourteen implementing partners managing a program of 20,000 children. In Liberia, the relatively small number of established NGO’s who have the capacity to serve as partners means more intense engagement for Luminos: a staff of three works with four implementing partners for a program (so far) of only 2000 children. The early stage of the work in Liberia also means that, as Khosla put it, neither the local partners nor the facilitators they have hired “know what a Second Chance classroom looks like, and what to aspire to.” Consequently, in the 2018-19 academic year, Luminos created 4 Second Chance programs to serve as “centres of excellence” with model classrooms so that facilitators, partners, and even government officials can come and see the program in operation. Given the need for all these adjustments, the initial rate of expansion in Liberia may well be slower than it has been in Ethiopia.
Despite these challenges, Luminos chose to work in Liberia because of the possibilities and assets that it found there. With Liberia’s small size, Baron, Khosla and their colleagues have good relationships with a government working to re-imagine education and other sectors of the society. That may create opportunities to influence government policies, for example, enabling facilitators to get a license to teach in government primary schools after they go through the Second Chance training. “That would put facilitators in a really good spot to get placed in a government school,” Khosla said. It would also create a powerful incentive for local youth to get Second Chance training and provide an entry point into government classrooms for Second Chance’s pedagogical approach. These kinds of possibilities, along with the fact that English is the official language, means that, if Second Chance is successful in Liberia, it may have more of a chance of being picked up by the government and scaled throughout the country than in Ethiopia.
The latest opportunities for expansion have taken Luminos to Lebanon, where the crisis in Syria has produced the largest recent wave of refugees and out-of-school children. In Lebanon, the conditions for refugees are extremely difficult, but the Lebanese government has its own well-established programs for accelerated learning. However, English and French are the languages of instruction in the government schools and accelerated learning programs, but most of the refugees speak Arabic. To respond to this situation, Luminos has shifted its focus to use its active learning pedagogy to help refugees make the transition into the Lebanese accelerated learning programs and then into the government schools. .
Moving forward: Building infrastructure and adapting to local conditions
Establishing an alternative infrastructure for learning – or, where possible, grafting it onto and into the local educational system – reflects a clear theory of action: this “second chance” for children to catch up to their peers and transition into primary school at grade 4 constitutes one of the most powerful and cost effective ways to substantially increase educational access. In continuing to pursue this theory of action, Second Chance’s expansion depends on far more than replicating a program “with fidelity.”
For one thing, Luminos has to pay attention to the larger context in which their work on education in the developing world takes place. That means recognizing the fact that priorities have shifted from a focus on increasing access by 2015 (in the Millenium Development Goals) to ensuring quality in education by 2030 (in the Sustainable Development Goals). As a consequence, Luminos needs to talk about the program differently so that those funders who are now working on quality can see the value of the Second Chance approach.
Luminos also has to be responsive to the local contexts in which they work. As Khosla acknowledged “Second Chance cannot just be plopped down in any regulatory environment.” Second Chance needs to find the right “fit” in contexts that provide the model with what the psychologist Lev Vygotsky called a “zone of proximal development”: places with both substantial need for accelerated learning and enough support and resources to take advantage of Second Chance’s alternative infrastructure for learning.
When it finds the right fit in places like Liberia and Lebanon, Luminos then works to stay true to its theory of action. On the one hand, that means remaining focused on key issues and opportunities for accelerated learning that gave rise to the model in the first place:
- What capacities do children need to succeed in the “regular” school system?
- What enables and motivates “over-age” students to stay in school?
- Who has the will and the skill to support and sustain the success of the classroom approach?
- What connections will ease and sustain the transition into the larger school system?
- What mechanisms will enable parents and community members to embrace and support their children’s schooling?
- What local capacities and local organizations can provide a foundation and a “home” for expanding the program?
On the other hand, that means looking for the specific contextual differences and pursuing the problem-finding and problem-solving in each context that makes it possible to adapt. “Pay attention to “all the really small ‘last mile’ things” advises Baron, “things that may not seem so groundbreaking but nonetheless create a foundation for success and expansion. If you are more modest about what individual change you can make, you can have a bigger impact.”
— Thomas Hatch
There’s nothing more important to us at Luminos than safely shepherding our children towards their full potential. Making that a reality, especially in the difficult environments in which we work, takes real commitment.
Earlier this year, Luminos embarked on a six-month process of exploration and program development to identify proactive yet practical ways to improve the safety of the children we serve. I am writing this blog now to share news of our new practices, and to invite the global community to be a part of our collective, continuous improvement on the journey to ensure the safety of every child.
Luminos has had a child protection policy in place since inception. All staff who work on our programs are required to sign it. Every teacher in our program attends a specific training on putting the policy into action in their classrooms. As a fairly new organization, we’ve not yet had a reported case of abuse within our programs.
Nonetheless, for any program working with children, anywhere in the world, the risk of abuse is always present. As an organization that works with some of the world’s most vulnerable children, that risk is especially pronounced for us. In Liberia, 20% of students of both genders have reported being sexually abused by teachers or school staff (UNESCO, 2015). In Ethiopia, where corporal punishment is prohibited by law, about 75% of students report witnessing a teacher administer corporal punishment in the classroom in the last week (UNICEF, 2015). In Lebanon, Syrian refugees are at risk for trafficking and exploitation, with Lebanese NGO’s reporting the increasing prevalence of child marriages and forced child labor (US State Department, 2017).
Many of the easy ways to help keep children safe are simply not available in contexts without phone service, with weak legal systems, and with traditions of child rearing that can sometimes put the needs of adults ahead of children.
So, we’re up against a hard reality. But the challenges of the context cannot allow us as the global aid community to be complacent. On the contrary, the difficult environments we operate in need to drive us to think with new levels of creativity around how to truly protect the children we serve.
Excerpt from child protection presentation for our students
Luminos worked with a child safeguarding and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) specialist to review our child protection policy and practices. For this academic year, we have added some important new elements to our program in Liberia that seek to empower both children and their parents to know their rights and create avenues for confidential reporting of any incidents of abuse.
- Children receive direct instruction on their rights to a safe classroom and are taught how to report abuse from an independent specialist in child protection. Child protection practices at classroom level are also reviewed by field supervisors.
- Parents receive training from program staff on children’s rights and the importance of reporting abuse.
- A local phone number for reporting abuse, which connects to our trained specialist, is posted in every classroom.
As the CEO of Luminos, I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken this year to strengthen our child protection practices. The shift we’ve made from a reactive to a proactive stance on child protection is vitally important. We know however, that there’s still more work to be done. We are eager to engage with the global aid community in pushing all of us to be better, and we invite all suggestions and ideas on how we might further strengthen our systems.
The crises in Bangladesh and Biafra in the seventies drove the creation of the modern humanitarian sector, with the realization of how much good could be done when millions are made vulnerable by conflict. The crisis in Goma twenty years later drove a revolution in the humanitarian community’s understanding of the potential to do real harm, as well as good, when stepping into complex emergencies. The crises of Oxfam and other organizations must serve as a wake-up call for all of us on the urgency of upping our game in keeping children safe. Let this be the challenge that spurs us to true breakthroughs in child protection across the humanitarian system.