With schools out, countries around the world are grappling with distance learning initiatives to keep kids learning and engaged. Distance learning is a big challenge in low-tech environments where children have minimal access to digital media, though many digitally advanced countries are struggling as well. According to CGD’s COVID education policy tracker, only 29 percent of low-income countries are providing some kind of distance learning program for their students. But even in low-income countries that do have distance learning programs, many students might be left out due to poor access to the TV, radio, or internet. For example, a new survey from Kenya suggests that only one in five children are accessing online learning during school closures. In addition, language of content, access to books at home, and parental literacy and involvement can further exacerbate inequalities.
In the second post in our “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we continue to examine how frontline education organizations are adjusting to the crisis. Last week we took a look at how The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which operates more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan, and the Luminos Fund, which provides accelerated learning for children who have missed out on school due to poverty, crisis, or discrimination in countries including Liberia, shifted to providing food and relief to families. In this post, we examine how TCF and Luminos are supporting distance learning efforts for the students they serve.
TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan TV Show in Pakistan
Less than a month after Pakistan closed schools, the prime minister announced a new state television channel dedicated to lessons aligned with the national curriculum, PTV TeleSchool. It was the first time in decades that Pakistan had a local language children’s TV channel. Television was a natural choice. Roughly two-thirds of households in Pakistan own a television set. In contrast, the percent of households that have a radio and internet connection are 6.4 percent and 11.8 percent respectively. While TCF has found its teachers taking the initiative to use a variety of media, including WhatsApp, SMS, and word-of-mouth to ensure the continuity of learning in communities it serves, television stands out as a medium to reach and engage a large number of children from schools throughout the country.
Now came the harder question: how do you get school from a TV? For TCF, the answer was simple: You don’t.Lessons from education response efforts in West Africa after the Ebola crisis emphasize that education’s primary role during a crisis should be that of positive engagement, mitigating psychosocial impacts of the disaster, and establishing routine—not just ensuring the continuity of academic learning.
In response to the government’s call for academic content for the TV channel, TCF adapted its play-based curriculum for a new filmed-at-home-but-made-for-television show, Ilm Ka Aangan (The Courtyard of Knowledge). The content focuses on building functional literacy and numeracy through engaging activities, with a key focus on socio-emotional learning.
Figure 1. TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan uses play-based learning and storytelling to keep children engaged
Source: The Citizens Foundation
The show uses storytelling, which can be an effective way to not only cultivate literacy and social skills, but also explain concepts from science and social studies while keeping kids engaged. For example, the story “Emaan the Scientist” is about a little girl who wants to fly, and illustrates the scientific method. After several failed attempts, her mother reassures her that if she keeps experimenting, as scientists do, then someday she will fly. Eventually, she does, with a hot air balloon. The protagonist, along with the show’s host, also offer positive role models for little girls watching. Despite the effectiveness of storytelling, only 3.5 percent of kids in Punjab have 3 or more books to read at home.
Recognizing that children of many ages are watching at once, the show’s content is multi-grade with a focus on basic concepts targeted at ages 5-10. This is in contrast to other distance learning content being aired in Pakistan right now that is structured in a grade-wise manner—despite the fact that many students are already behind their grade level. Data from the Annual Status of Education Report suggest 75 percent of grade 3 children in urban Pakistan cannot read a simple story in their local language at the grade 2 level.
The learning doesn’t stop once the show ends. The host assigns “homework,” for example playing a game to learn a concept or solving a math problem. However, the most popular homework is the host asking children to submit a drawing based on the episode.
The day after the launch, the show received 20,000 text messages from a wide range of urban and rural areas, a response that has fed into how the program is evolving. Since the most marginalized children will not have access to TV, mobile phones, or electricity, including most of the communities that TCF serves, the organization is also piloting a purely offline version of Ilm ka Aangan: an edutainment magazine focused on building early grade skills through do-it-yourself activities, stories, and comics, which can be exchanged with teachers via drop-off points, such as grocery stores. Anticipating that school closures may be extended, TCF is designing similar magazines for secondary school students. For now, Ilm Ka Aangan, through television and the offline magazine, seems to be providing much needed engagement, learning, and a sense of routine for millions of children stuck at home.
The Luminos Fund’s Efforts to Support Learning at Home
After schools closed in Liberia, the government launched a radio schooling initiative. Unlike Pakistan, Liberia has a relatively higher rate of radio penetration and lower rate of TV access. Roughly half of households possess a radio, whereas roughly one-fifth possess a television and approximately one-tenth of the population has access to electricity. However, that means that while radio schooling is more scalable, half of Liberian households still may not have access. And even among those households with access to a radio, children might not have access to learning materials such as books and stationery.
Luminos has sought to provide access to some of those learning materials. In late March and early May, Luminos distributed learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students for home-based learning, including readers, math workbooks, pencils, and pencil sharpeners, as a part of relief packages that also included soap and detergent for students’ families. Through this process, Luminos facilitators found that in most cases, the materials they provided are the only books the family has.
“Radio or texting might work elsewhere,” says Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager for Liberia, “but not where we work. Most of our parents don’t have radios, and kids shouldn’t gather around one anyway due to distancing. If we sent a text, many of our parents couldn’t read it. The best thing Luminos can do is distribute the readers, worksheets – learning materials – for students to work on at home, speak to the families, and then for our facilitators or supervisors do their best to monitor.”
Apart from providing textbooks, Luminos Fund facilitators have tried to stay engaged with students and ensure that they are using the learning materials. Varney, a facilitator who lives and teaches in a rural village in Bomi, walks by students’ houses—at a distance—to tell them the lesson for that day and to ensure that children are using the books. Then, that afternoon or the next day, he checks to make sure they have completed it.
One father, who is literate, says of the Luminos reading materials, “My daughter can read the whole book now. Even last night she was working on it.”
The initiative has had challenges. First, not all facilitators are able to check in with their students, especially those who live in faraway villages. Second, distributing materials in remote communities is time-consuming and can be stressful when local community members are suspicious of visitors wearing medical masks and personal protective equipment, especially due to heightened distrust of others from experience with Ebola.
Despite these efforts to promote distance learning, facilitators and parents have expressed concerns that students will fall behind, especially students who were struggling already. For now, everyone is worried about what will happen to this particular cohort of students, and eager for the virus to pass so schools can reopen and life can return to normal.
Next week we’ll take a look at what TCF and Luminos teachers are doing and how operations are being sustained during the crisis.
“We’re reaching children who never went to school before and getting them to a level where they want to keep going. That’s humanitarian. So, when an emergency arises like COVID-19, it’s important that we step up and revise. Providing relief during COVID isn’t strange. It’s what we have to do.”
— Abba Karnga Jr., Luminos Program Manager in Liberia
Updated: May 2020
At this time, the Luminos Fund’s classrooms across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia are on hold due to COVID-19. To help keep our communities and team safe and to mitigate the spread of the virus, all Luminos staff are working remotely and in-country teams are limiting travel to the field (where it is still permitted).
During this challenging time, we are working to support our students and provide relief to families where possible. For example, in Liberia, we are distributing learning materials for students to work on at home, as well as rice, soap, and drums to store water for families. Our team is managing resources closely to leave room to respond in new ways as the crisis evolves: we want to both respond now and plan ahead for the long term.
Luminos is in dialogue with our funders and other education providers on the latest and to share best practices. Where possible, we are working with governments and partners to coordinate our response on the ground.
In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of Learning Poverty to measure when children are unable to read or understand a simple text by age 10. In poor countries, the Learning Poverty rate is as high as eighty percent. Often excluded due to poverty, conflict, or discrimination, these children are at risk of being forgotten or ignored as they are assumed to be uneducable. These are children like 13-year-old James in Liberia.
“I used to feel bad when I was out of school and could see
my friends go to school. I cried,” says James, a student in the Luminos Fund’s program.
“Now, my brother and I do homework together.”
“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist because I want to
talk about my country,” he adds.
The Luminos Fund in Liberia
Liberia’s struggles are well known. The country ranked 181
(out of 188) on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2018, there is a 64%
poverty rate, and the World Bank estimates that one third of Liberian children
are stunted. And yet, amidst these challenges, Liberian children are learning
to read in Luminos Fund classrooms at one of the highest rates on the continent.
Since 2016, the Luminos Fund has worked in Liberia to scale up Second Chance, an accelerated learning program that supports children like James to become literate and numerate in 10 months. We now operate across four counties. Many students in our Liberia program are first-generation readers and have been out of school, so the opportunity to learn to read is especially meaningful for their families and themselves.
According to Luminos external evaluation results from last year (2018/19), the average Second Chance graduate in Liberia identifies 39 familiar words per minute (wpm). This is up from essentially zero at the beginning of the program. Definitions of functional literacy vary and may include reading comprehension, like the World Bank does. Luminos sets a target of 30 wpm or more. By this measure, Luminos students are achieving functional literacy within our 10-month program. To put this in perspective, merely 21.1% of Grade 3 and 5.8% of Grade 2 students in Liberia can correctly identify this many words per minute (Ref. USAID Early Grade Reading Barometer, Liberia, Familiar words sub-task, 2013. https://earlygradereadingbarometer.org/liberia/results).
Our recipe for success
In Second Chance, Luminos applies the best global knowledge regarding what’s most effective for first-generation readers and reimagines it for the Liberian context. Through a joyful and phonics-centered curriculum, classes capped at 30 students, 8-hour school days, and locally developed reading materials, we enable children to become independent readers. In a Second Chance school day, on average, five hours are spent on literacy. Children see themselves in the texts and reading is presented as an integral part of the world around them.
We use a structured approach to phonics to ensure students
build the requisite skills to read by the end of the program. We try to strike a
balance between direct instruction, which is essential to teach the technical
aspects of reading, and activity-based learning, which is at the core of our
pedagogy. Students practice using Elkonin Sound Boxes and Blending Ladders, as
well as finger tapping as a multi-sensory way to learn spelling and syllables.
We are streamlining the process wherein teachers give students weekly timed
reading assignments and remedial support is provided to the bottom performers.
Our goal is to not leave any child behind as a reader.
We believe a structured approach, supplemented by honest,
regular feedback as well as space for creativity, is key to success. We created
detailed guides for our teachers to provide them with daily guidance on
technical aspects of the curriculum while also providing intervals wherein they
can innovate and design appropriate activities for children. This helps keep
teachers motivated and in charge of the learning happening in their own
Additionally, we provide weekly coaching and supervision in
the classroom, conduct regular teacher training workshops, and are proud to
partner with the Liberian Ministry of Education (MoE). For example, the MoE
provisions some classroom space to Luminos and we train MoE officials on our
Second Chance pedagogy.
More than seven thousand Liberian children have learned to
read through Luminos programs: children who now have a pathway out of learning
poverty. Ninety percent of Luminos students transition to mainstream school at
the end of the program. We have trained 350 teachers and government officials
at the district and regional levels.
Key opportunities and challenges lay ahead as we build our program and experiment with new routes to scale in Liberia, such as working more with overage students (i.e., children in school but years behind their correct grade level). We are immensely proud of our program to-date, but recognize that ongoing, urgent work remains to build our evidence base in Liberia. Our team is eager to expand upon the successful programming and strong relationships we have established to help more Liberian children, like James, realize their dreams of learning – and learning to read – in a joyful classroom environment.
“As Liberia works to provide all children a quality education, we are pleased to have non-government organization partners, like the Luminos Fund. They are working to ensure those who have missed out on an education get a second chance to learn. It is such vital support here in Liberia where for many out-of-school children the second chance to learn is a first chance at an education. Partners like Luminos align well with our national vision for education.” — Professor Ansu Sonii, Minister of Education, Liberia
Educate: A Charity Exhibition at Christie’s New York Benefiting the Luminos Fund
On Friday, February 7, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. EST, an opening reception will be held at Christie’s New York commencing a charity art exhibition benefiting the Luminos Fund.The Luminos Fund is a philanthropic organization which aims to bring the life-changing opportunity of education to the most disadvantaged children around the world. The night will include live performances, complimentary refreshments, and a SPIN New York sponsored ping-pong tournament open to the public.
The reception will inaugurate a group exhibition of global emerging artists of diverse styles, and mediums. Each artist will donate a single work into a silent auction with proceeds fully benefiting the Luminos Fund. Additional works will be available for purchase directly from the participating artists. The silent auction and artist’s exhibition will remain open to the public until Tuesday, February 11, 2020.
The Luminos Fund’s Speed School initiative, an accelerated learning program for out-of-school children also known as Second Chance, is one of the world’s leading innovations in K-12 education according to Finnish non-profit, HundrED. HundrED recently released its third global innovation collection, HundrED 2020, highlighting one hundred of the brightest innovations in K-12 education.
This is the third consecutive year that the Luminos Fund has been honored by HundrED. Luminos was also awarded in HundrED’s 2018 and 2019 global collections.
The HundrED 2020 collection includes innovations spanning thirty-eight countries. Each innovation was evaluated on its impact and scalability, and submissions were reviewed by teachers, students, leaders, innovators, as well as HundrED Academy Members and community members.
Caitlin Baron, Chief Executive Officer at the Luminos Fund said: “We are thrilled to be recognized again by HundrED in its 2020 collection. This honor is such an affirmation of our ongoing work helping children. Our team couldn’t be happier to continue being part of this community of global education innovators and changemakers. Thank you, HundrED.”
The Speed School initiative was chosen due to its pioneering status and ability to create a scalable impact. Since 2011, Speed School has worked in partnership with Ethiopian NGOs to enable more than 113,000 children in Ethiopia to get a second chance at education. Over 90% of the children who start the Luminos program transition successfully to their local village school. External evaluations show that graduates of our program complete primary school at twice the rate of their peers. In 2016, the program expanded to Liberia where it reaches thousands more children every year. (The Luminos Fund also provides accelerated education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, though that program is not under the Second Chance/Speed School umbrella.)
Saku Tuominen, Chairman & Creative Director of HundrED, said: “Spreading innovations such as Speed School across borders can be a gamechanger for education, worldwide. We will continue to encourage as many stakeholders as possible including schools, educators, administrators, students and organizations to get involved so that we can work towards a positive future.”
Our people are what make the difference at the Luminos Fund. This post is a part of an occasional series profiling team members and what drives their passion for our work. Here, Abba Karnga Jr., Program Manager, Liberia, reflects on his own educational journey and the importance of education in post-war, post-Ebola Liberia.
Abba Karnga, Jr.
To tell my story, I must start with my father.
My father grew up in the deep jungle in Grand Bassa County, Liberia. At eighteen, he left home. He’d never been to school. He walked from the jungle to Buchanan City, about 100 km, where he realized there were no schools for him to attend. Education beyond Grade 6 was forbidden for Indigenous Liberians.
With the support of American missionaries, my father managed to graduate high school and pursue a master’s degree in the United States. Later earning two doctorate degrees, he devoted his life to expanding educational opportunity for Liberians. Above all, he made sure that education was the most important thing for my eleven siblings and me growing up in Liberia.
For instance, growing up in my family, I remember that if you didn’t go to school for any reason, you wouldn’t eat that day. If you were sick, you’d go to the clinic and then straight back to school. Gifts from my parents were always something practical like a notebook or a backpack that we could use in school. My father was strict, but it is because of him that I developed a passion for learning that I’ve carried through ups and downs.
Pursuing Education through Civil War, Rigged Exams, and Ebola
In 1991, during the First Liberian Civil War, my family fled to Cote d’Ivoire. We lived in a refugee community with other Liberians who had also fled (it is estimated that half of all Liberians were displaced by that war). From age 11 to 16, I attended a school for refugees. This school was different than schools I had attended in Liberia, and better. I gained a strong foundation in reading comprehension and communication skills: I learned how to learn.
When we returned to Liberia, it was still the war period. I was entering ninth grade and attended a private high school where most of the students were 5-10 years older than me. Most students had dropped out during the war and missed five years of school. There were 85 students in my 12th grade classroom. I learned very little in that school, and most of what I did learn was self-taught.
Abba smiles while observing a lesson.
Teachers at that high school were mostly people from the community who were decent at math or English, but they weren’t qualified teachers and they didn’t put students first. The Liberian government wasn’t paying teachers regularly so bribery in schools was common: teachers often required students to pay for passing grades. Exams might be intentionally difficult or cover content that hadn’t been taught. Teachers took advantage of students in many ways, like making students do chores at the teacher’s house in exchange for passing grades. It is still like this for a lot of children in this country today.
In 12th grade, I remember refusing to pay my teachers for grades. I went to my principal with my report card and said, “These aren’t my real grades.” It was because of my principal that I graduated high school, as my marks (as given by the teachers) weren’t high enough to make me eligible to graduate.
After high school, I applied to different university programs, including in the U.S., and finally enrolled at Cuttington University in Liberia to study education. In my second year, war broke out and Cuttington closed for nearly a year. I returned to Grand Bassa County where my father grew up, I grew up, and my family still lives today, as it was war-free. Soon, however, rebels entered and I found myself in the middle of a war zone. That period was one of the worst experiences of my life: living in constant fear, not having enough food, night raids, and seeing 12-year-olds working as rebel soldiers.
I graduated finally from Cuttington in 2007 and got a job as a school principal. This was a good job until 2014 when the Ebola epidemic broke out and all schools closed for seven months. During Ebola, I worked as part of the emergency response as Director of the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign, educating people about the disease and how to respond, identifying cases, and distributing supplies.
When schools reopened, 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.
A New Chapter Begins
Around that time, I applied for a job overseeing the Liberia country program of an organization that provided accelerated learning to out-of-school children and helped empower communities. Of course, this was the Luminos Fund and I’ve been on the team ever since.
In the Luminos Second Chance program, students arrive unable to read even though most are 10 years old. Ten months later, they are reading over 40 words per minute on average. We train local community members as teachers (we call them “facilitators”) and coach them in appropriate pedagogies and putting children first. I spend a lot of time driving to our different classrooms to check in with facilitators and serve as a mentor. I meet with other local organizations and secure support from the Ministry of Education to use vacant classrooms and help our graduates transition. We also host monthly sessions for parents and communities to get involved, get excited about their children’s potential, and commit to continue these boys’ and girls’ schooling. Teaching and education is like a sport – it works best with proactive coaching.
As I reflect on my life’s journey so far, I sometimes consider what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone to school. Like many Liberians, I would lack the skills, knowledge, and mindset necessary to earn a living and provide for my family. With a national literacy rate of just 48% in Liberia (34% for women), chances are that I would lack the ability to read a single sentence. No country in the world can make progress on development goals if most of its population is illiterate. This is why our focus on foundational literacy and numeracy at the Luminos Fund is so critical.
To this day, with much gratitude to my father, I believe nothing is more important than education. You need human capacity to build a country and you need education to develop human capacity.
The Luminos Fund has an important role to play ensuring that all children in Liberia and beyond have the chance to go to school and learn. I’m proud to be part of the Luminos Fund’s story helping unlock the light in thousands of children through education – and for Luminos to be part of my story, too.
Abba, left, guides a classroom visit in Bomi County with friends of the Luminos Fund in October 2019