At this time, all of the Luminos Fund’s programs across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia are on hold due to school closures. Our team is sharing WHO guidance, monitoring the situation on the ground, tracking government and Ministry of Education responses to the crisis, and identifying opportunities to help. Our U.S. team has begun working remotely but is well-connected through digital tools.
In the near term, we are evaluating effective, agile ways to continue supporting our students. For example, in Liberia, we are distributing readers and numeracy materials for students to work on at home.
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.
Maretta Silverman is Director of Communications at The Luminos Fund
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
On September 26 during U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) week, the Luminos Fund hosted “Dynamic Philanthropy: A Remedy for the Global Learning Crisis,” an intimate conversation featuring Phyllis Kurlander Costanza, Head, UBS Philanthropy and CEO, UBS Optimus Foundation; Pascale de la Frégonnière, Executive Director, Cartier Philanthropy; His Excellency Dr. Tariq Al Gurg, Chief Executive Officer, Dubai Cares; and Alan McCormick, Managing Director, Legatum Group. Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, moderated.
In the last fifteen years, enormous progress has been made in global education, such as a 40% decrease in the number of children out of school, a doubling of the school system in Africa, and the emergence of near parity in girls’ and boys’ education in the primary phase. However, much work remains. Globally, three-quarters of children and adolescents are still not learning at minimum levels.
Now in its third year, the Luminos UNGA week event convenes key funders, thought leaders, and implementors around the subjects of education and international development. This year, we were delighted to have a packed room of participants all focused on real solutions for the 260 million children around the world who still fail to learn the basics.
Caitlin Baron moderated the discussion
Innovative Approaches to Solve the Global Learning Crisis
At Luminos, we believe in philanthropy’s power to fuel breakthrough innovations that will tackle the global learning crisis. We feel extremely fortunate to work with these four leaders and their respective organizations, and were eager to hear their timely, energizing insights about the power of philanthropy in education development.
Cartier Philanthropy, Dubai Cares, Legatum Group, and UBS Philanthropy/UBS Optimus Foundation have funded an array of innovations that are moving the needle in educational opportunity around the globe. During the event, each speaker discussed his or her organization’s approach to philanthropy, innovation, and international education.
“The power of UBS Philanthropy is bringing clients to the doorstep of the world’s greatest problems,” Phyllis explained, noting that up to 80% of UBS clients are interested in investing in education. “UBS Optimus is a foundation of our clients: we route money from clients towards solving many social challenges. With education, we are trying to move clients from building schools to focusing on the quality of learning happening in the classrooms.”
One key area of innovation for UBS Optimus Foundation has been investment in outcomes-based financing. Phyllis described outcomes-based financing as one way to help build capacity in the space and encourage NGOs to focus on results. UBS has achieved strong returns through Development Impact Bonds (DIB) that can then be re-invested to achieve even more impact.
Meanwhile, Cartier Philanthropy seeks to fund scalable, high-impact innovations while moving toward an unrestricted funding model.
“Cartier Philanthropy believes in unrestricted funding,” Pascale noted. “We work for our grantees. They don’t work for us.”
“Cartier Philanthropy is quite independent of Cartier, which has been great to let us be experimental and find organizations working on exciting ideas that scale. Our work isn’t dictated by how we can further the Cartier brand: we were left free to draft our own strategy. Test, try, learn, fail, and try again is a philosophy we believe in,” she continued appreciatively.
Tariq described Dubai Cares’ founding vision to improve children’s access to quality primary education and, more broadly, increase funding for education as this sector receives far less investment than health.
“The Millennium Development Goals were set in 2000 and the 2nd Goal was universal access to primary education. Five years later when the UN met, they said Goal 2 would not be met by the deadline. Dubai Cares was founded in 2007 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. HRH is a strong believer in youth and education. He wanted to convince others to invest more in education, as health always gets more investment compared to education. Dubai today is where it is because of its focus on youth and education. Since 2007, Dubai Cares has worked to provide quality education around the globe.”
“The job of philanthropy is to pilot and test innovations, and do your best to see them to scale,” Tariq continued. “Philanthropists’ job isn’t system strengthening. But, partnership with government is key if you want to influence the mainstream. We have to work within the priorities of governments if we are serious about achieving systems change – or help the government to prioritize an issue if we feel it is important.”
Legatum has a unique relationship with the Luminos Fund. A Legatum Foundation grant launched Luminos as an independent organization in 2016. Alan currently serves as Chairman of the Luminos Fund’s Board of Directors.
From left: Pascale de la Frégonnière, Alan McCormick, and Phyllis Kurlander Costanza
Alan explained, “We run a purpose-driven investment business at Legatum. The mission at the heart of our business is to generate and allocate capital that helps people prosper – and we’ve funded 2,000 projects across the developing world. Our philosophy is to test ideas and then bring others to invest in proven solutions. The best way to help people succeed is to give them the freedom to innovate.”
Describing the Luminos Fund’s origins, he noted, “When we saw how the program makes children numerate and literate in 10 months we were blown away.”
Words of Encouragement
As the event drew to a close, panelists offered advice based on their experience in philanthropy.
“We can’t do this alone,” Tariq said. “We need more donors to collaborate, like how Co-Impact is bringing funders together.”
Phyllis shared recommendations for prospective grantees: “Learn how to ask for money and go big.” Funders are pitched frequently and potential grantees must stand out from the crowd to succeed.
“Reading the news, it’s easy to focus on problems,” Alan cautioned. “Get out and look for solutions and innovations. The innovations out there today give me such hope. Be hopeful and persevere.”
H.E. Dr. Tariq Al Gurg discusses Dubai Cares’ focus on education