By: Kirsty Newman, PhD, Vice President of Programs
Luminos is thrilled to welcome Kirsty Newman, PhD, joining the team as Vice President of Programs. In this new role, Kirsty oversees the global programs team to support joyful, foundational learning for children at the margins. Before joining Luminos, Kirsty held senior leadership roles in various bilateral, multi-lateral, and non-governmental development organizations, focusing on education and evidence-informed policy making.
While this might seem relevant only to education experts in the U.S., there are similarly fierce battles in the global education space, and we can all draw important lessons for education policies and practices.
Worldwide, most children are not learning to read by age ten. In low-income countries, the proportion of kids who can’t read by the time they are 10 reaches 90%, and most children who cannot read by age ten never become fully literate.
It is hard to overstate the impact of this learning crisis; every one of the Sustainable Development Goals will be challenging, if not impossible, to achieve if most young people are not even learning to read.
The learning crisis has resulted from a long track record of underinvestment in education systems along with a tendency to focus more on school attendance than actual learning outcomes. As a result, poor-quality education has become self-perpetuating, with poorly-educated and often untrained teachers unable to provide high-quality teaching to their students.
The podcast describes how many U.S. education experts position themselves in one of two opposing camps: those who believe in the “science of reading” and those who support “balanced literacy.” The first emphasizes the importance of teaching literacy through a gradual approach starting with letter recognition and then building up to the ability to read whole words and sentences. The other approach relies more on a child’s experience and context to understand texts.
As set out in the podcast, there is clear evidence that phonics-based approaches are superior in enabling children to become fluent readers. It is necessary that the skills in decoding words become automatic so that cognitive capacity can be used for higher-order skills such as understanding, analyzing, and inferring. However, what shines through in the podcast is that people on both sides of the so-called reading wars have remarkably similar end goals.
At Luminos, we have found that in education policy debates, it can be incredibly helpful to acknowledge this shared intent. Most people who work in this sector are passionate advocates for children. They want them to be safe from harm, to have the opportunity to experience the joy of learning, and to develop the skills they need to thrive.
The great news is that Luminos has a track record demonstrating that it is possible to deliver all these things, even in low-resource settings. Our programs:
Prioritize the safety and well-being of children,
Draw on the science of teaching and iterate continually to achieve tangible impacts on foundational learning (particularly literacy and numeracy), and,
Incorporate teaching approaches that are engaging and joyful.
A Luminos student in Ethiopia completes a writing assignment. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Our experience at Luminos proves that it is possible to focus on building foundational skills (particularly literacy and numeracy) in a way that also builds the foundations for broader skills, such as critical thinking and socio-emotional learning.
We have an intensive, child-centered approach that has reached more than 172,957 children in Ethiopia, Ghana, Lebanon, Liberia, and The Gambia. Research shows Luminos students go on to complete primary school at twice the rate of their peers, consistently outperform peers by an average of 10% in English and Math, are happier and more confident, and have higher aspirations for their future. Children are achieving remarkable progress in learning to read, write, and do math during our one-year program.
Debate and discussion arecrucial, but the more we can work together to advance proven strategies for teaching reading skills, the more likely we are to overcome the learning crisis.
BBC News Africa featured the Luminos Fund’s program in Ethiopia, highlighting how we address challenges of child labor by ensuring all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning. Watch the segment to see inside our classrooms and hear from Dr. Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, Ethiopia Country Director & Regional Strategic Advisor for the Luminos Fund.
A summary of their report was also shared on the BBC News Africa Facebook page.
Over 200 miles south from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a Luminos classroom is buzzing with learning.
Out-of-school children who either never enrolled in school before or dropped out are taking their second chance at education and running with it.
Mignot, a ten-year-old girl, is eager to share what she loves most about the classroom.
“My favorite activity is singing songs because I learn about so many things when I sing the songs. And I never forget the songs, so I never forget what I have learned,” she says.
Luminos classrooms are joyful, safe environments where learning is interactive and engaging.
Our free, one-year catch-up program has been a transformative experience for Mignot, who dropped out of a government school a few years ago.
“She couldn’t read or write, but now she loves to read when she gets home,” beams Mignot’s mother, Alemitu.
Letters of the alphabet decorate the inside of Mignot’s classroom.
“Mignot is one of my students that really excelled. She is now one of the top students in this classroom. I am very proud of her.”
Derese, Luminos teacher in Ethiopia
“Mignot is one of my students that really excelled. She is now one of the top students in this classroom. I am very proud of her,” says her teacher, Derese. “The best thing about being a teacher is seeing my students improve. It is quite amazing how they transform within such a short period of time.”
He adds, “Educating girls is important for our country because they make up half of the population and can have a huge impact on the community.”
The Luminos program is transformative for vulnerable children like Mignot. Children learn to read, write, and do math, and over 90% of Luminos students continue their education after our program: advancing into government schools with their peers.
Setting up impactful classrooms like this is ambitious and necessary, especially in today’s global learning crisis — and occasionally met with skepticism.
“At first, I thought it was impossible. I just couldn’t accept it. I had so many questions about the program,” admits Mesfin Yacob, the government’s district-level Team Leader who provides support to all the classrooms in Mignot’s community. But after seeing Luminos students and teachers interact with enthusiasm and determination, and the dramatic learning gains that Luminos students make, Mesfin changed his mind.
“After I saw the results, I believed in the program,” he explains.
Mesfin Yacob, Sodo Zuria Woreda School Improvement and Supervision Directorate Team Leader.
“I have been able to see closely how the lessons are given and how the teachers are committed. The follow up by teachers is quite amazing. They do much better than the regular teachers. Even highly paid teachers do not show this level of commitment and output. The classrooms are lively and have a lot of learning resources,” says Mesfin.
He adds, “I am now a champion of the program.”
Mignot has every intention of continuing her education until she can reach her dreams.
“I would like to become a doctor,” she says, “so that I can be able to help people and save their lives.”
Mignot with her mother, Alemitu. When Alemitu describes Mignot’s progress through Luminos’ program, she says, “She [Mignot] couldn’t read or write, but now she loves to read when she gets home.”
Several years ago, photographer Rosie Hallam visited a pilot of the Luminos Fund’s Second Chance program in Sidama, Ethiopia. It was a trip she never forgot. Rosie met Second Chance student, Selamawit (also referred to as Selamaw in some news coverage), on that trip and spent the day with her family, taking a series of extraordinary portraits. This month, Rosie won the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious 2021 Earth Photo competition with her portraits of Selamawit and her parents in a piece entitled, “A Right to an Education.” We spoke with Rosie about winning the award, getting to know Selamawit’s family, and visiting Second Chance classrooms in Ethiopia all those years ago.
Luminos: Congratulations on winning the 2021 Earth Photo competition! What does winning this award mean to you?
Rosie: It’s very exciting! And somewhat surprising in a way, because I felt the images I selected for the competition were quite subtle in how they might represent what Earth Photo 2021 was about.
I imagined a lot of people would think about climate change—images that people see daily of droughts and fires. But for me, it’s about the subtleties of stories. Telling individual tales about people. Amongst all the photographs I took in Ethiopia, Selamawit’s family particularly stood out for me. There was something about their dignity—I remembered them immediately and went straight to those images for the competition.
It’s a tale about a family. It could be one of millions of families around the globe. It’s quite a subtle tale of how they live their lives on a day-to-day basis.
I think education programs—lifting people up out of grinding poverty—are an amazing way of helping people, their communities, wider society, and the country as a whole.
It’s great that these photographs give people the opportunity to learn about the work that organizations like the Luminos Fund are doing. Photography is such a great way of telling those stories.
Luminos: Out of all your work, why did you choose to submit these three photos for the 2021 Earth Photo competition?
Rosie: It touched me a lot—it was just an amazing program. I don’t think any sort of charitable program has touched me as much as [Second Chance] has. Just how simple it seemed and yet how unbelievably effective it was. It literally transformed people’s lives with relatively small amounts of money.* People weren’t being given thousands of dollars, it was small seed funds. From that they were growing businesses and not just lifting themselves out of poverty, but everyone around them.
I met a lovely woman who was running a café, built from her savings group seed funding back then. Her son had completed the Second Chance program, and now all her other children were going to school because she now had the money to send them. Second Chance didn’t just impact that one child who did the catch-up program, it impacted all [the rest]. And then they’ll have children and their children will go to school. This small seed funding can impact dozens if not hundreds of people. I just thought it was amazing.
*In Ethiopia, as part of our program offering, Luminos runs savings groups for mothers of Second Chance students. Women meet weekly to save, form a business plan, and receive business and literacy training. They also receive seed funding to launch their business and are connected to local microfinance groups at the end of the school year. Eventually, mothers increase their economic stability and ability to cover the costs of future schooling when children transition to government schools.
Luminos: Where did Selamawit live and what was her life like?
Rosie: Selamawit lived in a small village with her mother, Meselech, father, Markos (also referred to as Marco in some news coverage), and three other siblings. The school was in the center and traditional huts were spaced around it. Selamawit hadn’t been in school before because her family couldn’t afford it. She was roughly 9 or 10—the same age as my daughter at the time.
Meselech hadn’t had an education and Selamawit was her first child who was able to go to school. This was at the very beginning of the program, and already her daughter could now write her name and was learning to read. I think the mother thought it was brilliant. Meselech was really engaged in the program and fully encouraging of her daughter: she said Selamawit was working hard and would continue her education after the program.
Selamawit enjoyed being at school and learning—being able to write her name was big news. The classrooms were absolutely amazing. As you approached the school you could always hear which one was the Second Chance classroom by the level of noise. All the kids were answering and everything was very visual—lots of handmade things and the students are all wearing hats. That’s what was so lovely about it—it was really vibrant. Seeing children that were so keen to learn and that were so engaged with what was going on. That’s what I really remember from going into the classrooms: these great levels of energy.
Selamawit studied at school, but then she also did all her daily chores: sweeping out the house, picking coffee beans, going to the well to collect water like all the other children. The day I visited her family, I stayed with them all morning and we ate lunch together. To watch that meal being prepared from nothing, all from the land, was mind-blowing for me. It was a really humbling experience.
Everything they needed they had to go and get. If they wanted to eat, they went into the field at the back of the house and picked some crops. To cook the food they had to go collect the firewood to build the fire. They had to go to the well to get water. To make coffee, they would pick beans from a few coffee plants on their land, dry them out, and roast them before grinding them for coffee. Every single thing they ate and drank came from their land.
You realize how fragile people are. You look at things like environmental changes—you’d only need a flood or a drought and that’s a family who’s not eating anymore.
The whole program was amazing really. I’m glad it’s still going, and I’m glad you’re running it.
Luminos: Why do you think education is important?
Rosie: I think education is important in every single society. In London, where I live, some people are more advantaged than others. Some people have better opportunities to get a decent education than others. It’s the same around the globe. Education is both a basic human right and a smart investment. It is critical for development and helps lay the foundations for social wellbeing, economic growth and security, gender equality, and peace. These really are the cornerstones of life. Everybody benefits from having a better education.
After a long, dark year, 2021 promises hope, joy, and possibility—the chance to start imagining the world both as what it used to be and what it can become. When the Luminos team gathered virtually for the first time this year, CEO Caitlin Baron asked everyone to share one reflection or insight from 2020 that we wanted to carry forward in 2021. Team members shared diverse reflections, including the joy of reconnecting with old friends and building deeper relationships with our colleagues around the world thanks to video platforms and texting apps.
Nikita Khosla, our Senior Director of Programs, noted that even with all its challenges, 2020 enabled us to support our Luminos students and their families more deeply and holistically. When stay-at-home orders rolled out in the communities we serve, Luminos stayed close every step of the way to understand the impacts of this new reality: lower incomes, less food, and psychological strain in addition to the COVID-19 health crisis. How would our programs in Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia adapt to better serve their needs while remaining true to our mission of unlocking the light of learning in all children? As Liberia Program Manager, Abba Karnga Jr., reflected, this year strengthened Luminos’ ability to adapt rapidly in changing contexts. Thanks to our Liberian team’s innovation and generous, flexible support from our supporters, we were able to assist communities with sanitizing stations and emergency food relief, in addition to providing distance learning.
Yet throughout this period of emergency response, the future of the children we serve loomed heavy in our minds. Education is critical to ensuring today’s children are prepared and empowered for the future. Learning to read unlocks the door to progression through education and on to achieving their full potential. For every extra year of schooling, there is a 9% increase in an individual’s hourly earnings. Yet for every three months out of school, children can lose up to a year of learning. And according to a recent World Bank report, COVID-related school closures risk pushing an additional 72 million primary school children into “learning poverty”—being unable to read and comprehend a simple text by age 10—exacerbating a learning crisis that existed long before COVID-19. At Luminos, our mission to ensure children everywhere get the chance to experience joyful learning is now more urgent than ever before, and we have the tools to help.
As Michelle Kaffenberger of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme noted to CNN recently, “The crisis doesn’t end when schools reopen. The crisis is going to keep going, if adequate remediation is not taken when children come back.” As schools reopen, it is critical that educators meet children where they are. In our Second Chance classrooms, this means continually assessing students to ensure everyone is progressing and providing extra support to those who are struggling. For example, in Liberia, in addition to twice-weekly hour-long sessions where teachers help students who are struggling, we are also holding short weekend classes to help students keep up with the curriculum in this uniquely shortened 2020-21 school year. Our focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills ensures that students have the foundation to thrive in the future. Critically, our program teaches students how to learn, a skill that can be applied both in their continuing education and throughout their lives.
As we look to the year ahead with a sense of hope and optimism, our students remind us that they are eager to learn. Before our Second Chance classrooms reopened earlier this month, a Liberian student named Charles told us, “School is preparing me for tomorrow. I love this school because they are helping me be good for tomorrow.” Our students have hopes and dreams for incredibly bright tomorrows. In a recent Luminos survey, over 35% of Second Chance students in Liberia dreamed of going into a medical profession to help those around them. Others dreamed of becoming president and holding public office, traveling the world, or becoming business professionals. We can’t wait to see what they do.
As our Communications Director, Maretta Silverman, noted in our team’s round-robin reflection, 2020 reminded us how important it is to show others what they mean to us and how much we care, through new ways and old. So, as we head into 2021, we at Luminos would like to thank you—our supporters, partners, advisors, and friends—for joining us on this journey. When we envision what could be, we see a world where children everywhere experience joyful learning, and no child is ever denied the chance to learn. Let’s get to work.