Sekou (17) was born soon after his country emerged from 14 years of civil war that ended in 2003. Growing up with just an older brother, they could not afford school fees for two, so Sekou’s brother attended class and tried to teach him ‘his letters’ when he got home. Sekou was hungry to learn, so in 2017, when the US-based education non-profit the Luminos Fund launched an accelerated learning classroom in his community in Liberia’s Montserrado County, Sekou jumped at the opportunity to enrol.
“For me, my favourite memory is when Luminos taught me how to read, how to spell, and how to pronounce words. When I think about it, I get happy,” he says.
Sekou transitioned into 3rd grade in the local government school at the end of the accelerated school year. Since then, he has continued his education and recently completed 7th grade. He has developed a love of learning science. In the future, he hopes to become a doctor and travel around the world - "especially to Australia.”
Since 2016, the Luminos Fund's accelerated learning programme, also known as Second Chance, has been implemented in Liberia to address the country’s acute educational challenges. The pandemic has further strained a fragile education system decimated by the years of civil war, followed by the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, and the legacies of trauma that both leave behind. As well as closing classrooms for more than 100 days, COVID-19 pushed around 500,000 more Liberians below the poverty line (3.55 million out of population approaching 5 million).
Only around half of Liberian children complete primary school, one of the world’s lowest rates, according to UNICEF. Up to 20 per cent of primary-aged kids were estimated to be out of school even before the pandemic.
Of those who are in school, government figures show more than 80 per cent are older than would be normal for their grade so it is not unusual to see classrooms filled with students of a wide range of ages and heights. According to World Bank analysis, nearly 40 percent of children enrolled in basic education are more than three years older than the appropriate age for their grade. This places further pressures on the country’s scarce teachers, only around half of whom have the minimum qualifications for the grade they teach.
To try to address these daunting challenges, the programme condenses the first three grades of primary education into ten months, focusing on the essentials of literacy and numeracy. It forges deep links with community-based organizations to target the most vulnerable children aged 8-14 who have either never enrolled in school before or dropped out. The model sets out to create ‘lifelong learners’ through ‘joyful learning’ in classes that are capped at 25 students. Learning is student-centred and phonics-based, incorporating games and activities with local materials and stories to make it relevant and fun.
Students’ understanding of the lessons is assessed on an ongoing weekly basis, with support provided to those who need extra help. Supervisors visit classrooms regularly, providing feedback and coaching to teachers. To address the lack of qualified teachers, the programme has trained almost 500 ‘high potential young people’ to become community teachers, also known as facilitators, in their classrooms.
During the pandemic, the programme had to shorten to seven months but in January 2021 it returned to in-person learning and ran 80 classes across the country for the 2020-2021 school year, with an extra three hours on Saturdays to compensate for the shorter time frame. It also adapted with an added emphasis on children’s socio-emotional learning, a new kind of student workbook, remote data collection, and an increased focus on remedial instruction.
So far, Luminos has graduated 12,650 children in Liberia, with 90 per cent transitioning successfully to mainstream government schools. Studies show students complete primary school at nearly twice the rate of their peers. An endline evaluation of the 2020/2021 year singled out particularly impressive improvements in students’ reading abilities and concluded: “Second Chance is a highly efficient and effective way to help vulnerable children catch up on learning.”
Beyond these quantitative measures of success, this 2021 evaluation tried for the first time to measure students’ progress in social and emotional learning. Using a tool developed by the NGO Save the Children, the evaluators measured the learners’ “self-efficacy,” described as “the understanding of and ability to express personal preferences, feelings, thoughts, and abilities.” They found a 58 per cent improvement over the course of the school year, with particularly strong progress among girls.
Researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK [Westbrook & Higgins, pp 45-48] noted how the programme was helping to promote community cohesion and strengthen peace at the grass roots. They commented on the “sense of responsibility for social restoration and rebuilding expressed by facilitators, recruited from large numbers of rural unemployed youth,” saying, “a key strength of the Luminos Fund program, from a peacebuilding perspective, is its harnessing of their energy and motivation.”
Parents interviewed for the study saw the classes as modelling and promoting peaceful inter-personal behaviours in the children. One mother explained that “because of the way the boy [facilitator] takes care of the children, the way he talks to the children, the way he teach them.. yeah.. it’s very peaceful. Yes because he teach them how to talk to their friends.” The study found the Second Chance schools were perceived by parents as “sites of peace.” As one mother pointed out “they are going to school, they are moving, that’s peace.”
The Luminos Fund is now working with the Liberian Government to explore opportunities to scale the programme nationally. Based on the success of the teacher training model, the Ministry of Education has invited the organisation to partner in developing Liberia’s teacher workforce and design new systems for teacher licensing and certification.
Liberia is highlighted as one of eight “focus countries” in Education.org’s accelerated education research which distils a wide range of evidence and provides guidance for education leaders on how they can use accelerated education to tackle pandemic-related learning losses - and the broader challenge of out-of-school children and youth.
Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, Founder and CEO of Education.org said: “Liberia’s Second Chance programme demonstrates both the necessity and the impact of supporting student and teacher wellbeing and resilience in addition to foundational learning.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF LUMINOS FUND