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Teacher bridges global divide for Philadelphia students with African-centered curriculum

Wearing a colorful dress and scarf, Amnata Sy speaks at a lectern
Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Aminata Sy

Aminata Sy aims to bring learning skills from her native Africa to West Philadelphia. The Senegalese native runs the African Community Learning Program, known as ACLP, and teaches students who are from various countries on the continent about their culture. She’s currently a graduate student at American University.

While working on her degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Sy created ACLP as an after-school program for early learners, many of whom did not speak English. She wanted to reverse learning practices for Black students from the African diaspora. Her students have hailed from Senegal, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Sudan, and Sierra Leone.

“I noticed that many students from the African continent struggled in the city’s public schools,” Sy said. “We grew from my basement to the Blackwell Library on 52nd Street to Paul Robeson High School — teaching students a culturally responsive African-centered curriculum.”

As the program increased in size so did its offerings. Last year Sy launched the ACLP Future Scholars Program offering an African-centered culturally responsive college preparatory curriculum.

Sy is immersed in the African immigrant community in West Philadelphia. Before attending Penn, she was a student at Community College of Philadelphia and an international correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, where she covered the people and events in her home country.

Two years ago Sy earned the prestigious Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellowship, which helped to fund her studies at American University and trained her to become an American diplomat. She interned for 10 weeks in a U.S. Congressional office and met U.S. State Department officials and American diplomats.

Sy spoke with Chalkbeat about her drive to support African students, how she incorporates cultural traditions into curriculum, challenges with remote learning, and a memorable moment when contact with a student’s family influenced her approach to teaching.

What is the mission of the African Community Learning Program?

African Community Learning Program’s mission is to educate, connect, empower, and support people of African background in West Philadelphia. Our mission has been driven by the support of undergraduate and graduate students from Penn, Temple, and American University and partners and supporters who believe in our work. We’ve taught elementary and high school African diaspora students, mostly immigrants and first-generation Americans. Since launching African Community Learning Program in 2017, we’ve created a culturally responsive teaching curriculum tailored to our students’ needs and cultural identities, celebrating who they are.

How do you get to know your students, especially early learners?

We’ve gotten to know our students by listening to them and their parents about their needs and their strengths. For example, I wrote about one student, Dieynaba, who immigrated to Philadelphia from Senegal to join her parents and whose teachers couldn’t teach, and she experienced so much bullying at her school.

Dieynaba was in the eighth grade but didn’t speak or understand English. I started by reading to her from pre-kindergarten-level books translating them to Pulaar [a Senegalese language] and French and having other volunteers also read to her. I told Dieynaba to write all of her in-session activities in French and then our volunteers and I helped her translate her writings into English. When I taught our sessions, I stopped often to translate in Pulaar what I was saying to Dieynaba.

After just about a month of teaching Dieynaba, she presented her writing in front of the class in English. That day, my eyes watered with tears of joy! I knew how far she had come in her English learning; I also knew how far she will continue to go. She stayed with African Community Learning Program until in her 11th grade and is doing well in school.

Last summer, I gave her the book “Between the World Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.” She said she finished it and liked it.

When students get the support they need in their education, there is no telling how far they go with their learning and with their lives. We have to find ways to reach every student for their sake and the sake of a better society.

How have you adapted to teaching virtually? What has been helpful so far?

We launched our new Future Scholars Program, focusing on a college preparatory curriculum empowering African diaspora high schoolers through learning skills while celebrating their cultural identities. We restructured our entire curriculum for virtual teaching and learning and our teamwork management for working online. We launched a new website weareaclp.org tailored to high schoolers with many resources to support learners and to prepare them for college. We launched a newsletter that includes content supporting high school students in their learning.

Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a low student enrollment. So we decided to cancel our sessions for this school year and are still thinking about how we will move forward given the pandemic.

Instead, during fall 2020, we wrote policy documents recommending culturally responsive teaching practices to the school district of Philadelphia. We are currently working on a policy document that will focus on culturally responsive teaching recommendations for immigrants and English learners.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I have had many memorable moments with students that reaffirm that the work of African Community Learning is so important. Raimat, a student from Nigeria who was in eighth grade at the time, attended our after-school sessions starting in the fall of 2017. She was soft-spoken, very shy, a kind person, and a writer. Raimat had experienced bullying at school for having chocolate brown skin and being from Africa. I expected every student to participate and speak up during our sessions, so I encouraged Raimat to use her voice.

Soon, Raimat started to open up and participate more and more. During our last session in that school year, Raimat handed me a thank-you letter that read in part, “Before I joined the program, I used to think that a team is when a group of people work together. But after I joined that program, I found out that a team is not just about working together but about loving, caring, motivating, encouraging, supporting, advising, collaborating, connecting, communicating, and learning each other’s background.”

I will continue to carry with me the memories of witnessing students’ struggles and progress.

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