Bartram students work to bridge cultural differences
When Soba Camara left her native Guinea in 1996 as a 12-year-old to live with an aunt in Maryland, the path to social acceptance in her new school was not easy.
“I didn’t speak English and I didn’t understand a lot of words that people said. [But] I knew when I was getting picked on. There were a lot of bullies,” recalls Camara.
Camara moved to Philadelphia in tenth grade and graduated from Bartram High School in 2002. By high school, dealing with school and schoolmates was easier for Camara, but she recognized the challenges that new immigrant and refugee students from Africa experienced while at Bartram.
The city’s largest high school with over 3,400 students, Bartram is located in a multiracial row house neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia that has seen its share of racial and ethnic conflict and violence.
“With the newcomers, it was difficult,” explains Camara, “because they were getting picked on and talked about, and they didn’t understand what [the American students] were saying.”
Every year, about 2,500 students come to the School District from other countries; 95 percent of them enter ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) or bilingual programs. At Bartram, there are about 160 students in the ESOL program. Roughly 40 percent are from a wide array of African countries including Guinea, Liberia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, and Mali.
In 1998, Mohamed Fofana was a newcomer student from Guinea. He attended the School District’s Newcomer Center (a program for recently arrived high school-age students with limited English skills) for two years and then went to Bartram, graduating in 2002.
Fofana also identified language barriers as a key obstacle for newcomer African students. “If you don’t understand the language, it [is] hard for you because …you can’t talk [about] what is in your mind,” he says.
Getting comfortable in a huge urban high school could be daunting to any student, but Fofana says newcomer students at Bartram also faced the possibility of being teased by other students for revealing aspects of their African culture. “Some of the students are shy about wearing their cultural background clothes or speaking in front of the teacher in class because when they speak, [students] might laugh at them because they have accents from Africa.”
Students address mounting tensions
In recent years at Bartram, incidences of
teasing African students about their accents or clothing were too often escalating into fights between African and African American students, who together make up 86 percent of the student population.
“There were some outbreaks of fights,” recalls Peter Exarhoulakos, the ESOL Coordinator at Bartram and a 30-year veteran of the School District, “and there was ‘We don’t understand how you’re talking,’ or ‘You dress funny,’ or ‘You smell funny.’”
By the 2000-2001 school year, escalating tensions between African and African American students had become a schoolwide and community concern.
Recognizing that something needed to change, adult members of both the African American and African communities held community meetings to address the mounting tensions at Bartram.
But in the end, says Exarhoulakos, “the most vital changes came through the student population.”
The African Students Association, founded in the spring of 2001, was one key source of change.
With the help of a doctoral student who had interviewed Fofana about his experiences, several African students including Fofana and Camara came together to form the African Students Association, designed to serve as a social and academic support group for African students, promote a positive image of Africa in the school, and foster understanding between African and African American students.
Fofana became president and Camara vice president. The association received the support of Exarhoulakos and Beatrice Mickey, Bartram’s principal.
Soon there were tutoring sessions several days a week where African students could get help from college students with homework, SAT preparation, or college applications.
The African Students Association worked to show Bartram students a different image of Africa by organizing African culture fairs, African feast days, plays about life in Africa, and fashion shows featuring the clothes and music of students’ home countries.
The association also produced a newsletter that was distributed throughout the school, announcing upcoming events and publishing African students’ poetry and prose.
Camara says these events helped: “People understood more, learning the traditions.” As a result, Camara explains, “African students [were] more comfortable with the African American students, because the African American students wanted to understand better and know how it is in Africa.”
But the exchange was not just one way.
Conversations across groups
Soon after the association was formed, an African American Students Association was also created. The two groups had a complementary relationship and became a place to foster conversation between African and African American students.
Together, the groups attended museums and events that helped to show connections in their experiences. They visited the Balch Institute’s exhibit on the African immigrant experience in Philadelphia, saw a documentary at Temple that traced a slave song from Sierra Leone to the U.S., and traveled to the Black American Museum in Baltimore.
Fofana says the conversations started by these trips were the beginning of the “real understanding” between the two groups that he had hoped the African Students Association could bring about.
By last spring, the African Students Association had come a long way towards its dual goals of promoting a positive image of Africa and fostering understanding between African and African American students.
Interviewed in August, Fofana was still animated as he described the last play produced by the African Students Association. Members of the African American Students Association volunteered to be in the play so that, in the spring, African and African American students performed together, all in African clothing. Fofana said this marked a major step forward in communication between the groups.
Exarhoulakos noted the impact that the African Students Association had on African students in just a year and a half. “All of a sudden there was a pride in where [they were] from and [the feeling that] ‘we don’t have to hide. We have something that’s as good as anybody else’s.’”
Fofana exuded that sense of pride. “We think no matter where we’re from – even a place that has only one building and no cars – we are all proud of who we are.”
It is not clear whether the African Students Association will continue this year since all of the leaders graduated. The association’s continuation will depend on students’ action, just as its creation did.
Fofana offers those students words of encouragement. “I want them to try more and make a big difference in school. [I want them to] have more voice in school and try to be proud of yourself no matter who you are. Just be proud of yourself.”