At Moder Patshala, Education is a Community Activity

From the outside, Moder Patshala looks like many other brick homes in West Philadelphia. But walk through the front door, and a narrow hallway leads to a classroom in the back, and a stairwell covered in pictures about Bangladeshi culture leads to a basement chock-full of books, desks, and a small row of computers. On any given weeknight, these two rooms are bustling with Bangladeshi-American K-12 students working on homework or refining their expertise as writers with students from the Graduate School of Education’s Educational Linguistics Division.

Ali Zaker and Najneen Kabita first opened the doors of their home as an afterschool homework help center in 2004. As recent immigrants and soon-to-be parents, Zaker and Kabita were concerned with making sure children in the Bangladeshi-American community had access to tools and resources to help in their academic development. From just a few children at first, their regular attendance has boomed to nearly 60 students. And, they hope that this program can serve as a model for others who are looking for ways to support families who are new to the U.S. school system.

Bangladeshis are a relatively new—and largely invisible—immigrant community in Philadelphia and neighboring Upper Darby. According to Penn’s Associate Director of Asian American Studies Fariha Khan, the community largely does not access public services and faces language barriers.

Anne Pomerantz, a senior lecturer in Educational Linguistics, first saw Zaker and Kabita at a community meeting with the School Reform Commission about Philadelphia school closings. She was impressed by the couple, who brought more than 50 parents with them as they testified about what would happen to ESL programming if their neighborhood school closed. As a language teacher, School District parent, and West Philadelphia resident, Pomerantz shared Zaker and Kabita’s concerns. A few months later, she saw Zaker again at another community meeting and told him about the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program at Penn GSE and its long-standing commitment to community engagement. For the past five years, Pomerantz and her students have provided homework help in math, social studies, and language arts, among other subjects, and started writing workshops.

“Moder Patshala is important for this community because I think it really helps the kids to focus on their academics and it provides additional support for them that they may or may not be receiving at school,” says Jennifer Decker, a Penn GSE master’s student in the TESOL program who volunteers at Moder Patshala. “I could see that students connecting with other students who have a similar heritage or who also speak Bangala [would] be really helpful for them to know that other people are out there who are like them and I hope, affirms and supports that identity.”

The impact on learning goes both ways, something Pomerantz’s students praise about the program.

“For the students that are part of the Bangladeshi community ... they see models of what their lives could be like,” Decker says. “For the Penn students, it’s a great learning opportunity because it’s only through interacting with people in the community that we understand what the needs and challenges are of the students who we’ll be working with in the future.”

Kabita reflects on the past dozen years. “We are proud of our work,” she says, “but it will never end.”

Indeed, they are at capacity in their home, and would love to be able to move into a bigger space to serve more members of the community. They would like to serve not only Bangladeshi students, but the wider neighborhood, too. The classrooms in the house hold a special place, though. Zaker chimes in: “When Moder Patshala is closed, there’s no light. When it’s open, my whole house is laughing.”

At Moder Patshala, Education is a Community Activity