The Lindy Scholars Program at the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement at Drexel University: An Interview With Shayla Amenra

Posted by on August 31, 2011

Lindy Scholars

The Lindy Center for Civic Engagement at Drexel University has a variety of programs that serve schools and youth in West Philadelphia that will continue to expand. The Drexel Community Scholars Program, the College Access Fellows program as well as the Lindy Scholars Program are currently all run through the CCE and are supported through the generosity of Philip B. Lindy, and through Drexel’s growing commitment to serve the schools surrounding its campus.

Drexel University established the Philip B. Lindy lnner-City Public School Program at Drexel University  (“Lindy Scholars Program”) to provide enhanced educational services to students, their families and schools in West Philadelphia. The Lindy Scholars Program aims to “level the playing field” and increase student retention, academic achievement, and access to post-secondary education. The Lindy Scholars program seeks to inspire children to see a personal future in a technologically driven global economy and provide them with the enrichment and support that will ultimately enable them to be admitted to and succeed in college. (

Contact Information:
Shayla Amenra
Program Director:
Lindy Scholars Program
Voice: 215.571.3668

Mrs. Amenra spoke with me about the Lindy Scholars Program, her path from forensic science to teaching, and the potential for mentoring and tutoring programs to break down assumptions and stereotypes both for the middle school students and the college students who are part of the Lindy Scholars Program.

Q: How was the Lindy Scholars Program developed?
A: The Lindy Scholars program uses a unique mentoring curriculum created by Dr. Diedre Franklin, Literacy curriculum ceated by Ambria Reed and Abigail Grey and math curriculum created by the Math Forum at Drexel. All of the Lindy Advisors are trained in the curriculum. Mrs. Shayla Amenra is the program director of the Lindy Scholars program. She works with all of the advisors, teachers, principals, Drexel University staff, families, and most importantly, the scholars to ensure the effective implementation of the program. Lindy Scholars are self-selected middle school students predominantly from Martha Washington, Alan Locke and this fall Morton McMichael, which are all Philadelphia public schools.

Q: How did you become involved in teaching and working in after-school programming in Philadelphia?

A: I grew up in Philadelphia, not to far from to Drexel in a majority African American neighborhood (Cobbs Creek) but I went to college at Penn State’s University Park campus. When I got to college the lack of diversity was a shock. Especially in the sciences, I would almost always be the only black person in the class and there were even fewer women. I went to college to become a forensic scientist and ended up becoming passionate about working with young people facing various challenges that could hold them back from reaching their personal and academic goals.

Outside of class I got involved with the Black Caucus at Penn State. There was a lot going on around Penn’s campus politically and socially at the time and we started talking about how we could work with students and faculty to address those issues not only on our own campus but in the Penn State area. I worked with faculty and Penn State students to emphasize the importance of  diversity education courses for college students, as a way to help combat the cultural insenstivity on campus and I worked with youth in the area to help them overcome the same issues. I was put in charge of Saturday School Program that was open to any Penn State student, but we also focused on students attending the neighboring elementary, middle and high school. Through that work I discovered my passion for teaching, and helping all students find their voice, and place society.

Q: After college what did you pursue before coming to the Lindy Scholars program?

A: After graduating from Penn State I taught African American history and Civics at Delaware Valley Charter School. It was a challenge, but I learned a great deal from my students and hope that I was able to touch them the way they touched me. At the end of the year I realized that I loved working with younger students. That following fall I taught second grade at West Philadelphia Acheivement Charter School (WPACeS). When I got there staff and faculty told me that the second graders in my class were the “bad kids”. They really thought that they were impossible to work with, given what they put the previous teacher through.

I tried to meet my students without any negative assumptions in mind and I found I was really was able to change a lot in that classroom. We won the “most improved class” award for the school, among other achievements. Many of the students began to think better of themselves and you could see how proud they became of their progress. After working with that group of second graders and seeing all the progress they were able to make, I began to think really seriously about our education system and how I could contribute to changing it.

I stopped teaching in the classroom because as a teacher you have to adhere to those ridiculous standards that don’t do a lot for the kids, especially for kids who don’t understand something the first time. It’s really hard to deviate from the rules, and strict timelines for the curriculum that they give you. So I decided to try after-school programming. I had the opportunity to run a summer camp at the Church of the Advocate at 19th and Diamond streets. I liked that structure because we were able to do activity based learning and weave in the academic learning.  The camp was also very supportive in allowing me to differentiate the lessons, so that no student would be feeling left out.

Q: The work you did at Penn State in addition to all of the teaching you have done in Philadelphia seems to leave you uniquely positioned to work with both college students and K-12 students in Philadelphia. Why do you think it’s important for college students to become involved in the schools in their neighborhood if they aren’t education majors?

A: I think it’s important because I believe college students are in a unique situation. College students have one foot in the adult world, and the other in the world of a student, so they are able to see the world through both lenses. As such college students are able to identify problems that directly involve and impact students and because of their vantage point they are able to do the same from the side of the ‘adult world’. College students sometimes do not know how valuable this double vision is. Many adults often forget what it means to be a student, and often dismiss young people when they offer feedback. College students can help K-12 students find their voice, confidence, and calling in life because they are not too far removed, but have enough experience to look back and help the net generation prepare.

Q: What are the core components of the Lindy Scholars Program?

A: Two days during the week Drexel students tutor after school at Martha Washington, Locke and in the fall McMichael. Two Saturdays per month we hold our mentoring program on Drexel’s campus. We also offer teacher professional development workshops, as well as family seminars with a program called Parent Power.

Each tutoring week is divided up, and we work one day on math and one day on literacy. With 6th and 7th grade we focus on word problems so that we are working directly on math literacy and common “math lingo”. With 8th grade we focus on Algebra so that they can be prepared for high-school. If students are lacking in basic skills in arithmetic then we’ll focus on building those skills first. Most of our Scholars and their peers have gaps in basic skills that would make critical thinking in high-school challenging so we try and fill in those gaps.

Our literacy program focuses on writing books. For 6th grade we have all of our students write research papers and they turn those papers in to books. We give them basic information about structuring an outline and citing sources and we let them choose whatever topic they want. If they all write about Beyonce that’s fine as long as they are building their writing skills and language skills and are interested in the topic. Our 7th grade Scholars are writing fiction novels similar to a series we read with them over the summer. We talk about character development and plot line and they come up with their own work. We also make sure that they work on research skills within a group so that it mimics college level work.

Q: How long are students committed to being Lindy Scholars?

A: We follow all of our Lindy Scholars from 6th to 8th grade. 8th grade is when they are applying for jobs for the first time and applying to high-schools. So in 8th grade in addition to tutoring in academics we help students look at different high-school programs around the city, we help them build resumes and we help them work on cover letters. Most of our students don’t realize that some of the work they’ve done is actually really valuable for a resume or a cover letter and we reinforce that. We’ve also starting doing mock interviews where we have students dress up and present their resumes.

Q: What does the mentoring program consist of versus the tutoring program?

A: The mentoring program is from 10:00AM-2:00PM on Saturdays at Drexel, which makes it a unique out of school time experience. We mix the Scholars up in to groups so they aren’t just with friends from the school they go to. In the morning we work on “topics of the day”. The topics could be communication, anger management or a social issue. We then design activities around those topics to help the scholars identify the correct way to handle themselves within the situations we create.

In the afternoon we have different Drexel University student groups, as well as community groups come do activities with them. We have worked with the Culinary department, engineering without borders, Phi Sig Pi, Good Kids Inc.; a non-profit music group teaching music production, as well as A.S.A.P. for scrabble activities.

Q: Why is the mentoring program essential to the success of the tutoring?

A: The mentoring portion of the program is essential because it helps the scholars build their social skills, which is needed to be successful in school. We help the scholars see the importance of having good communication skills when you have a group project, in making a great support network of friends, or when you need to speak to a teacher about your grades.

The mentoring program helps the scholars see that while being a wonderful academic student is great, that is only one side of school/academic life. In order to be successful in life and the world you have to have the academic side as well as the social side. A great example of this is the college application process. I often times tell the scholars that students are turned away who have really high GPAs because they lack the social skills needed to be a well rounded student, and to help create a well rounded campus.

Q: Beyond supporting the students, what kind of support does the Lindy Scholar’s program provide to the schools that you work in?

A: We provide students with snack and supplies and we try and be supportive of their class as well as their teachers. If we hear that a teacher needs something for their classroom we try and get it for them. We have placed many of our students within the classroom during the day as teachers assistants, and group managers. We have started to do teacher professional development; it’s been a little rocky in starting because of all the pressure and time constraints on teachers but it’s slowly moving along. We have also helped to sponsor school trips, dances, and this year a school store and career days!

We also do parent outreach. The parents have the option to come on Saturdays with their kids and do parent engagement activities. Or they can go to Locke during week nights for those same engagement activities and we provide dinner for them.  We try and offer a variety of times so that a higher number of parents can be involved.

Q: How do you go about getting Drexel students involved? Are there any requirements in being a Lindy Tutor/Mentor?

A: I encourage students from all over campus to get involved. I do general recruitment at the beginning of the year and I’ve gotten first year through graduate students. People have to apply to the program but I tell students that anyone can do it as long as they are willing.

Q: How do you think the Drexel students benefit from the program? What skills do they take away with them?

A: A lot of the Drexel students aren’t from Philly and they aren’t from urban areas.  Often until they do this program they didn’t realize how fortunate they are. The difference between their schools and the schools they’re working in really humbles a lot of them. It fuels them to be as supportive as possible. I make sure to emphasize that you can’t go in there thinking you’re going to be a saviour, that their main role is to be someone who is supportive and encouraging. A lot of them end up looking at the kids as little brothers and sisters.

I think it also helps Drexel students to start to deal with social issues and social ills that they’re going to deal with when they leave college anyway. I’ve seen students who are shy and afraid of conflict in the beginning and in the end they really step up. I’ve had a lot of students who when they see what is going on in the schools are motivated to take on all kinds of social issues. I had one student decide to work on homelessness in Philadelphia because one of his scholars was homeless during the time he was working with him.

They also end up working on race and class issues. With my white and Indian students I let them know, you’re going to be the white person or one of few Indian people in the program. And kids are going to force you (inadvertently) to start to think that race does exist and class issues do exist. Kids will notice that and be honest about that.

Q: How do you train Drexel students and Lindy Scholars in the curriculum while still allowing them to feel ownership over the program?

A: I make sure the college students know they don’t have to “stick to the curriculum” exactly but they have it as a tool. They do need to make sure they know certain parts of the curriculum and are trying to reach our objectives before they go outside of it. For the older Lindy Scholars we’re developing an ambassadors program as a tool to recruit new Scholars and promote leadership within the program.

I try and let all participants in the program have as much freedom as possible. We’re never sitting down the entire period. For example if we’re going to talk about communication, we have the students actually work on their communication skills through looking at real life situations instead of reading something about it. We make sure our program is activity based.

Q: How do college students reflect on these experiences?

A: Formally, last year we had an online component that students could use to reflect and get credit but students didn’t engage with it strongly. This year for all the Lindy CCE programs we’re going to have group reflection sessions on common topics and themes such as racism and class issues. Students from across all the programs will be able to come together and reflect as a whole community.

We’ve also re-done the online program and now it will just be a safe space to reflect, instead of being a for credit course. Informally, students use me and each other as support. Sometimes they bond with each other while solving problems and leave me out of it. I’ve also seen that Lindy tutors often become roommates, they help each other with jobs and they remain friends after leaving Drexel. They form life-long relationships.

After this program these students, most of whom had not had any experience in public schools and will probably work in technology or medical fields, can now go out there and have meaningful conversations about class and race issues. I’ve heard many former tutors talk about how they’ve challenge co-workers to re-think their positions on poverty and education in Philadelphia.

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