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Philly charter school teacher recognized for promoting literacy

Philadelphia Tribune
- Ryanne Persinger,Tribune Staff Writer
- Abdul R. Sulayman, Tribune Chief Photographer

Growing up in North Philadelphia, Gerald Dessus used reading to retreat from what was occurring at home or in his neighborhood.

“Reading was an escape and I knew that I wanted to provide that to my students growing up,” Dessus said. “As long as we provide that to our students, it provides mirrors and views outside of their homes. It gives them an experience to different perspectives.”

Now a teacher at Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus, Dessus has been recognized as a rising leader in literacy by the International Literacy Association. The global advocacy organization recently named the 29-year-old to its 30 Under 30 list.

“The 30 Under 30 list gives us the opportunity to recognize educators who are going above and beyond their job titles to change lives and transform communities,” said ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post in a statement. “Gerald is a perfect example of this. Our hope is that his leadership and commitment to bringing social justice and activism into the classroom every day will inspire other educators to do the same.”

There are approximately 126 million youth age 15-24 around the world who are illiterate, according to ILA, and 781 million people worldwide who are unable to read or write. That staggering statistic is what drives Dessus to leave an imprint on his pupils.

“When we have programs in our schools that really focus on literacy and literacy development, we’re making sure students have the best skills and are prepared for high school and college, and that we’re not failing or adding to those literacy numbers that we’re trying to combat,” Dessus said.

Mastery Charter School at Shoemaker Principal Sharif El-Mekki said leading a classroom is “really the essence of leadership.”

“To have this young Black man be this force in our children’s lives and in the community over all is really a blessing,” he added.

Dessus graduated from Philadelphia public schools and earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University and a master’s degree from the University of Kansas. He has been teaching at the West Philadelphia charter school for three years.

Dessus teaches a social justice course as part of the school’s history department with a focus on writing and literacy.

“It’s a pretty unique course,” Dessus said. “Our students go through four periods where they look at activism. It gives students a full picture of what social justice looks and feels like.”

Some of the aspects students study include the civil rights movement and heroes who are rarely heard about; along with diving into colorism, the Black Panther movement, the #MeToo Movement, LGBT rights, bullying and more. The course is taught to all eighth-graders and has been adopted at six other Mastery campuses.

“It’s a foundational course that we wanted students to have no matter where our students are or what communities they find themselves in. We want them to lead and serve in their communities,” El-Mekki said. “It can’t just be rhetoric. They have to really understand and feel empowered.”

Another local winner is 11-year-old New Jersey native Marley Dias, who created the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign at school. In addition to being featured in the the organization’s January/February issue of Literacy Today and its other platforms, winners receive a year ILA membership and will be recognized at an ILA conference, among other things.

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