Assimilating Koreans at local school Mount Hebron High tries to help students with limited English

Breaking language barrier

Group translate rules

bilingual parent aids with teacher meetings

March 09, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

To see the changing face of Mount Hebron High School, look no further than its library -- a place that many call the Ellicott City school's "Little Korea."

Early each school day, many of the school's nearly 150 Korean and Korean-American students gather informally there -- to speak Korean with one another.

In the past five years, the number of students of Korean origin at Mount Hebron has mushroomed, says P. J. Kesmodel, a guidance counselor at the school for 24 years: "In the early 1980s, fewer than 10 students were Korean. Now it's nearly impossible to walk into a classroom and not find at least a couple of Korean students."

Korean-origin students now make up about 12 percent of Mount Hebron's 1,250 students, more than double the percentage at the beginning of the decade.

"The school is totally different from when I started," says Mount Hebron senior Woo Jin Kim, 18, who came to the United States while in middle school.

The influx of Korean-origin students happened so fast that it surprised many at Mount Hebron. That may be partly because classes for students with limited English skills weren't offered at neighborhood high schools such as Mount Hebron until 1995-1996 -- so the number of Korean-origin students was less conspicuous because they spent half their day outside the school in a program for students not proficient in English.

For a school still devoid of Korean-speaking teachers and administrators, the rapid demographic change could have wreaked havoc.

Even explaining such seemingly straightforward rules as the school system's prohibition on weapons could be next to impossible when students -- and, in many cases, their parents -- have limited English skills.

But in the past year, Mount Hebron's teachers, students, administrators and parents have been coming to grips with the changes.

"I think we were a little slow recognizing what was happening," says Sindy Parrott, the school's gifted-and-talented resource teacher who is overseeing a student project looking at Mount Hebron's Korean-origin population. "But now I think everyone here is aware of the Korean students and working hard to help them however we can."

Meetings for parents

Korean-origin students are being encouraged to help their ethnic peers with more limited English skills. A group of students is translating basic school documents -- such as the school's policy against alcohol use -- into Korean. An assistant principal has been designated the main liaison for Korean parents.

Monthly school meetings are held for the parents, with a translator and at a time convenient for most -- Sunday evenings. A bilingual parent volunteers dozens of hours each week helping Korean-speaking parents talk to their children's English-speaking instructors.

Mount Hebron's efforts are particularly critical because of the new countywide emphasis on teaching high-school students with limited English skills in neighborhood schools -- instead of sending those students to the county's now-closed School of Technology for daily English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction.

"I think you're more a part of the school now that ESOL is here," says senior Susan Kim, 19, who received English instruction at the School of Technology for the second semester of her sophomore year when she first arrived in the United States.

Help in ESOL class

Like many Korean-origin students, Susan continues to drop in on Mount Hebron's ESOL classes with some regularity, even though her English skills no longer require the daily instruction in vocabulary, grammar and U.S. history.

Some stop by to chat or ask a question, while others come for group discussions on something they're reading in English class.

" 'Huckleberry Finn' can be a difficult book for students who have been speaking English all of their lives because of the dialects," says ESOL teacher Loreen Heinz. "If you only have two or three years speaking the language, just think about how difficult it could be."

Still, most Korean-origin students find they learn English very quickly and earn grades as high as the school's native English speakers. Within 18 months of arriving at Mount Hebron, almost all pass the Maryland Functional Tests -- a set of basic exams in math, writing, reading and citizenship that are required for high school graduation.

"During my first year, it was hard for me -- I couldn't understand teachers very well when they spoke," says junior Austin Lee, who will mark his second year in the United States April 22. "My chemistry teacher spoke so fast that I had to go back after school almost every day to understand what he was saying. Now he's teaching my physics class, but I'm able to keep up and understand a lot better."

Other schools observe

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