School liaisons help parents and pupils break language barriers

NEIGHBORS

August 30, 1999|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ARLENE MINDUS understands the importance of small, gracious gestures.

When she was traveling in Italy, a storekeeper opened the shop in the middle of the day -- when stores are customarily closed -- so that Mindus, who was hungry, could eat.

She never forgot the kindness.

As principal at Northfield Elementary School, Mindus hopes that new pupils and parents from other countries will feel as warmly welcomed as she did.

This year, about 17 percent of Northfield's pupils are of Korean or Chinese origin. The school expects six new kindergartners in its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. About 40 children will be involved.

Ellicott City residents Carol Maddox and Sue Capizzi have worked in the ESOL program for three years. Maddox teaches, and Capizzi has served as her instructional assistant. This year, Capizzi will be the school's liaison to the Korean community.

Several years ago, the PTA planned an outreach event for parents of Asian descent, who were not volunteering as much as other parents.

At a Sunday afternoon meeting, Xiaoying Ma, a parent of Chinese origin, and Capizzi translated for parents.

The parents said they were eager to help, but difficulties with language and subtle cultural differences had created a distance between the school and their community.

Forms, reports and newsletters were sent home in English -- difficult for parents to understand. Other parents were unfamiliar with the American school setting.

A PTA action plan was developed to encourage these parents to become involved with the school.

Forms were printed in several languages. Translators and interpreters are now provided for parent conferences, and Capizzi is available to help translate. She is one of five community liaisons in schools around the county.

Linda Won works at Mount Hebron High School. Min Kim and and Wan-Ling Chu were hired to help reach out to local families during the past school year. Kim speaks Korean; Chu speaks Mandarin Chinese.

The two women arrange for translators to help parents communicate with school staff.

Chu grew up in Taiwan where, as a student, she brought pencils to school -- everything else was provided. Now, as a parent in Baltimore County, she gets a list of strange-sounding school supplies to buy each year.

Her experiences as a parent are an "unknown journey," she says, one in which she has no childhood reference points to guide her.

The worst thing for Chinese mothers, Chu says, is not being able to communicate with the school bus drivers. Mothers watch their children ride off to school knowing that they cannot ensure that their children get the right bus home. When her children were taunted with racial epithets on the bus, Chu felt she could not protect them.

Mothers feel uncomfortable going into the school office to face an uneasy silence, Chu says, as they struggle to communicate.

The liaison program is part of an effort to better connect with families who are limited English speakers, says Celeste Carr, instructional facilitator for the Howard County ESOL program. There are 44 ESOL teachers in the county and five liaisons in the schools, she said.

ESOL programs are available at all elementary schools and are offered at five of the 10 county high schools.

The largest population of limited-English speakers is Korean.

Min Kim, who attended ESOL classes as a child, remembers her first day of school in Baltimore County.

She was 10 years old, had just moved from South Korea and did not know any English.

On the first day, she went into the fifth-grade classroom. Her teacher -- Kim remembers her as a tall, imposing woman -- came up to her and said something. Kim smiled.

The teacher repeated the sentence, each time more forcefully. Kim kept smiling.

Finally, the tone of the teacher's voice became harsh. Kim broke into tears.

A little girl sitting nearby comforted her, Kim recalls.

Later Kim learned that the teacher was asking her name and, after a while, they were able to laugh about the incident.

"We call that `louder English,' " Kim says.

Karen Kihm has been the ESOL teacher at Dunloggin Middle School for three years.

This year, she expects to have about 15 pupils, from Korea, Iran, China, Taiwan, Russia and Puerto Rico.

Often, a friend will help the family register a child for school, Kihm said. After that, the family is on its own.

Kihm starts her class by testing her pupils and matches each new one with a buddy.

The Korean school year ends in March, so she frequently gets new pupils in April.

The county has developed a translation library, she says, in which its policies, forms and procedures are available in a variety of languages.

Kihm loves teaching the ESOL classes. Her classroom is a safe place for the children, she says, and she enjoys acting as a mother, guidance counselor and friend.

Loreen Heinz and Mindy Levene are ESOL teachers at Mount Hebron High School.

Last year, Heinz started with 14 pupils and ended the year with 22. The group included Korean, Pakistani, Chinese, Lithuanian, Honduran, Salvadoran, Turkish, Greek, Indian, Iranian and Vietnamese pupils.

Heinz says her pupils are used to a more formal education in which teachers lecture and nationally standardized tests are given every year.

In many cultures, she notes, boys and girls attend separate schools. Co-ed gym classes are unheard of.

Some modest Muslim girls are uncomfortable wearing gym shorts, and many are accustomed to wearing uniforms.

Some have never taken school buses or had lockers. They are not used to a wide mixture of people. "Their whole peer culture is different," Heinz said.

"My students bring different perspectives to my room," she says.

"We can see any issue from many points of view. I find that very refreshing."

Pub Date: 8/30/99

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