County school system reflects new diversity

Minority enrollment up

Hispanics, Asians make up 13.3 percent

`It's a trend,' O'Rourke says

District adapting with interpreters, programs for parents

November 25, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Five years ago, Pointers Run Elementary School in Columbia's River Hill village counted 74 Asian-American children. This year, there are 274.

That change is the most striking example of a trend in Asian and Hispanic enrollments that is making Howard County schools more diverse, as other minorities begin to rival the size of the county's largest minority group - African-Americans.

The overall effect is creating more of a racial and cultural mixture in Howard's schools, mirroring trends that appeared in the county's overall population, according to last year's federal census.

"It's a trend," said county school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "When we say minority today, it doesn't automatically mean African-American."

Asian and Hispanic children combined account for 13.3 percent of county public school students - up from 7.4 percent a decade ago, according to school system reports.

The changes are prompting some to speak up.

Yen Li, president of the Chinese Language School of Columbia, recently asked County Executive James N. Robey to consider an Asian in his search for an appointee to a school board vacancy.

"Asian-Americans are underrepresented in the decision-making positions in the Howard County public school system. It is ironic that education is the top priority among many Asian-Americans," he wrote, offering to supply names of people qualified for the board.

The Chinese Language School teaches Chinese language and culture Sundays at Howard High School. The school wants Chinese language courses offered to public school students, as they are in Montgomery County.

Black student enrollments are up, too, making African-American students 17.7 percent of the total enrollment this year, compared with 14.3 percent a decade ago. The percentage of white students enrolled declined from 78.2 percent to 68.8 percent over the decade. This year, there are 8,219 African-American students and 6,177 Asian and Hispanic students, compared with 31,909 white students.

"I think the diversity is great," said Christina Kim, a resident of the United States for more than 30 years who has children in first and second grades at Pointers Run. "I think the big factor when we purchased the house [three years ago] was the school system."

Word about a particular school spreads quickly among friends and relatives, she said.

Pointers Run is 68.5 percent white, 24 percent Asian-American, 6.4 percent black and 0.7 percent Hispanic. In the past two years, the school's Asian enrollment has increased 67 percent.

Running Brook Elementary in Wilde Lake has the highest proportion of Hispanic pupils. Three elementary schools have more than 10 percent Hispanic enrollment and Running Brook has double that, at 21 percent.

"There's some affordable housing [nearby], and folks tend to move into an area where they have friends," Principal Marian Miller said. "They like the school."

Breaking language barriers

Howard County has about 1,400 children taking English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and the county translates some school notices and arranges for interpreters for non-English speaking parents.

"These parents want to help their children, and we want them to be part of the system," said Jane B. Schuchardt, school board chairwoman and a former teacher. "I went to a meeting the other night and everything was [written] in Korean."

Min Kim, a school employee who works with the non-English speaking community, said 100 more ESOL children than expected showed up over the summer. She is trying to arrange interpreters for 150 parent-teacher conferences in 12 languages.

"It hasn't shown any sign of slowing down in the last three years," she said.

Schools attract diversity

The Pakistani community is growing fast, she said. She also noted that people coming from Korea have been known to choose homes based on the reputation of Howard County's schools.

Mohammad Saleem, a seven-year River Hill resident who serves on the River Hill Village Board, said his family moved from Washington after 16 years. His eighth-grade daughter attended private school there, but public school here.

"We moved for two reasons - the school system, and safety and room to play," the Pakistan native said. "This was our first experience in suburbia, and we were anxious about whether to make that move."

Saleem is helping to plan a multicultural holiday season event in River Hill - "a little open house with different booths for India, Pakistan, Korea, China, Jewish - to kind of bring people together."

Over the past five years, the county's Asian-American enrollment rose 57 percent, while Hispanic student enrollment increased 96 percent. Black student enrollment climbed 29 percent, while white student enrollment increased 11 percent.

Of the county's 37 elementary schools, 16 have either Asian or Hispanic enrollments above 10 percent, and three middle schools are more than 20 percent Asian. Seven of the 10 county high schools have more than 10 percent Asian/Hispanic enrollments.

Schuchardt said she has noticed the change at Pointers Run.

"I went through there one morning," she said. "Every family standing there with their child was Asian. We are certainly trying to meet the needs of these individual students."

Students arriving with their families from other countries make it harder to predict enrollment growth, which is key in the county's effort to build enough classrooms for its growing school population.

David C. Drown, coordinator of geographical systems for Howard schools, said it is impossible to predict how many children will come to the county's schools from other nations each year. "We react to it," he said, noting that some nationalities cluster together in certain areas.

"When people emigrate from a foreign country, they tend to go where they know people," O'Rourke said.

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