Schools' diversity outreach seeks to share the language of learning

Community liaisons target families with limited English skills

March 05, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Cultural diversity is more than just a popular educational theme in Howard County - it is a reality. More than 1,500 county students receive ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) services. These children come from 81 countries and speak 73 languages. Many of them have parents who speak little English and are unfamiliar with how an American school system operates.

"There are lots of things blocking them from helping their children," said Young-chan Han, ESOL family outreach liaison. "Our role is to remove those challenges or make it so that they can climb over it. We want to open the doors for the parents so that they can have ownership of their schools."

Han knows how difficult it can be to adjust to an American school. She came to the United States from Korea as a sixth-grader. "My parents didn't speak English. They enrolled me in one of the schools in Bethesda. ... The next day they came to school was when I graduated. Not because they didn't care, but because of the cultural and language barriers."

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun about community liaisons targeting families with limited English-speaking skills, the last name of the community liaison at Running Brook Elementary School, Marta Goodman, was misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.

Han has been an ESOL liaison in the schools since 1999. In August, she was moved to the Board of Education's ESOL outreach office.

"The school is beginning to realize the need," she said. "These families have great needs, but they are easily overlooked because they do not speak out. With the language and cultural challenges these families face, they truly need a lot of support."

Han and a small group of ESOL community liaisons provide a variety of services for "limited English proficient" (LEP) families: translating documents, providing interpreters for meetings and offering community gatherings to teach parents the ins and outs of the school system.

One such community gathering was held last week at Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City. This Friday, a similar meeting at Patapsco Middle School will focus on high school topics such as graduation requirements and attendance policies.

The Education Seminar for International Parents at Hollifield included handouts in the four "top" foreign languages spoken in Howard County: Korean, Chinese, Urdu and Spanish. The handouts explained early reading skills and included sample report cards with hand-written translations.

But, Han said, the schools need to do more than translate documents and provide interpreters if they want LEP parents to be active in their children's education. Community liaisons act as a much-needed bridge between schools and home.

Kathy Jacobs, assistant principal at Hollifield Station, said that while interpreters are needed, the liaisons act "as a resource and someone who they [families] can feel reassured and comfortable with," especially when parents are new to a school community.

Marta Goldman, ESOL community liaison at Running Brook Elementary in Columbia, said, "In my school, I'm in there for five years ... they know they're going to find someone who speaks the language." Because they know her, Goldman is able to encourage parents to attend meetings and events that might be intimidating to non-English speakers.

Liaisons like Goldman must often split their time between schools. Three full-time liaisons are based at Running Brook Elementary, Phelps Luck Elementary and Mount Hebron High. A fourth liaison is shared between Hollifield Station and Patapsco Middle.

During recent parent-teacher conferences, the office provided 797 interpreters. Because there were not enough interpreters to go around, some families are meeting with teachers this week. Among them is the family of Jeffers Hill Elementary fourth-grader Diane Mun. Yesterday, family members met with Diane's teacher, Lauren Holly, and Judy Do, a Korean community liaison.

"We explain that if they have concerns about their children's academic or social progress, they can freely discuss them with teachers," Do said. "Usually, they see teachers as an authority figure. They're a little bit intimidated." She let the Muns know it was OK to ask why Diane was doing well overall, but was struggling with her writing skills.

Cultural differences might also keep parents from seeking services for their children, including ESOL programs.

"There were some concerns ... that their children would be locked into an ESOL program and would not accelerate. There's a lot of team teaching that's taking place with the intent that children will accelerate." Jacobs said, explaining that many parents do not realize that ESOL teachers often work alongside regular classroom teachers.

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