Public schools try to bridge cultural divide for immigrants

Foreign students, parents get lessons on social life

November 30, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Dances, football games, dress-up theme days - those are the memories people hang on to from high school, not the hours spent poring over books or taking tests, said River Hill High School Principal R. Scott Pfeifer, who admits to wearing teddy bear slippers even now on "pajama day."

"What's important to kids is their social life," he said. "What do you remember?"

But for families new to the country, American social life can be a foreign concept.

"Everybody's talking about homecoming or prom, and these parents know something is going on and that it's something exciting, but they really don't quite get it," said Young-Chan Han, who helps immigrant families navigate the Howard County public school system.

During the past seven years, the number of foreign-born students and non-native English-speakers in Howard County has more than doubled, forcing schools to search for ways to better acclimate children and their families to American life. So administrators are devising programs to explain the basics and quirks of their schools' academic programs and extracurricular activities.

River Hill High School in Clarksville called parents together this month to explain such things as the prom and homecoming to its immigrant families, many of them from Asian countries, where dating among teen-agers is often discouraged by parents who stress academics. Earlier, St. John's Lane Elementary in Ellicott City held workshops for parents to help them with their English and let them know what to do at parent conferences.

"We always do academic pieces to encourage parent involvement, not the cultural thing," Han said. "Yet we know that these social aspects play a huge role in the lives of teen-agers. That's the part I feel we have not done enough to share: culturally."

Han worked with River Hill representatives to arrange the introduction-to-culture event Nov. 20, attended by about 50 parents and children. It was the first of its kind in the county, she said, and she hopes there will be more.

Interpreters translated Pfeifer's words into six languages during the program - Urdu, Chinese, Spanish, French-Creole, Farsi and Korean - helping the families follow along as he showed slides of teens cavorting, raised his arms to rah-rah in a pep rally demonstration and announced his preferred bedtime footwear.

Han stood toward the back of the room, beaming, showing no signs that she was beside herself just a few hours earlier trying to fill more than 800 requests for interpreters to appear at parent-teacher conferences - 100 more than last year. Nearly 80 languages are spoken by Howard students, and Han's interpreters can translate only 15.

"I'm going absolutely nuts," she said that afternoon.

"A lot of people move here because of the school system," Han said. "They know the education in Howard County is so good."

But adapting to student life requires more than adopting the academics, said Florence Hu, assistant principal at St. John's Lane Elementary, which has a large Asian population and about 90 students for whom English is a second language.

Last month she wrapped up an eight-session program for parents and children, which taught the former how to write absence notes and meet with teachers and the latter about their American counterparts.

Teachers and volunteers from libraries read to the St. John's kids, hoping to introduce them to life through various characters. Parents got a dose of culture, too, particularly on the day an administrator came in to the evening class dressed as the Energizer Bunny.

"She wanted the parents to know about Halloween," Hu said. The moms and dads were encouraged to say "trick-or-treat" and were given bags of candy when they did so.

"There is such a strong need of sharing ways with parents who are not English-speaking, telling them about what a child's school day is like, what we expect a child to do," said Hu, who came to the United States as a graduate student in 1971.

"For example," she added, "many of us brought up in Oriental countries, we're considered passive learners, we sit and take notes. However, here we expect children to ask questions and to learn from experience. That's quite different."

The school system also needs to understand the cultures these students come from, said Lisa Hanson, who teaches a program to recently arrived immigrants at River Hill. For some of them, just learning to be a kid may be a struggle, much less how to navigate social situations, Hanson said.

She has had children in her classes who have had to work in tequila factories to sustain their families, have been homeless or have had to flee their countries as refugees.

Those children, like most others who have led easier lives, want to avoid standing out, said Angela Ballard-Landers, River Hill's PTA president. She suggested holding the culture night after a Korean parent asked her what homecoming was.

"Every child wants to fit in," Ballard-Landers said. "If you're not from the United States, you want to fit in even more. It's part of being a teen-ager."

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