Closing a gap in cultures

Education: The county's English for Speakers of Other Languages program helps Arab families adjust.


May 26, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For many Arab families in Howard County, adjusting to the school system's culture isn't always easy.

For example, Arab families are accustomed to a more formalized school system in their native countries, where parents are not directly involved in the classroom. But in Howard, as in many American school systems, parents can be seen often in the classroom, volunteering for reading programs and other events.

To close that cultural gap, the outreach office of the county's English for Speakers of Other Languages program sponsored the first Arabic Family Night to help school officials and Arab families learn from one another.

About 170 people attended the event May 10 at the Board of Education building in Ellicott City.

The meeting featured talks by educators and members of Arab families, and an authentic Arab dinner with food donated by local businesses and cooked by some of the families.

"It was a wonderful meeting," said Maha Abdelkader, whose two children, Omar, 8, and Alia, 6, attend Waterloo Elementary School in Columbia. "I certainly felt like it was a wonderful step in the right direction."

Abdelkader, who was born in Egypt, is a long-term ESOL substitute in the county schools. She also serves as an Arabic interpreter for families in the schools and volunteers at her children's school.

She said the concept of volunteering is "very new" to Arab families. She added that Arabic Family Night helped underscore the importance of getting involved in the schools.

"It's very good to be an adviser on a committee or to get involved with the PTA," she said.

Abdelkader, who was educated in the county schools beginning in third grade, said she became involved as a volunteer. That has led to other opportunities in the school system.

She said she understood the uneasiness first-generation Arab parents might have about the school culture. Still, she added, her desire to make a difference for her children was the incentive for getting involved.

"My experience has been very positive," she said.

She said her son told her about a book he recently read about a boy in Egypt. Abdelkader said she was happy to hear that her son had an opportunity to see his culture reflected in the school's curricula.

"I'm pleased that [my children] know that I was born in Egypt, and they are proud of who they are and are very eager to share it," she said.

Young-chan Han, the county's ESOL Family Outreach specialist, said the family night likely will result in more dialogue with the families.

"Now that we understand these [issues], it's up to us to do more outreach," she said. "No. 1 is to understand the differences, and No. 2 is to help the parents to the point where they feel comfortable ... asking questions."

Of more than 1,600 ESOL students in the county, 32 speak Arabic, according to Han.

She hopes to encourage more Arab families to attend school events and help them overcome language or cultural barriers that might hinder them. Similar family nights have been held for Hispanic, Chinese, Korean and Pakistani families.

During the event, Han said, the Arab families had questions about the familiarity among teachers and students in the classrooms.

"We explained that that's the way we communicate with our kids in our classrooms," said Han.

Sahar ElShanawany-Ali, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years and whose daughters Nadah, 9, and Amanda, 7, attend Howard public schools, said that, in general, Arab families are conservative.

ElShanawany-Ali said some Arab families are also concerned about the perception of them in America in light of "news events," including the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But, she said the family night was a nice way to help Arab families feel welcome.

"They got to meet school board members, and that was wonderful," she said.

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