Specialist reaches out to parents

Leader in Howard County works to get immigrants active in schools


Young-chan Han sees her own childhood reflected in the lives of immigrant children and families in Howard County.

Han was 13 when the rest of her family joined her father in Maryland after he emigrated from Korea several years earlier. While she and her siblings picked up English and assimilated to their new country, Han's parents were busy providing for the family.

"We never saw our parents; we were on our own," Han recalled. "Pretty typical" of many immigrant families.

That experience led Han to her life's mission - working with the minority population. As Howard County school system's ESOL family outreach specialist since 2002, Han creates and coordinates programs and services to help immigrant families bridge the cultural and language barrier.

"Even now, I see a similar pattern," she said. "I see families and [think] `That's me 30 years ago.' My heart goes out to them. I know if they had more support, they could do so much more. That's the reason I'm driven."

Though she always had a desire to help underserved people, Han, 44, didn't know where that passion would lead her.

She grew up all over the Baltimore region, and her family eventually settled in Columbia because of its schools.

After earning a degree in political science at Goucher College, Han married and moved to Hawaii, returned to Columbia with her husband and had three children. (The oldest graduated from Atholton High School; and she has a junior at Atholton and a fifth-grader at Clemens Crossing Elementary.)

Han holds two master's degrees in Asian studies and ministry, and a graduate certificate in administration and supervision from the Johns Hopkins University.

In 1997, Han became the director of children's ministry at the Korean American Church of Philippi in Columbia, where her boss, Pastor Young S. Song, saw her passion for community outreach. Han created the Korean Heritage Cultural Vacation Bible School, which brought together church families with families of Korean adoptees, Song said.

"She really is a very proactive person, always with a great heart for children and students here," Song said.

Two years later, Han became a part-time Korean liaison at St. John's Lane Elementary School while also serving at the church.

She also worked as a liaison at Patapsco Middle School for a year before she took over as the family outreach specialist in 2002, a decision which meant she had to leave children's ministry.

As the county continued to get increasingly diverse, Han oversaw the growth of services and programs to assist foreign-born families. As a result, the school system has earned a reputation for its parent outreach, which is a credit to Han's work and dedication, parents and colleagues say.

"She's really able to bridge the cultural gap and connect pieces together as it relates to education," said Robert Glascock, the school system's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "She does so in a humanistic way, and she brings people together from a variety of backgrounds, always focused on how we can help students achieve and improve.

"She also is an internal compass for our school system in helping us as educators navigate and bridge cultural nuances," he said.

In Howard County, there are students from 85 countries representing 77 languages, and the school system has seen a steady increase in the number of English-language learners in the past decade - now more than 1,600 children out of nearly 47,800 students.

Han manages a myriad of services, including outreach events, orientations and programs on cultural-sensitive topics as the family life and human sexuality curriculum to such basics as filling out school forms.

Interpretation and translation services are provided in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic and Vietnamese, among others, so that parents can be connected to their children's education.

Requests for interpretation at parent-teacher conferences, back-to-school nights and other meetings have gone up five-fold since 2001, to more than 5,000 last school year.

"Young-chan has done a fabulous job of diversifying the services we provide," said Min Kim, who as the school system's first family outreach specialist hired Han in 1999. "If I had to handpick a successor, Young-chan would have been one of them."

Han supervises nine school-based bilingual liaisons and two others at the Office of International Student Services. She also works with teachers, parents and educators across the state to encourage parental involvement among immigrants.

Han credits school officials for supporting her work and Kim, now the school system's special assistant for equity assurance, for planting the foundation for outreach services and raising cultural awareness.

Beyond outreach, Han's overarching goal has been to empower bilingual parents and those with limited English skills to become leaders at their children's schools as well as county- and statewide.

With her parents working 12 to 14 hours, six days a week, they didn't have time to be involved in Han's schooling - and she didn't know any different.

"While I was growing up, I thought no parent showed up at school anyway," said Han, who is developing a leadership manual for immigrant parents. "When I became a mom, that's when it dawned on me - the value of parent involvement. What a loss for my parents not having this type of experience, being involved in their children's lives. I want to make sure our parents understand the value because children grow up so fast."


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