Schools attempting to help Arab families

System hopes that family night will help parents overcome cultural differences


It took Nader Abuhassan two years before he realized that it was acceptable for him to go on field trips with his children's classes.

The Ellicott City father of three, who moved to the United States from Syria in 1997, said that parents in many Arab countries play an active role in their children's education at home, but they interact less with the schools than do American parents.

"I felt bad," said Abuhassan, whose children are 13, 9 and 6. "We didn't know about it. We didn't know the habits."

Such cultural differences can create problems for parents from Arab countries whose children attend school in the United States, something the Howard County school system is hoping to address at its Arab Family Night tomorrow at Centennial High School.

The event, which will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., will include system personnel explaining some of the nuances of the American education system, a dinner featuring foods from Arab countries and an opportunity for parents to ask system personnel about programs and resources available to the public.

Also planned is a presentation to administrators by Maha Abdelkader, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher who is from Egypt and will discuss the education system in that country.

In a diverse county where students speak 66 languages, school officials are taking a variety of steps to reach out to families.

During this school year, the system held workshops for the Korean and Hispanic communities and for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, explaining high school assessments and graduation requirements.

"Through these outreach events, we want parents to feel comfortable so that they can go back to their schools and volunteer, and get involved within their children's schooling," said Young-chan Han, a family outreach specialist for the system's ESOL program. "It's just human nature. The more you know about how a system functions, the comfort level is raised."

Tomorrow's family night is even more specifically targeted, focusing on how cultural differences affect students from Arab nations.

Abdelkader, who teaches at Bryant Woods and Running Brook elementary schools, organized the family night. She recalled helping a mother from an Arab country who was struggling with the concept of the assessment tests given in the United States.

In Arab countries, assessment tests are treated as defining tests that determine whether a student can be promoted to the next grade level, Abdelkader said.

"In the U.S., there are so many different assessments," she said. "There are assessments to find out student learning style, there are pretests and regular assessment tests. Parents [from Arab countries] generally put pressure on themselves to prepare their children for each exam when they really don't need to."

To help overcome such concerns, Clarissa B. Evans, executive director of secondary curricular programs, and Marie DeAngelis, director of elementary curricular programs, will give a presentation outlining different types of testing, as well as the assessment tests needed to graduate from high school.

May Baker Agha, one of the organizers of tomorrow's family night, said it is important that parents from Arab countries get a "clear idea" about the American education system.

Baker Agha, who has lived in the United States for nine years after moving from Lebanon, said she now has the knowledge to navigate the school system.

"It's much easier to understand how I am suppose to deal with the teacher and how I am suppose to work with them at home," said Baker Agha, a substitute teacher in the school system.

Although the system does not have an official number of how many students from Arab countries are enrolled in Howard County - there is no official racial subgroup that they belong to under Maryland State Department of Education guidelines - Han expects about 35 families and a total of 200 people to show up to tomorrow's event.

"They [parents] always bring their children," she said. "I just had a parent RSVP that said she was bringing her six kids."

Unlike for the workshops given to Korean and Hispanic communities, she does not expect to have to use an interpreter.

At the Arab Family Night two years ago, only one family of 21 was not bilingual, Han said, and "even [the mother] had a very good knowledge of English; she just wanted to make sure she got everything."

Abuhassan, who went to the system's first Arab Family Night in 2004, found it beneficial even though his family is well-acclimated and he is pleased with the education that his three children are receiving.

"We didn't know that the educational system is that much more open, and what we could do to help, and what is wrong and what is right," said Abuhassan. "It showed us how much we could do to help and how we could get involved."

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