Encouraging diversity

Howard Co. class familiarizes international parents with the U.S. educational system


Joy Johnson, who came to the United States from her native China 17 years ago, was apprehensive about taking an active role in her child's school because she was not familiar with the American educational system.

Thanks to a six-week leadership class for international parents in the Howard County school system, Johnson now plans to join the PTA and work with a school improvement team. She is also considering joining an advisory committee when her 6-year-old son, James, begins first grade in the fall.

"I never really looked at myself as a leader," said Johnson, an Elkridge resident who was one of 20 to complete the first international parents leadership program last week. "But the message was clear. Everyone could be a leader. It's very, very encouraging."

The class, which is the only one of its kind in the area, was created in August to help school advisory boards recruit immigrant parents. It was the brainchild of Young-chan Han, a specialist with the system's International Student and Family Outreach Office.

"It is easy to say we want to diversify, but it is difficult to find parents who have the knowledge and comfort level to fill those roles," said Han, who crafted the curriculum and plans to teach it again in the fall.

The course is free, and participants meet for two hours, once a week, for six weeks. They learn about the school board, parent-teacher groups and the hierarchy of the school system. Speakers include the superintendent, high-ranking administrators and members of child advocacy groups.

The idea is to improve student performance by getting parents involved.

International students experience culture shock and require a long transition period, according to Zephia Bryant, director of the Office of Multicultural Services at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"It is even more important to involve international parents and to acclimate them to the environment," Bryant said. "To equip their parents and to involve them in the culture of the institution is really great. It can only help the institution become better."

Howard County's public schools have attracted immigrants from around the world. This school year, Han said, the county's international student registration office admitted 860 students, up from 745 in 2003-2004 - an increase of about 15 percent.

The class is so unusual that Han has received e-mails of interest from school systems in California and South Dakota.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University, said because of the increase in the immigrant student population, school systems are coming up with new ways to engage parents.

"Schools all over our country ... in rural, urban and suburban areas are trying to manage the complexities of this population," he said. "What the research shows is the more, and the better, immigrant kids are engaged in schools, that is a powerful predictor of their success."

While many of the international parents in Howard County have completed undergraduate and some postgraduate work in the United States, Han said, they are unfamiliar with primary and secondary education in this country.

Johnson was surprised to see clusters of classrooms sharing a common area - a feature found in several Howard County schools.

"Our classrooms [in China] seemed to be a lot more structured," said Johnson. "When I observed the classroom, I hoped my child could concentrate with the things on the wall and the sounds from other classrooms."

School is optional for students in El Salvador, according to class participant Maria Mai of Columbia.

"It's up to the parents," said Mai, who came to the United States in 1973 to escape civil war.

Colette Nguyen, who also took the class, said her nephew's attention-deficit disorder never would have been identified in Vietnam. "They would have labeled him as stupid, instead of coming up with a supportive program," she said.

Han took all of these factors into account when she crafted the course. She also contacted the system's 290 interpreters, identified potential participants and surveyed parents about the educational systems in their native countries.

During the classes, which began April 26, parents learned about the school board, parent teacher associations and other advisory groups. There also was a discussion about immigration issues.

"It's an opportunity to network with parents, meet school system leaders and to empower them to become leaders," said Han.

Nguyen, who came to the U.S. in 1973 and who has been active with the PTA since 1985, hopes to share information from the class with other Vietnamese people in the area.

"The performance of the school is directly related to parents' involvement," she said. "When a parent is involved, the children enjoy it better. The teacher is aware that the parent is involved and they have to be on guard. They brush up on their lessons."

Parents who complete the class are required to pursue a leadership position with a school-based organization, according to Han.

"It is so important that they understand they are valued leaders in the community, and the community wants them to be part of the decision-making process," Han said.

Johnson seems to have learned that lesson. "Our voice needs to be represented," she said.


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