When language is no barrier

Agency helps international parents register their children for school


Kunja Ra moved to the United States from Korea three weeks ago with limited English skills and was apprehensive about registering her 11-year-old son, Andrew Cho, for elementary school. But after a quick trip to the Howard County school system's International Student Registration Center, all of her questions were answered.

With help from an interpreter, she completed all of the necessary paperwork required for the enrollment. And she learned that her son's years of English-preparatory classes had paid off: Andrew would not have to enroll in English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL. The procedure took less than an hour.

"I was worried about the language barrier, but having the Korean interpreter there I felt very comfortable with the entire process," said Ra, whose son will attend Hollifield Station Elementary School in a few weeks. "Receiving the answers in my language made me feel very comfortable."

Registering a child for school can be stressful for anyone, even more so when combined with a language and culture barrier. Recognizing this, Howard County has expanded its International Student Registration Center at Faulkner Ridge Center in Columbia to accommodate a growing number of parents new to the country.

The center offers one-stop shopping for international parents. They can register their children for classes with the help of interpreters; have their children take tests that assess what kinds of assistance, if any, they will require once enrolled in school; and take a video tour of the school system in their native languages.

Last year, Howard County registered 941 international parents through the center, and that number is expected to grow this year, a reflection of how the county has become a destination for international families.

In Korea, for example, parents learn about the Howard school system through several Web sites that promote the county.

The school system also has made a number of efforts to accommodate that growing segment of the population. In June, the school system wrapped up its first leadership class for international parents. And throughout the year, the system sponsored events during which assessment tests and graduation requirements were explained to the Arab, Korean, Hispanic and African communities.

Young-chan Han, a specialist with the system's International Student and Family Outreach Office, said many parents come from countries where the culture and education system is vastly different from those in the United States.

"Things that we take for granted, our international families have no idea," she said. "Some families come from two-room schools. The idea of child drop-offs is a foreign concept."

The International Student Registration Center is stocked with translated pamphlets, documents and other resources such as high school course catalogues that prepare international parents to navigate the American education systems.

Visitors are greeted by a large poster with school supplies that are translated into Korean, Chinese and Spanish, three of the primary languages spoken by the county's international parents.

Parents can also view an eight-minute video translated in English, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Urdu and Vietnamese. The video gives parents a basic tour of county school buildings, and explains everything from lunch time to recess.

While parents are filling out the necessary paperwork for enrollment, their children can take ESOL placement tests. At the elementary school level, the tests can determine whether students need to take the class. At the high school level, the test, coupled with a transcript, can determine grade placement.

Alfreda Walker, an ESOL teacher at Thunder Hill and Stephen's Forrest elementary schools, said that having all of the services at one location saves time for parents, students, and staff.

"Otherwise students would have to schedule an interpreter, and there would be a lot of running around," said Walker, who spent the past week administering ESOL placement tests at the center. "We want the students to be tested and ready to go to school."

Nelson Mangandi, a native of El Salvador who now lives in Columbia, visited the center Thursday to enroll his daughter Suleyma, 16, in River Hill High School.

With a stack of documents that included an electric bill, lease, and various proofs of identification, Mangandi worked with Danilsa Marciniak, an international liaison with the school system, to fill out the forms necessary for Suleyma to begin school.

Marciniak told Mangandi about the Newcomers Program, which helps students with limited English acclimate to high school, and discussed how to find a health clinic so that all immunizations would be up to date.

"It's good because when one doesn't speak the language, it is important to have someone interpret for them," Mangandi said in Spanish.

School board member Mary Kay Sigaty, who toured the center Thursday, said she can relate to what international parents go through.

"I lived in a foreign country [France] for a year, and did not speak any French," Sigaty said, recalling her time there in the early 1980s. "Figuring out your life is enormous."

Sigaty said the center provides a valuable service for international families. "Offices like this are so important for how we are seen by the community," she said.

Ra, who moved Elkridge so her son attend Howard County schools while she attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was pleased with what the center offered.

"It was great to see the school, inside and out," she said shortly after watching the video tour. "I now feel comfortable about going to the school for the first time."

Andrew said he also is excited about going to school.

"It's better than just staying home and doing nothing," he said.


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