County's diversity gets time in spotlight

Fulton program keeps up with expanding cultural mix

March 01, 2009|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,

Shalini Uttamsingh has watched International Night at Fulton Elementary School grow from an event that featured a handful of countries and attracted a couple of hundred people last year, to a major production spotlighting 20 countries and drawing a crowd of about 500.

The growth of the event over just two years also serves as a reflection of the shift in the ethnic diversity among the county's student population.

"You got an insider's view to the culture," said Uttamsingh, a parent and co-organizer of the event.

The recent event at Fulton was the culmination of weeks of instruction in the classroom.

"All of those things broaden your horizon and interest," said Uttamsingh, who came to the United States from India.

The event featured several performances, including salsa and merengue dancing; a ballet routine from the Chinese School of Howard County; a belly dance demonstration from a Turkish parent at the school; and African drummers and dancers from Zebra Kids of Baltimore.

International nights are not new in Howard County schools. But they are becoming more common as the school system's population becomes more diverse. Cultural awareness has also become part of the school system's mantra, reinforced as one of its stated primary objectives.

According to school system data, the student population in elementary schools has seen rises in the percentages of several ethnicities in the past five years: African-American (from 18 percent to 20 percent), Asian (12 percent to 17 percent) and Hispanic (4 percent to 6 percent). Meanwhile, the percentage of white students has fallen from 64 percent to 51 percent.

The system's foreign-born population has also increased, with students from 80 countries speaking more than 70 languages, school officials say.

During the current operating budget process, the school board voted to approve funding for 14 additional positions in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program to address the growing population of foreign-born students.

At Fulton, organizers are looking ahead to next year's International Night, Uttamsingh said.

"We are hoping for more countries," she said.

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