School coordinator helps foreign-born parents

She addresses concerns of Howard's growing population of international students

April 14, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

During the 11 years she has lived in Howard County, former Centennial Lane Elementary School Principal Florence Hu has seen the school district become a magnet for overseas families looking to move to the U.S. — so much so, that she has received email inquiries about the system from parents who live as far away as South Korea.

But even parents who come armed with specific information about schools discover stark differences between the American approach to education and that of their own country, she says.

Hu came out of retirement last year to serve as interim coordinator for the school system's Office of International Student and Family Services, which addresses parents' and students' concerns in a county whose school system now reflects the county's changing demographics.

County school officials said that as of last fall, Asian students made up 16 percent of the system's population, up from 9.9 percent in 2000. Hispanic students were 8.3 percent, up from 2 percent in 2000. The school system now has students from 87 countries who speak 77 languages.

Hu, who came to the U.S. from China in 1971 for graduate school, said that parents overseas are just as proactive in their children's education, but go about it differently.

"They are faithful, methodic almost, in helping children with their homework. Every night they work on homework together," said Hu. "But many do not understand that their involvement can be also in school activities."

In addition to providing services to foreign students and families with limited English proficiency, the office helps foreign-born parents understand what is expected of them, and how little things like volunteering for after-school programs and knowing how to answer questions during parent-teacher conferences can affect their children's learning.

"It's important for parents to take time to visit schools to really understand how the American education system works," said Hu, 61, who resides in Clarksville. "The child will have less of a stressful situation if the parent is constantly involved in the child's education by coming to school. They see the parent cares."

She said that years ago while living in Salisbury, she discovered how different her education was from that of her then-first-grade daughter Ann, who one day asked, "Mommy, you don't love me, do you?"

"What made you say that?" Hu asked.

"You never come to school to kiss me," Ann replied. "You never put a hug-me note in my lunchbox."

"The child is a very concrete learner at that stage. She observes her classmates, and their parents come to school and give them a hug and come to school to volunteer," said Hu.

She said that recently, she heard from a concerned foreign-born parent who wondered why her child's school didn't have homework. The parent said that she asked her son what he had done in school that day, and the boy said that they had played on the floor.

Hu subsequently discovered that the classroom had been working on the floor with Lego pieces as a creative way to discover math concepts.

Hu said her office offers school-based achievement liaisons, who are often a bridge between parents and the school. "They understand the school's expectations and they share that with parents," Hu said. "They also communicate the student's unique needs with a staff member."

Hu spoke about the matter at a recent Parent Leadership Meeting at Ellicott Mills Middle School that focused on students' mental health issues. She and parents in the school system gave personal accounts of mental health issues among their children and other family members and spoke of how overseas parents who come from areas where such topics are not discussed need to look for warning signs and seek help from resources available to them.

Joon Suh, a South Korean-born parent with an autistic child, acted out the parental frustration that comes with addressing children's needs on one's own by pretending he was trapped in a box. He told parents to ask the school and surrounding community for help and look for resources.

Other parents born overseas reflected Hu's concerns about their involvement in their children's school activities.

"In my culture, school is the place where you leave your child and they really took care of the child," said Sandra Kvarnstrand, who was born in Colombia. "Here you have to go to the teacher to be involved. That's something very different from my background. You believe if they don't call, everything is fine."

Asma Stewart, who is from India but grew up in the U.S., said, "Teachers have more respect in India and parents listen to teachers more than over here. Say your child goes to school, does homework and only gets into a little mischief. They really don't contact the parents."

Hu said that most parents have welcomed making adjustments, so the recent influx of foreign residents has been exciting to see. "It speaks to the quality of education in Howard County. People from all over the world know about it and want to come here," she said.

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