Bilingual Night

Chunting Jia, 7, a first-grader at Hillcrest Elementary School, enjoys a slice of pizza during Bilingual Family Night at the Frederick Road school on April 9. (Photo by Matt Hazlett / April 8, 2014)

For Maribel Mendez, who came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago, communicating with English speakers has been a challenge.

Mendez and her husband, Alejandro, lived in a Hispanic community in Chicago where they were able to communicate with others in Spanish.

But after moving to Maryland nine years ago, the language barrier became more difficult to overcome, she said in English with a Spanish accent.

To help them and other area families facing similar problems, Hillcrest Elementary School hosted its first Bilingual Family Night on Wednesday, April 9.

The event was designed to provide families with children in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, assistance with navigating the school system.

"Coming from other countries, it's sometimes difficult for them to even know where to begin, and how to help," said Amanda Winpigler, a first-grade teacher at Hillcrest.

"We're holding this event to give them answers to questions they may have if they're not sure where to go to answer them," she said. "And to give them the tools to use at home to continue to be successful."

Winpigler said she's had many ESOL students in her classes who have needed extra help and has often met with parents individually.

She organized last week's event which allowed her to disseminate the information to a larger group.

Winpigler also created a booklet for the event that included basic school information such as: contacts at the school, school record forms and helpful websites.

It also contained information about how parents can help their children with reading comprehension, reading, writing and literacy skills.

"Coming from other countries it's sometimes difficult for them to even know where to begin, and how to help," Winpigler said

Attendees were provided with information about a free literacy program offered nearby on the Catonsville campus of The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), the Even Start Literacy Program sponsored by Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) and free English conversation classes offered at the Howard County Public Library in Ellicott City.

The Mendez family brought their three children and nephew to the event. They are among nearly 90 families of students at Hillcrest who are part of the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, Winpigler said.

The Baltimore County Public Schools ESOL program assists children with achieving academic success and helps students participate in school activities, while also helping families with accessing resources available through the school system, according to the BCPS website.

Services offered through the program, according to the website, include:

• translations of school system materials and forms,

• bilingual family-school liaisons,

• interpreters for parent conferences,

• after-school tutoring or homework clubs at some schools

• information on resources for adult English learners.

Hillcrest ESOL teacher Joseph Isaacs said he's witnessed an increase in ESOL students over the years. Five years ago, he taught 20 students a week. Now he teaches more than 60.

"I think it will give [the families] a chance to come in and be a part of the community and feel welcomed," Isaacs said, as the families ate pizza provided by the school before the event began.

Peter Smith, a vice principal at Hillcrest, said although the turnout wasn't as large as expected, the school plans to continue to hold events like Bilingual Family Night as part of the ESOL program.

"We are very excited to have your children here and we want to teach them as well as we possibly can," Smith said before the group of approximately 40, as two translators explained Smith's words in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.

Clara Marin, a Spanish interpreter for BCPS, said, "It's a great opportunity to show families there are other families just like them."

Marin, who moved to the U.S. from Chile at the age of 12, can relate.

She was a native Spanish speaker who spoke very little English, before an ESOL program was in place.

"I had to sink or swim. Fortunately my parents spoke English, so they could help me," Marin said.

In many ESOL programs, children have a better grasp of the English language than their parents, which makes it difficult for them to help with homework.

Winpigler compiled a set of tips on how parents can encourage their children to finish their homework and get tutoring help.

Fun activities were also provided for children while their parents listened to a presentation, which focused on reading comprehension and vocabulary.

"One of the big things I did want was not only for the students to do the activity with them, but also to have a tool and resource that they could take home and that they know how to use," Winpigler said.