Ambareen Jafri

Ambareen Jafri, winner of the Comcast Parent Involvement Matters Award, reads to a class at Nantucket Elementary School, where her son is a third-grader. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / May 18, 2012)

An Anne Arundel County parent whose gentle spirit is said to have built bridges between cultures at her sons' elementary school was named the Maryland Parent Involvement Matters Award winner Friday night.

Ambareen Jafri, a 35-year-old Crofton mother of three boys, began her volunteer work four years ago when a Nantucket Elementary School teacher put out a request for someone who spoke Urdu to be a translator for Indian and Pakistani families.

"Sometimes, you just [say], 'OK, this is my opportunity to help the community. I need to step forward,'" Jafri said. Jafri, whose family is originally from Pakistan — although she was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates — speaks and writes Urdu.

She started by translating documents, such as letters home to parents, from the school. Then she began assisting teachers with oral communication. She sat in on parent-teacher conferences and began making phone calls for parents when a student was sick or had a problem with homework, she said.

Gradually, Jafri said, the parents became more comfortable and she helped the school hold an Indo-Pak night. Families brought their favorite dishes to share and Jafri translated as the principal and teachers explained to the parents how schools in the United States work.

"For most of the parents, it was the first time they had come to the school," Jafri said, adding that it was a "real eye-opening experience for them."

That was about four years ago, when Nantucket had just opened with students who spoke 17 languages and were from around the globe. Unlike some schools whose foreign students are mostly Hispanic, the principal said most of her school's several dozen students who speak English as a second language are from Asia.

"It makes for a beautiful, diverse culture here," said Principal Diana Strohecker. The work that Jafri has done, she said, has helped to bring people together to embrace and celebrate the school's diversity. She said it also has given her staff the knowledge to help students ease into American schools.

Since then, Jafri has expanded her work to include cultural diversity training for teachers, and she goes to the local middle and high schools to help mediate with Muslim students.

"Parents have played a critical role in strengthening scores of Maryland schools, and Ms. Jafri provides a shining example of the work that can be done. She stepped out of her comfort zone, dug right in, and helped expand cultural knowledge for an entire school community. That's pretty special," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Jafri also has presented programs about different cultures to the student body at Nantucket and other schools, and is only slowed down a little by her 5-month-old baby.

"She has such a gentle ease about her. I feel she has really helped to dispel the misconceptions that exist within our greater culture about Muslim Americans," said Sarah Daniels, a teacher who has worked closely with Jafri and who nominated her for the award.

"Every single time we can get an immigrant family in the doors of the school, it is a phenomenal achievement," Jafri said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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