Asian students make up almost 20 percent of enrollment in Howard County's public schools. But Jean Xu, a Howard County parent who immigrated from China two decades ago, does not believe that this demographic is appropriately reflected in the county school system's central office, on the school board, among principals and teachers and in parent-teacher associations.
"We're underrepresented," she said. "Asian faces aren't there."
Student member Rachel Lin is the only person of Asian descent on the school board. Less than 2 percent of the county's school-based administrators and less than 3 percent of its certified teachers are Asian, according to a 2014 human resources report. When Xu has attended school board meetings in the past, she said that she was oftentimes the only Asian parent present.
"Many parents are worried about their English," she said, adding that many Asian parents in the county are immigrants. "At meetings you have to absorb information and respond quickly. That's hard to do in a non-native tongue."
The lack of Asian, specifically Chinese, representation and parent involvement in the county's school system drove Xu and several other Chinese parents to form the Chinese American Parent Association of Howard County, which began accepting members in October. Its main goals are to inform, involve, and empower Chinese parents in the county, according to its website.
As of early November, the organization had over 40 due-paying members and 30 non-paying members. A year-long paid membership for one family, which includes voting rights, costs $25.
"How can we engage the community and emphasize proactiveness? A lot of Chinese parents sit back and wait for the school system to provide," said Chao Wu, a Chinese parent who is on the association's board. "But we can't have one group decide all of the affairs. We want to stand up and have a voice."
Chinese parents are not used to standing up, Xu said, because they were not supposed to challenge authority while growing up in China. But one advocacy effort has already changed a few parents' views.
Last year the association's board members collected over 1,400 signatures on a petition requesting that the school system combine the 2016 Lunar New Year with a professional learning day for teachers so that students would have the day off. After receiving the petition and hearing public testimony from over a dozen Asian parents and students at a meeting in December, the school board voted to approve the request.
"That was surprising for a lot of parents," said Xu, the association's president. "They said, 'Oh, they actually listen to us if we participate in the process?' For us from China, it was hard to believe. After that, more people became engaged in the school system."
The association was registered as a nonprofit in September, but its board members have been advocating and organizing seminars for Chinese parents on an informal basis since March 2014.
Through the seminars the association aims to teach parents, many of whom are not familiar with the American public education system, about how the county's school system works and how they can get more involved in their children's schools.
"For people who grew up in the Chinese system, it is a foreign idea to be a 'room parent.'" Xu said. "In China, if you go to your children's school, that means that your child is in trouble. We introduce [parents] to the PTA, so that they join, and encourage them to join their school improvement teams."
To build representation within the school system, the association's members sign up to attend school board and other related meetings, after which they share any relevant information with the rest of the association. Xu said that seven or eight Chinese parents attended the last school board meeting.
The association's board also connects parents with the school system resources they need to solve problems they might encounter in their children's educations, such as disciplinary issues.
"Mainstream society thinks that Asians are model students," said Linfeng Chen, a vice president of the association. "But if you go under the surface, there are problems there. We want to bring resources to families and bring information to the school system."
"Parents have kids who get in trouble and they don't realize that it's a big deal," Wu said. "But they need to communicate with their teachers and principals."
The association not only aims to get Chinese parents more involved in their children's educations — its board members also want to see the school system make more of an effort to reach out to the Chinese and other Asian communities in the county.
"There's the Black Student Achievement Program and the Hispanic Achievement Program, but there aren't any groups for Asian students," Xu said, referring to two academic support groups for minorities run by the school system. "The school system does not do enough outreach to the Asian community."
A starting point for bringing the school system and the Chinese parent community together, Xu said, would be the continuous recognition of the Lunar New Year as a holiday on the school calendar.
"We believe that a good gesture by the school system will bring more engaged parents to our HCPSS community," Xu said. "We want our kids to be proud of their heritage and celebrate this holiday."
The association's board members plan to advocate for the recognition of the Lunar New Year at an upcoming school board meeting in December. They said that they would be satisfied if the school system combined the holiday with a professional development day every year.
"It's a creative way of accommodating the needs of Asian families without impacting school operations," said Chen.
For more information about the Chinese American Parent Association of Howard County or to become a member, go to http://www.capa-hc.org/