Howard schools trying to bridge cultural divide


Dances, football games, dress-up theme days -- those are the memories people hang on to from high school, not the hours spent poring over books or taking tests, said River Hill High School Principal R. Scott Pfeifer, who admits to wearing teddy bear slippers even now on "pajama day."

"What's important to kids is their social life," he said. "What do you remember?"

But for families new to the country, American social life can be a foreign concept.

"Everybody's talking about homecoming or prom, and these parents know something is going on and that it's something exciting, but they really don't quite get it," said Young-Chan Han, who helps immigrant families navigate the Howard County public school system.

During the past seven years, the number of foreign-born students and non-native English-speakers in Howard County has more than doubled, forcing schools to search for ways to better acclimate children and their families to American life.

River Hill High School in Clarksville called parents together this month to explain such things as the prom and homecoming to its immigrant families. Earlier, St. John's Lane Elementary in Ellicott City held workshops for parents to help them with their English and let them know what to do at parent conferences.

"We always do academic pieces to encourage parent involvement, not the cultural thing," Han said. "Yet we know that these social aspects play a huge role in the lives of teen-agers. That's the part I feel we have not done enough to share: culturally."

Han worked with River Hill representatives to arrange the cultural event Nov. 20, attended by about 50 parents and children. It was the first of its kind in the county, she said, and she hopes there will be more.

Interpreters translated Pfeifer's words into six languages during the program -- Urdu, Chinese, Spanish, French-Creole, Farsi and Korean -- helping the families follow along as he showed slides of teens cavorting, raised his arms to rah-rah in a pep rally demonstration and announced his preferred bedtime footwear.

"A lot of people move here because of the school system," Han said. "They know the education in Howard County is so good."

But adapting to student life requires more than adopting the academics, said Florence Hu, assistant principal at St. John's Lane Elementary, which has a large Asian population and about 90 students for whom English is a second language.

Teachers and volunteers from libraries read to the St. John's pupils, hoping to introduce them to life through various characters. Parents got a dose of culture, too, particularly on the day an administrator went to the evening class dressed as the Energizer Bunny.

"She wanted the parents to know about Halloween," Hu said. The moms and dads were encouraged to say "trick-or-treat" and were given candy.

"There is such a strong need of sharing ways with parents who are not English-speaking, telling them about what a child's school day is like, what we expect a child to do," said Hu, who came to the United States as a graduate student in 1971.

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