Classes help ESOL parents navigate Prince William school system

Katie Min knows what it’s like to be tossed into a complicated and unfamiliar school system with little knowledge of the language, rules or expectations.

She was born in Korea and moved to Brazil when she was 2 before coming to the United States at 14. When Min started high school in Fairfax County, she spoke no English and her parents worked full time, making it difficult acclimate to the American education system.

Min remembers crying alone on the bus, skipping school and coming close to not graduating. Now she teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville and helps lead a class called Parents as Educational Partners twice a week so that parents of students who are not native English speakers can understand the school system.

“My motto is, ‘If I can do it, so can my students and my parents,’ ” Min said. “I know what it’s like to be growing up in an immigrant family where the parents worked all the time and weren’t there to support me in my education, and they didn’t know how to, so when I see my [students’] parents, I know exactly what they’re going through.”

The PEP classes cover topics including school-related English vocabulary, attendance policies, scheduling, homework and how to access grades and assignments online. The program started in a few Prince William County schools during the 2002-03 school year and has spread to most schools in the county, said Margery Connolly, the administrative coordinator for Central Registration and the World Languages Center.

The parents “want to be more involved in their children’s school, and understand better and be able to participate in a meaningful way,” Connolly said.

In Prince William, the foreign-born population grew from 11.5 percent in 2000 to 21.3 percent in 2010, according to U.S. census data. The makeup of the schools has shifted as well, with about 5,000 students enrolled in ESOL in 2002 to 13,635 this year, according to statistics from Irene Cromer, spokeswoman for Prince William County schools. In 2011, more than 25 percent of elementary school students in the county were enrolled in ESOL classes, according to the school system’s Web site.

At a recent PEP class at Bull Run, parents learned about high school scheduling and diploma requirements. Beth Graney, counseling director, and Tori Stone, a counselor, were guest speakers, and Min and teacher Karola Longa translated from English to Spanish and Korean for some of the seven moms who attended that night.

Graney and Stone explained how many credits students need to graduate, how many Virginia Standards of Learning tests a student must pass and what a GED is.

“We don’t want to just throw them out there cold turkey,” Min said. “If my parents had a program like this, they would have realized what type of steps or what type of classes are required for me to even graduate high school, and the alternatives as well. I don’t think they knew that if I didn’t graduate high school I had the option of getting my GED. . . . It would have made a huge difference in my personal experience.”

Mai Hamdan, whose son, Lee Atari, is a sixth-grader at Bull Run, said she tries to attend the classes regularly.

“I didn’t know anything about the programs, about homework, projects,” said Hamdan, who came to the United States from Jordan about 10 years ago. “Now, I’m in touch with the teachers. It makes a lot of difference.”

This year, the program is promoting bilingual literacy in hopes of encouraging more parents to read with their children.

“Just because you don’t speak English doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t spend the time at home reading with your kids,” Min said. “You could practice reading in your native language as well. We feel that if the students and parents spend time reading on a daily basis, it will promote literacy and ultimately promote better grades.”

Min and Longa hope that if parents become more comfortable with English and the expectations of the school system, they will be more involved, which will help their children be better students.

“They see us more like we’re there with them, not for them,” said Longa, a special education aide at Bull Run. “It makes a big difference, because they get to trust you, more than anything. If we can get their trust, then they’ll understand, and they’ll participate. Then they’ll be part of it, part of the community.”

For information about the PEP Program, call 703-491-8432 or 703-791-8745. Staff writer Carol Morello contributed to this report.

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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