"So we train bilingual parents to do outreach in the community," Chen said. "This way, whenever there's a newcomer into the community, these will be the knowledgeable people who are there and who are bilingual.''
Last year, the county's ESOL staff members trained 23 people for the PALS program. They helped spread the word about the training, leading to an almost 100 percent increase in the size of this year's training class.
Carol C. Woodson, director of the school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program, discusses its benefits.
(Photos Timothy Jacobsen For The Washington Post)
The more than 12,000 Montgomery County public school students enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes speak 119 languages and come from 155 countries. Following are the top 10 countries and languages for the current school year.
Top 10 Countries
Country Number of students
1. United States 4,437
2. El Salvador 1,247
3. Peru 506
4. South Korea 414
5. Ethiopia 298
6. China 282
7. Mexico 280
8. Bolivia 192
9. Japan 187
10. Brazil 178
Top 10 Languages
Language Number of students
1. Spanish 6,799
2. Korean 524
3. French 466
4. Cantonese 412
5. Vietnamese 379
6. Amharic 332
7 . English 314*
8. Portuguese 226
9. Hindu/Urdu 223
10. Japanese 199
*Students from countries where English is the official language but is not necessarily taught in schools.
SOURCE: Montgomery County public schools
Most counties in the Washington area have seen rapid growth in ESOL enrollment, creating a challenge in putting together programs and paying for them.
Fairfax County has an 827-member ESOL staff and dozens of parent advocates helping the families of 21,468 ESOL students. That program began in 1975 with about 275 students, mostly Vietnamese speakers.
In Prince George's County, which has seen an influx of immigrants from Latin America and Africa in the past decade, school officials decided to "mainstream" nearly 2,000 elementary school students in the system's advanced, third level of ESOL instruction. The idea is to include ESOL students in classes they would miss if they were being taught separately.
Beginning this year, these students will no longer spend part of the day learning English in small groups. Instead, they will be in regular classrooms, and teachers will be trained to meet their needs.
Parents in most counties in the area are setting up tutoring sessions and study groups that meet outside the classroom.
In Montgomery, a Chinese American parents group that seeks to give students opportunities to practice speaking English has initiated student-to-student, one-on-one tutoring sessions that draw about 250 children to a school cafeteria on Saturday mornings.
In Montgomery's ESOL program, 6,799 students speak Spanish, and most of them were born in the United States. The second largest group, according to school figures, is the 597 speakers of the Cantonese or Mandarin dialects of Chinese, followed by 524 speakers of Korean.
There are also 147 Tagalog speakers, 112 Farsi speakers, 37 Nepali speakers, 28 Swahili speakers and nine Ukrainian speakers. Twenty-two students speak Cambodian, 14 speak Greek, 11 speak Lao and 40 speak Sinhalese. Icelandic, Burundi and Zulu are spoken by one student apiece.
Montgomery's 2005 ESOL budget is $31.8 million -- $2.1 million more than in 2004 -- but the county is struggling to keep up with its growing workload, Chen said.
Last month, Woodson, the county's ESOL director, received a $149,762 grant from a Maryland State Department of Education project on refugee children. The money will be used to expand a program of specialized services for refugee children and parents with limited or no schooling.
Montgomery's ESOL outreach staff members, who are being trained in how to use software for the program, will be involved in a pilot project with six schools that have programs for students with interrupted educations.
"Most of these students are refugees," Chen said, "or they come from a rural, Third World area where parents didn't get to send their kids continually to school.
"We're really excited about this," she said. "It's another thing about the work that is rewarding. We hear all the time from parents that they are thankful."