Language Program's Aid Doesn't Stop With Kids

(Timothy Jacobsen)
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005

Some have made it through wars, most have suffered losses. Now, they are in Montgomery County trying to learn English and trying not to be distracted by more essential needs: where to cash a check, how to use public transportation, how to get a child in school.

They are the parents of more than 12,000 children in the county school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages classes, which have had a 12.6 percent increase in enrollment in the past three years. Montgomery's ESOL students come from 155 countries, speak 119 languages and make up more than 40 percent of ESOL students in Maryland.

In Montgomery, 371 teachers and other school employees have made a mission of supporting students -- and parents -- who are trying to learn English.

For children, support comes from academic training to help meet the mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 law requires proficiency in math and reading for 95 percent of students in designated categories, including those in major racial and ethnic groups, those who are economically disadvantaged and those learning English.

For parents, the county has 16 bilingual outreach workers who strive to connect with them. Outreach team members, who speak Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Korean and the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, understand the cultures and know what parents of ESOL students need.

The workers track down Salvadoran day care workers, Cambodian grocers, locate Korean-speaking bank tellers and accompany parents on tasks such as learning how to use public transportation or a coin-operated laundry.

"It's not just the language barrier," said Carol Chen, the school system's Chinese-language outreach worker. "There's the social and economic and the cultural barriers and just the general sophistication of a modern society that requires skills that they don't have. That's a big disadvantage."

The whole-family approach is championed as a way to reduce sources of stress that can get in the way of learning a language, said Carol C. Woodson, director of the county school system's Division of ESOL and Bilingual Programs.

"We want to address any obstacle that may impede their access," Woodson said. "It's all about providing a high-quality instructional program."

Most weekdays and many evenings, the outreach workers are spread out around the county, bringing empathy and advice to parents who are sometimes mystified or intimidated by the vastness of resources available in Montgomery.

"If you need to go to the home, you do," Chen said. "You take every single possible way to reach the parents. You go to the church, you go to the community center, you go to the grocery and put up fliers. If the teachers refer them, you've got the telephone numbers. You track them down."

Workers help families navigate the county and the schools. The parents are not required to commit to learning English, but those who do are put in touch with classes and tutors.

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