ARLINGTON COUNTY

Mongolian Academy Nurtures One Side Of a Culture Clash

Nomongo Dorjsuren dances in a circle formed by, clockwise from left, Tanan Bayarmagnai, Dolgormaa Battulga, Nomuundari Erkhiimergen and Nansal Nyamaa. The students are part of class held at the Mongolian School in Arlington County on Saturdays to immerse them in the culture of their homeland.
Nomongo Dorjsuren dances in a circle formed by, clockwise from left, Tanan Bayarmagnai, Dolgormaa Battulga, Nomuundari Erkhiimergen and Nansal Nyamaa. The students are part of class held at the Mongolian School in Arlington County on Saturdays to immerse them in the culture of their homeland. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

A dozen girls gathered on a gymnasium stage in Arlington County yesterday morning for their class, wearing green and pink vests and gold-tasseled caps as they performed traditional dances to Mongolian music.

The lone boy, 12-year-old Zanabazar Gankhuyag, exchanged his shorts and flip-flops for a long, white tunic and gold pants before stepping onstage for a graceful courtship dance. But afterward, he said that if it had been up to him, he probably would have been with the guys playing basketball on the other side of the room.

"My dad said I had to" take the class, "so I did," he said. "But I kind of liked it."

The dance class is offered at the Mongolian School, which was organized last year by parents who want their rapidly Westernizing children to learn about the sounds, sites and customs of their home country. The tuition-based academy offers classes only on Saturdays.

Yesterday, more than 60 students took lessons in the Cyrillic alphabet, Genghis Khan's family tree and how Mongolian nomads learned to tell time by observing the way sunlight streamed through the roofs of traditional dome-shaped dwellings, called gers or yurts.

Since 1990, when Communism fell in the country, which is between Russia and China, an estimated 20,000 Mongolians have immigrated to the United States in search of jobs or an education, said Gonchig Ganbold, consul general for the Mongolian Embassy in Washington. In recent years, many have settled in Arlington, where their children have become one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the school system.

The Mongolian school follows in the footsteps of other weekend or full-time schools in the region that offer language immersion or bilingual education, but, unlike many others, it is parent-led and family-focused. Organizers used a model developed by Bolivian parents who created Escuela Bolivia nine years ago for their growing community in Arlington. The school system supports both efforts by providing classrooms.

The Bolivian School has about 150 students and has expanded to include English and parenting classes in addition to leadership training and college preparation for any Latin American teenager, said Emma Violand-Sanchez, president of the school's board of directors and former supervisor in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program in Arlington. Both schools aim to keep families united through language and to boost literacy and achievement.

But getting children interested in spending another day at school can be a challenge.

When Munguntsetseg "Seseg" Frankosky, organizer and principal of the Mongolian School, opened the doors that first Saturday last winter, she said it was difficult to get her two children out of bed. "Come on, support your mommy," she pleaded. "If you won't come, who will?"

More than 70 students arrived on the first day to learn the lessons their parents learned as children, with the help of a handful of volunteer teachers. The task proved more difficult than Frankosky expected.

"The kids, they love Mongolian, but their minds are American. We felt like we were teaching foreigners. So we need to make it easy for them," she said.


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