A recent homework assignment from Arlington's Glencarlyn Elementary School taught 35-year-old Van Ly what to say in an emergency.
Ly, who speaks excellent French and Vietnamese, learned a little English in a Philippine refugee camp before she arrived in the United States two years ago. Now, she practices English phrases with her 10-year-old brother, Minh, a sixth-grader at the school.
"Please send an ambulance," the two learned to say. "Please send the police."
"Before, I don't know how to do," Ly said in halting but clear English. "After that lesson, I know a little bit how to call for emergency."
Telephoning the fire company, reading maps and saving food coupons are among the "homework" assignments that more than 250 Hispanic, Vietnamese, Khmer and Laotian families in Arlington are doing as part of a new, federally sponsored project aimed at students who are not proficient in English.
The $96,000 Arlington project, developed by the Home and School Institute and Trinity College, both in the District, and Arlington public schools, is designed to help family members learn English, crack the mysteries of American maps and recipes and ease into unfamiliar customs.
Directors of the 2-year-old home-learning project, now being tried in Arlington and 11 other communities at a cost of $225,000, say it is too soon to cite numerical results, such as higher test scores.
But teachers of Arlington's intensive language classes for foreign students, as well as parents and students who have completed the "homework" assignments, say the project changes the way many families feel about school.
"We found out from the parents not only that they have learned but that they felt much less suspicious of coming to school. They felt welcome. They learned how to spend time with their children," said Carmen Simich-Dudgeon, project director and a staff member at Trinity College's School of Education.
The project's coordinators say the activities, which come with instructions in English and the family's native language, help parents get involved in their children's education -- a process that might otherwise divide families as the language gap between children and parents widens.
The activities "are different from saying to a parent, 'Make sure he does his homework.' That's a very limited role for a parent," said Dorothy Rich, president of the Home and School Institute, a nonprofit group that tries to involve the family and community in education.
When homework is in a language parents do not understand, involving unfamiliar concepts and strange idioms, schooling can "exclude the families from their children's lives," Rich said.
The activities, including such lessons as "filling out school forms," "making change" and "sharing memories," are "nonthreatening and assume the parents have strengths. They do know something. They know about their native land," she said.
"People from other countries don't think of themselves as teachers -- they bring the child to school and say, 'Here is my child. You teach him,' " said Chris Burman, parent coordinator for the Arlington project. "Sometimes I need to convince the parents that they really are teachers."
"I like the activities because they're not only for the children but for the parents. They are useful things for daily life," said Martha Cruz, who worked on the activities with her 12-year-old son Angel last year and is working with Luis, 14, now that the project has moved to Arlington's intermediate schools.
Some of the 160 elementary-school families who participated in the Arlington program last year complained that the assignments were too easy and bored the children.
But most of their comments, translated from their native Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer and Lao, were full of praise.
"Every activity is very useful for education of children, and I am very glad that I have a part of that," one parent wrote.
"The most valuable thing was that [the parents] were learning along with the children," said Burman. "It gave them survival skills to exist in America."