The father of a student at Takoma Park's Rolling Terrace Elementary School recently came to the school with a problem. Several times in the last few weeks, he said, he had found his 12-year-old Salvadoran neighbor, Magda, standing on his doorstep because she had missed the school bus.
Although the man spoke no Spanish and Magda spoke no English, he understood that she wanted a ride to school. He obliged, but it was making him late to work. The problem was resolved after a Spanish-speaking staff member called Magda's mother to explain the situation.
Staffers at Rolling Terrace are used to resorting to more than one language to settle matters, for theirs is a multicultural, multiracial school at which more than two dozen nations are represented. A third of the 385 students are natives of such countries as Cambodia, Korea, El Salvador and Jamaica.
One of the oldest schools in the county, Rolling Terrace's enrollment over the last 15 years has evolved from mainly white to largely Asian, black and Hispanic as an increasing number of immigrants and black families have settled in that part of the county.
By last year, the minority group enrollment added up to a vast majority, 77 percent, one of the highest percentages in the county school system. Because of the mix, parents and teachers like to joke that everyone at Rolling Terrace is a minority.
The enrollment is 33 percent black, 20 percent Asian, 26 percent Hispanic and 20 percent white. Last Halloween, Principal Gerry Meltz dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and had her picture snapped surrounded by about 100 children from different countries.
"The school is a beacon of how an integregated school should work," said Michael Richman, the PTA president and father of a sixth grader at Rolling Terrace.
"The kids are so mixed it makes race and international background of interest, but not an issue," said Mary Iannicelli, the school's magnet coordinator. "Being a minority is accepted here."
In celebration of its internationalism, the school will host an all-day festival tomorrow featuring native foods, music, dances, games and folk tales.
Rolling Terrace has a Latin magnet program to attract students in grades 4 through 6 and a Spanish language program for kindergarten through third grade, but teachers also try to introduce internationalism into all subject areas, said Assistant Principal Carolyn Starek.
The magnet program drew 10 children from other schools this year, and officials hope those numbers will increase as the programs become better known.
Art students create African masks and sculptures, which will be on display at the festival. Children in other classes are shown where their countries are on maps, and are taught folk tales and folk dances.
One recent assignment was to write a poem expressing how it felt like to be a member of minority racial or cultural group in white-dominated America. Most of the children wrote about feeling alone, left out and frightened.
When Rolling Terrace's aging one-story brick building at 705 Bayfield St. is remodeled by the fall of 1987, it will have as its centerpiece an "international room" -- a central meeting place where students can gather for lunch or for cultural events.
Although parents like the school's diversity, they say it also poses a special challange because of the language barriers their children sometimes face. When Elizabeth Kurtz wanted to invite a Korean classmate of her 6-year-old son to a birthday party, she had to ask her husband's coworker, who speaks Korean, to convey the invitation to the boy's mother.
Turnout for PTA meetings is usually light, perhaps because the refugee parents don't understand English and often work at night, officials said. At a meeting planned for next fall's kindergarten students, PTA officials intend to have translators on hand to help them converse with the parents in Spanish, Khmer and Vietnamese. The PTA newsletter is sent out in English and Spanish; next year school officials hope to have it translated into Khmer and Vietnamese.
The school's staff and teachers also have had to adapt to the changing student population. More and more the school is receiving refugee children who have had their education interrupted by warfare in their own countries and are barely literate in their own language. In addition to teaching them English, teachers must give them basic reading, writing and math instruction.
Principal Meltz said that children who cannot yet express their anger in English sometimes will strike out at other students. Occasionally when she tries to reprimand those children, their classmates will remind her that they don't understand English, she said.
"I say, but he understands what it means to keep his hands to himself," she noted.
School secretary Maxine Shankle, who studied Latin in high school, has picked up enough Spanish to make herself understood in an emergency. Marta Gonzalez, a Cuban-born classroom aide, said Spanish-speaking parents often ask her to explain their children's assignments so they can help with homework. They turn to her for other translation assistance as well, she said.
At the beginning of the school year, teachers bring in a dozen interpreters for two days of teacher conferences with non-English-speaking parents.
"We set up the whole library and it looks like a little United Nations," said Jo Ellen Tannenbaum, who teaches English as a Second Language to about 100 students.
Although there are two Spanish-speaking staff members at the school, no staffer speaks another foreign language. When Cambodian or Vietnamese parents come to school, students help out with translating. Older students have formed a welcoming committee to give newcomers a tour of the school. Jasan Ramjattan, 12, a 6th grader who was born in Trinidad and lived in Canada, often shows new students around.
"I speak real slow and give them simple words," he said. "I'll show them a library book and point to the library and then I say "library book."
In Margaret Forbes' kindergarten class there are children who were born in the United States, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and El Salvador. Even though she has begun a dictionary of foreign words to help her communicate with the children, Forbes said she sometimes feels left out.
"When they break into their own language I go over and try to find out what they are talking about," she said. "I say, 'Hey, you are having such a good time why don't you let me in on your secret?' Sometimes they tell me what they are talking about, and sometimes they don't."