According to school documents, the two shy children playing with stickers and crayons in the Office of International Student Services are Se Hee and Se Won Jang. But ask the kids who they are, and they'll say Leah and John, decidedly American names.
The siblings -- Leah is 9, and John is 10 -- can speak only a few English words besides their adopted names. They immigrated with their parents from the Jeonra Do province of South Korea early this year. The family had intended to stay in the United States for only a few weeks to visit a friend who lives in Baltimore County. But during church one day, they heard people talking about the quality of schools in Howard County and decided to move here permanently.
"They thought this is a very good country for their children to study," said Jamie Kim, a Howard County school system employee who was interpreting for the children's mother, Ji Yeong Kim.
It is a refrain echoed by hundreds of immigrant families who have moved into Howard in recent years, drawn by its reputation for high-performing schools. School officials said the number of students enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes grew by more than 400 from 1999 to 2003, when the total was 1,684. A complete tally for the most recent school year is not available.
Children from all over the world -- China, Korea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Portugal, for example -- come through the county's international student office. The Jangs were among the first of nearly 10 families that stopped by the office one day last week to enroll. Immigrant students must enroll through the office if they have been living in another country or if they were in another school system but still need help with English.
Howard school officials said they don't know how many immigrant children have registered this year; an average of eight families a day have signed up in recent weeks.
For many of these families, the start of the school year is about more than new teachers, new friends and finding the perfect outfit to wear on the first day. It is also the chance to start a new life.
That is what prompted Hye Jung Ko to leave her home near Seoul in late March with her two daughters, Debbie Kim, 7, and Hanny Kim, 11, and six suitcases. Her husband stayed in Korea. Ko doesn't think he'll be able to join them for three or four years.
The family lives in a sparse apartment in Ellicott City, home base for much of the county's Korean population. Debbie will attend Hollifield Station Elementary School, and Hanny will go to Patapsco Middle School. Although they have started making friends with some children who live nearby, the girls nodded their heads vigorously when asked if they miss home.
Ko and her daughters e-mail her husband every day using the Korean characters taped over English letters on their keyboard. As a going-away present, he gave Debbie a tiny MP3 recorder so she could tape her school lessons and replay words she doesn't understand.
To get ready for school, the girls have been practicing English all summer during language classes at their church. One morning last week, Debbie scribbled intently on a pink pad of paper.
"Plase knock!!" she wrote in uncertain letters. "And do not enter. . . . I love my room."
On Friday, Ko took the girls shopping for school supplies at Wal-Mart. She also checked out library books for them: "The Cat In the Hat," "The Lady With the Alligator Purse" and "Emma's Magic Water."
Ko, who'd heard of Howard's schools before coming to this country, said she is not really concerned about her daughters' academic performance and is confident that they will quickly catch up with other students. What worries her more is whether they will make friends.
When they first moved to the county, Debbie was too shy to speak English with the kids at a nearby swimming pool. But lately, she has started trying out a few words. Last weekend, she and her sister also started horse-riding lessons, and Debbie will take ballet this fall.
"I think it's a good chance for her to speak English and make friends, American friends," Ko said.
School officials said they usually try to place immigrant students into classes with children close to their own age, even if their skills are far lower, to ease their social transition. The students are often pulled out of class for part of the day for intense language training.
Leah could read only about 70 percent of the simple words -- such as "the," "a" and "was" -- on a placement test that she took while her parents filled out a mound of forms in the international office. She fared slightly better on a math test that included fractions, long division and word problems written in Korean.
Still, the teacher who administered the tests recommended that Leah start in fourth grade at Elkridge Landing. John, her brother, will be in fifth grade.
When Mary K. Bunting heard that news, she rushed over to the international office. "Hello!" she boomed in a clear, strong voice. "I'm your [English for Speakers of Other Languages] teacher."
Bunting, whose students just call her "Mrs. B," leaned over Leah and John and shook their hands. "Make it a little stronger," she told Leah, "a firm handshake."
John responded to his handshake with a halting, "Nice to meet you."
Bunting told him he had a lot to look forward to in fifth grade, among the oldest kids in school. John just blinked and answered with his best word, "Okay."
"I'll see you in a week," she told the children before leaving. "This is going to be fun."
Bunting waved good-bye to them, and Leah and John waved back, smiling.