Hector Lazo's English had improved considerably in the 20 years since he immigrated to the Washington area from El Salvador. But to be sure that the Montgomery County Board of Education got his message clearly, he began practicing his speech two days ahead of time.
Just hours before he was to testify, he sat in his van and rehearsed the words one last time, taking a break from his work remodeling a basement in Potomac. Then, he drove to school board headquarters, where he met his wife, Mirna, and a small group of other Latino parents. They found the board room and sat down.
When his turn came to speak, the home improvement contractor rose and walked to the microphone, wearing a black polo shirt in a room full of suits. Speaking clearly and deliberately, he began: "I am here this afternoon representing the parents of about 400 or more Hispanic students at Einstein."
The Lazos were there to raise specific complaints about grading standards at Einstein High School, which were lower than other high schools' on a countywide math test. But his appearance also marked a giant step in the immigrants' transition from voiceless spectators to informed advocates. Their personal journey mirrors the growing presence and rising concerns of Latino parents in Montgomery County.
Throughout the Washington region, no jurisdiction has a larger Latino population than Montgomery County, and no segment of the county's student population is growing faster than Latino students.
Along with African American students, Latino students on average continue to lag behind their white and Asian counterparts on standardized tests and they are enrolled in fewer Advance Placement and honors courses. Last week, the latest Scholastic Assessment Test results showed that average scores for Hispanic students in Montgomery County fell by 22 points last year.
County school officials have pledged to close that performance gap. The Lazos and other Latino activists intend to hold them to it.
Their journey began in El Salvador, where he grew up on the family farm. Mirna grew up in the coastal city of La Union, where her mother owned a grocery store. Hector fled their war-torn country as a teenager, making his way through Mexico, across the Rio Grande all the way to Washington, where he found work in downtown restaurants.
She left her job as a secretary in La Union because the pay was so scant and came to Washington, where she knew others who had found work.
The two met when Mirna's uncle, an acquaintance of Hector's, introduced them. Their three sons -- Alex, Christian and Brian -- were all born here. Two years ago, Hector and Mirna both became U.S. citizens.
The Lazos attended their first PTA meeting back when their oldest son, Alex, was in kindergarten. They rode in their old Chevy Nova to their son's school in the District. A group of about 15 parents had gathered in one of the classrooms, their chairs arranged in a circle. The Lazos' limited English made even introductions a struggle, but Hector remembers a cordial welcome from one of the parents: "He said they were very glad we were there, and they wanted more Latino parents to get involved and go to the meetings."
Yet the words soon ran out, and there was no interpreter. So they sat with the others, watching people talk but grasping little of what was said. "It was disconcerting. We were interested. We wanted to participate," Hector Lazo said. "But we understood so little.
"It was like we didn't have a voice."
When Alex was about to go into first grade, the couple took the same step taken by thousands of others: They moved to Montgomery County. "That's where we heard the good schools were," Hector said.
They bought a small house in working-class Wheaton, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood just east of Connecticut Avenue. Hector had stopped working in restaurants and was to build his own home contracting firm. Mirna found work cleaning houses to help with finances. There, they dedicated themselves to raising their three sons.
"I feel fortunate," Hector Lazo said one night this summer, speaking in Spanish while he and Mirna sat at the picnic table in their back yard. "I have a beautiful family. We're not rich; we live a lower middle-class lifestyle, but it's a tranquil life. And we have a vision for the future of our children."
In many ways, the Lazos are a typical, hard-working family. Yet, as immigrants who are still learning a new culture and language, they are pioneers in one noticeable way: their deep involvement in their children's school.
Over the last 10 years, the Lazos learned the ins and outs of a school system that works very differently from the schools they knew back home. "And we're still learning," Hector Lazo said.
This is no easy task for immigrants who often work long hours, who must take care of children at home and who often face a language barrier and a lack of knowledge about how the system works.
"The question of racial and cultural diversity is becoming one of the central issues in public education," said Libero Della Piana, of the California-based Applied Research Center, a nonprofit that focuses on race and educational issues. "When it comes to parental involvement, a lot of the structures of the educational system have not been adapted to fit the new demographics."
Ana Sol Gutierrez, the only Latino to ever serve on the Montgomery County Board of Education, believes the system needs to do more to encourage the involvement of immigrant parents such as the Lazos. "They represent the whole experience of coming to a new system, without understanding that system," she said.
In Montgomery, changes have come slowly. For the Lazos, it began through the efforts of one teacher.
Yolanda Glower -- a fellow Salvadoran -- was a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages at Einstein High School, where Alex Lazo enrolled two years ago. Immediately, the Lazos saw she was different from any teacher they had encountered.
"She gave us her home telephone number, something nobody else had done. She told us to call whenever we had a problem," Mirna Lazo said. "She translated for us. And she was there to help all Latino parents."
With Glower's encouragement, the Lazos attending the meetings of Einstein's Hispanic parents committee. Soon, Hector became vice president of the committee and, later, the schoolwide PTA vice president.
"He was very interested in learning more and more about the system, and he had time to go to the meetings. He was working, too, but he could make time," said Glower, who left the school this year to become a parent resource specialist for the system. "He was also very assertive."
Slowly, the Lazos began to understand measurements of school performance and markers of particular concern: the low numbers of Latino children taking SATs or ninth-grade algebra. This spring, they read a report in The Washington Post that became a rallying point for Latino parents at Einstein.
County high schools were using different grading scales for the countywide Algebra I final exam -- a score that earned an A in one school was worth a D in another. Einstein's scale was among the lowest in the county.
The Lazos looked at their son Alex's GPA of 3.5 and wondered what it really was worth.
"It made us think, would this A at Einstein still be an A at another school?" Mirna Lazo said. "It made us question how well our children are really being taught."
The news was so disconcerting that the Hispanic parents committee did something they'd never done before. They drew up a list of 20 questions for the school system to answer, and appointed Hector as their spokesman.
He'd never even been to the board headquarters in Rockville.
At Einstein, the "achievement gap" -- a problem that new School Superintendent Jerry Weast is vowing to tackle -- hits close to home. This school is among the most diverse in the system, with a student body that is split almost evenly among whites, African Americans and Latinos, and has significant numbers of Asian American students. It is also one of the county's most challenged schools.
Here, as in schools throughout the country, Hispanic and black students have persistently scored lower on standardized exams than white and Asian American students. Einstein ranked second from last in the county in overall SAT test scores this year, with scores for African American and Asian students dropping and white scores remaining flat.
Principal Richard L. Towers said he believes progress is being made: Einstein's Latino students showed an 82-point increase on their SAT scores last year, despite an overall decline among the rest of the county's Latinos. "Having said that," he said, "we still have a long way to go."
Towers credited several factors for the improvement, including student support groups, which raised money to help Latino students pay to take the SAT and other tests. Future gains, he said, will depend on how well the school can motivate its students. "The gap, I think everybody recognizes, has nothing to do with ability.
"These kids are smart. They can do it. It's up to us to hook them," he said.
Towers said he hopes to enlist parents' help with a "college guarantee" program: He would promise that a student will be ready for college if parents ensure that their child attends classes, does homework and asks for help if needed. The plan still is on the drawing board, but Towers thinks it could help.
The school also hired a new administrator to reach out to Latino parents and community members. When Tony Cartagena arrived at Einstein this summer, after a stint as a teacher at Walt Whitman High School in upscale Potomac, he immediately saw what was missing.
"At Whitman, it seems like every kid has a goal to make it to a top college, an Ivy League college. Here, a lot of kids don't have those goals," he said. "I made it a point to ask students today what they wanted to do after high school. And many times, the answer would be, `I don't know' -- even among seniors. We have to change that, and to do that, parents are critical."
As another school year begins, and more Hispanic students arrive, the Lazos and Einstein officials want to ensure that they have a voice in their children's education.
"So much is just about giving people information," Mirna Lazo said. "I talk to so many parents who don't know what an SAT is or a GPA. And those are the kinds of things they have to know."
This week, the school is hosting a special session at Back-to-School night for Latino students and their parents. Another gathering will be held just for the parents of Latino freshmen -- a first. And both of these meetings will be in Spanish.
HISPANIC STUDENTS IN MONTGOMERY
Hispanics are the fastest growing part of the student body in Montgomery County. The latest SAT results showed that average scores for Montgomery Latino students fell by 22 points, alarming many parents. A look at the academic performance of students at Einstein High School:
IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY
Latino population 1990: 55,684
Latino population 1997: 82,120
(9.8% of total Montgomery population)
EINSTEIN HIGH SCHOOL PROFILE 1998-99 SCHOOL YEAR
Total enrollment: 1,421
African American: 28.8%
American Indian: 0.4%
Asian American: 12.9%
* Einstein students enrolled in at least one honors course (1998)
African American: 31.7
Asian American: 71.2
* Einstein ninth-graders completing Algebra I or higher level math (1998)
African American: 47.7
Asian American: 70.2
Einstein seniors who took the SAT (1999)
African American: 54%
Asian American: 67%
EINSTEIN MEAN SAT SCORES
* African American
Countywide 1999: 922
* Asian American
Countywide 1999: 1131
Countywide 1999: 973
Countywide 1999: 1149
SOURCES: Einstein High School, Montgomery County Planning Board