Prince George's sees increase in foreign-born enrollment
June 22, 2001
Julia Oliver
Staff Writer

Rob Ostermaier/The Gazette

Esubalew McCarthy, a 9-year-old adoptee from Ethiopia, plays with a learning aid as his new mom, Patricia McCarthy (far right), talks with members of the International Student Guidance Office. The organization evaluates and places incoming international students.

HYATTSVILLE -- Esubalew McCarthy had never used a water fountain before Tuesday. "It's like a straw," his adopted mother, Patricia McCarthy, said, demonstrating.

Esubalew, 9, and Ayele Asalifew, 12, who arrived in the United States from Ethiopia on Sunday, came to the International Student Guidance Office to be placed in the Prince George's County public school system. Ayele has two prosthetic legs, and Esubalew is visually impaired, so specialists in vision, physical therapy and special education were there with ISGO Director Beverly Pariser Foster to discuss how to best ease the boys into American elementary school life.

According to a study of immigration to the Washington, D.C., area released by the Brookings Institute in April, the city and its suburbs were the fifth most popular immigrant destination in the United States during the 1990s. The ISGO, which registers all of the public school system's international students, has witnessed this immigration boom. The office registered 4,329 new students for the 2000-2001 school year, up 18 percent from the previous year, and almost twice as high as the number of new students in 1990.

With international student registration on the rise, Foster's job has become increasingly critical

While the ISGO now has two staff members and three outreach counselors, last year only two people oversaw the registration process. During last year's summer walk-in session, the office registered 700 students in two weeks. It typically takes about half an hour to register a kindergartner who speaks no English, Foster said. Esubalew's and Ayale's cases took more than two hours, which is the normal timeframe for a high school student with foreign academic records that must be translated into American equivalents.

Part of the registration process is placing students in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes.

Once a student begins studying English, Foster said, it could take up to 10 years for him or her to really be academically equal to a native born speaker.

Other aspects of Foster's job include providing information to schools about school systems in other countries, and educating teachers about international students in their classes.

Foster finds that using proverbs from other countries is one of the best ways to get across the cultural differences and perceptions children coming from the 152 countries now represented in Prince George's County schools may have.

There are some children the ISGO and Prince George's County Schools cannot help. For example, Maryland does not allow students over age 20 in secondary day school. So the ISGO would not register a 20-year-old in ninth grade. Instead it would advise him to take adult education classes.

In spite of the ISGO's efforts, some students who complete their education in Prince George's County are unable to continue pursuing the path they have begun. The Supreme Court's decision on Pyler v. Doe in 1982 says that any child, regardless of immigration status, is entitled to free public education through grade 12. Thus, the ISGO does not check for a child's immigration status. The federal government is not so accommodating, however, when it comes to higher education.

"College is when kids who are undocumented run into problems," Foster said. To be eligible for any federal financial aid, students who are not citizens must have a permanent resident, refugee, or asylum granted visa.

Foster determined that Ayele would be placed in sixth grade, after the physical therapist evaluates his condition and speaks with the physical education teacher at the school. Esubalew will enter third grade in the fall, but not before a doctor treats his eyes. Both boys will attend Magnolia Elementary in Lanham, which is outside their district, but is the most convenient school with an ESOL program.