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Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Port of Entry

Port of Entry

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The Fairfax County intake center each year welcomes 5,000 children whose first language isn’t English. It's an educational Ellis Island.

Ernestina Chavez and David Gonzalez sit expressionless in the waiting area, barely saying a word while their 6-year-old daughter, Michez, fidgets between them.

Recent immigrants from Mexico, they speak only un pocito—a little— English. It hasn’t been easy for them to adjust to life in their new country. They’ve each landed part-time jobs as janitors cleaning office buildings, but they need to be working more hours to earn more money.

And now they have to negotiate yet another intimidating hurdle of American life: registering Michez for classes, seven months into the school year.

Like most language-minority families who wish to enroll their children in Fairfax County, Va., public schools, they’ve brought their daughter to the district’s central student- intake center here. An educational version of Ellis Island, the center—or its satellite site—is the first point of contact between immigrant parents and the 154,000-student district, located in a mostly affluent suburb of Washington.

"This office is the port of entry for families who are new to the area and the country," says Sylvia G. Sanchez, the head registrar, who herself immigrated from Chile in the 1970s. "It’s important that the families are seen by registrars who understand their language and culture. We want to help them to understand the system."

One of the oldest such setups in the nation, the Fairfax County center each year welcomes 5,000 children whose first language isn’t English.

Moldovan natives Vera Stulii and her 6- year-old daughter, Victoria, fill out the paperwork they need to enter the Fairfax County school system with the help of registrar Edwin Garcia Kercado.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

The center has two parts. In the district’s central student- registration office, run by the department of student services and special education, registrars process all the necessary paperwork and decide in which grade the students should be placed. In the English-as-a-second-language assessment office, run by the department of instructional services, trained examiners evaluate the students’ mathematics and language skills.

But a big part of the center’s mission is simply to put parents at ease.

Chavez, who is clenching an envelope of documents, says it was difficult to gather what she needs for the appointment because she had to visit various offices in the community where people didn’t speak Spanish. That isn’t a problem here. Just after the staff’s lunch hour, a registrar greets Chavez and Gonzalez in their native language.

Two hours later, the couple walks out of the center with their daughter, smiling and carrying the name of the school where Michez will begin kindergarten the following week.


The diversity of students being registered and tested at the intake center is mind-boggling. Even during the slowest season of the school year—March and April—someone walking through the center might mistake it as a meeting place for delegates of the united nations.

A steady stream of visitors over several days at the end of March includes the wife of a Swedish diplomat; a Taiwanese waitress; a Japanese banker and his wife; a Saudi Arabian diplomat; Somalian refugees; a Peruvian homemaker; and a Pakistani restaurant manager for Wendy’s.

Emilio Aranzana, left, takes the Pledge of Allegiance alongside classmate Alex Miller for the first time as a student in the United States.
--Benjamin Tice Smith



The largest percentage speak Spanish, and hail from such countries as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Mexico.

Some visitors are slicked up in well-tailored suits, crisp dresses with accessories, or elegant flowing garb customary in their native countries, while others wear the casual clothing more typically worn by Americans. Some speak fluent English, but many can barely speak a few sentences.

Before 1980, when the center opened, all district parents registered their children at individual schools. That is still the case for most children whose first language is English.

One of the main reasons Fairfax County started the center was to provide in one place bilingual staff members who can communicate with families that aren’t fluent in English, says Rebecca W. Moscoso, the coordinator for the district’s central student- registration office. The registrars on her staff speak nine languages among them and can call on interpreters who work out of the same office if they need help in some other language.

"There’s no way the [individual] schools could have that many languages," Moscoso says.

In addition, she says, having a centralized process enables the district to implement its policies consistently, especially when it comes to the complicated task of determining how to award credits for schoolwork that students completed in their countries of birth.

Wala Osman, 15, a recent arrival from Egypt takes a reading test to determine whether she needs to be placed in an English-as-a-second-language program.
--Benjamin Tice Smith



"We try very hard to apply the same policy to anyone who comes to us," Moscoso says. "I think there would be a lot of inconsistency if the schools did it. We’re at a better place to give students all the credits that they deserve."

Theodora "Teddi" Predaris, an ESL program specialist for the district, adds that without the intake center, "teachers would have to stop what they’re doing and do the testing [themselves]."

More school systems across the country seem to be moving to this kind of approach, though no one keeps track of how many. The Jefferson County schools in Kentucky and the Boulder Valley school district in Colorado, for example, have set up intake centers for language-minority children within the past two years.

"We certainly do encourage it," says Sonia Hernandez, a deputy state schools superintendent in California, which has 40 percent of the country’s limited-English-proficient students. "It is much more systematic than what often happens at the school-site level, simply because people at the school level are overwhelmed with everything they have to do. Obviously, for large districts, it is the way to go."


For Fairfax County parents, the process begins with a call to the registration office to set up an appointment.

"We want them to get everything ready—to come only once—so that the next day the children can go to school," says registrar Maria J. Gorski, a Peruvian native, who fields about half the calls.

To complete the registration, a parent needs to provide proof of the child’s birth or citizenship, residency, physical health, various vaccinations, and any previous schooling.

Proof of residency is often a real stickler for immigrant parents.

By law, the school system is not permitted to ask for any documents that show the immigration status of the parents. The system is strict, however, about making sure the children were accompanied by a natural parent to the United States. "We don’t owe someone who comes here for a year just to study English a free public education," Moscoso says.

Proof of residency is often a real stickler for immigrant parents, many of whom live with friends or relatives. If they can’t provide a copy of a lease or deed with their names on it, they must supply six other documents that show residency and the intent to live permanently in the area. Some of these must be notarized.

"They usually will say, ‘That will take a long time,’" says Gorski. "I tell them, ‘You can do everything in three days.’"

She spells out the fastest way to get an identification card in Virginia (through the state department of motor vehicles), and which branch office has bilingual employees and the shortest lines. If the parents haven’t yet received any mail at their current address, she tells them to register with an immigrant ethnic group in the area—such as the Hispanic Committee—and ask the organization to send confirmation by mail. And if any notarization is needed for documents, she’s certified to provide it herself.

Thus, when parents show up at the registration office for an appointment, most of them already have in hand a stack of official documents.

Above, Margarita Aranzana meets her new classmates at Waynewood Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., one school day after registering at Fairfax County's student-intake center.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

That is the case with Maria Aranzana, a homemaker from Peru, who is registering her 12-year-old twins, Emilio and Margarita. Aranzana is accompanied by her sister, who has lived in this country for 13 years and went through Fairfax County’s registration drill just last year with another sibling and his family immigrating from Peru.

Maria Aranzana and the children don’t speak English, so Aide Alvarez, a registrar originally from Cuba, conducts the appointment in Spanish. With a business-like manner, she directs the children down the hallway to the testing center, whose staff works hand in hand with the registrars.

For elementary-school-age children, the testing can usually be completed in less than 30 minutes, particularly if they don’t know much English. Through an oral interview, the testers find that both of the twins can answer the question "What is your name?" and know their numbers in English.

Margarita Aranzana, her twin brother, Emilio, and their mother, Maria, recently immigrated from Peru.
--Benjamin Tice Smith



They are also asked to choose a picture and write a story about it in Spanish, to determine if they are literate in their own language.

"Can you write in English?" a tester asks them in Spanish. "No," they answer.

The children then take a math test that has been translated into more than 30 languages.

‘Does anyone at my new school speak Spanish?’

Emilio Aranzana,
12-year old Peruvian immigrant,
Fairfax County Public Schools registrant

Emilio and Margarita both score at the 5th grade level, though they completed the 6th grade in Peru.

The children seem undaunted by the testing. Margarita says it went well and Emilio gives a noncommittal másor menos, which means "more or less." But after they bound down the hallway back to the office where their mother is filling out forms, they review with her and their aunt as many of the math questions as they can recall to try to gauge how they’ve done.

It’s at this point that Alvarez explains in Spanish to the children’s mother a few things she’ll need to know about the school system.

Emilio and Margarita are a little behind in math, she says, but the school system will use an instructional program called FAST Math to try to bring them up to speed. They’ll also be enrolled in an English-as-a-second- language program. Parents have the option of excluding their children from sex education, Alvarez says, and if the children ever need to take medicine at school, Maria Aranzana will have to fill out a form authorizing school staff members to give it out.

After a few more instructions, Alvarez tells Aranzana that her children will be placed in the 6th grade at Waynewood Elementary School, near Alexandria, Va., and will have to ride the bus to school.

But, unfortunately, the process is not yet complete.

As with almost everyone who goes through the district’s registration process, it will take the Aranzana family two visits to complete it. Alvarez tells them they still have one outstanding document concerning residency and will have to return to the center to present it before the children can enter school.

The adults have done most of the talking during this appointment, but at the end, Emilio asks a question: "Does anyone at my new school speak Spanish?"

Alvarez assures him that some children and adults at Waynewood do.


While registration for the Aranzana family goes relatively smoothly and quickly, registration for the Göransson family from Sweden during the same week does not.

Grade placement for children at the elementary and middle school levels is based almost entirely on the age of the child. But at the high school level, placement depends on tests and transcripts, which can complicate decisions. Problems arise when school systems in other countries don’t match well with the U.S. system. High school students are generally placed in the 9th grade if they have no official proof of having received credits in another country.

Ann K. Göransson, the wife of the military attaché for the Swedish embassy in Washington, visits the intake center at the end of March to register her two teenagers, 16-year-old Karin and 15-year-old Erik.

The family once lived in the United States for a year, when the children were in elementary school.

The teenagers spend several hours in the Fairfax testing center completing a battery of tests. They both test as fluent in English, so they won’t be assigned to an ESL program.

Erik’s placement goes smoothly, because academic credit is not an issue for middle schoolers. He was in 8th grade in Sweden, and will be assigned to that grade here for the rest of the year and then move to 9th grade in the fall.

But Karin, who was in 10th grade, does not have an official record of her most recent academic performance, because grades for her courses had not yet been issued when she left Sweden. Her mother says she requested an interim statement from the principal of the school about her daughter’s work, but he refused to provide one.

The registrars insist that without an official transcript of her studies, Karin will have to repeat all of the 10th grade next school year.

Le- Hang Phan, the registrar in charge of transcripts, who is a native of Vietnam, says she’ll write a letter to the Swedish principal reiterating the need for a statement from him, but she adds, "Right now, I can’t promise anything."

Göransson says afterwards about her daughter’s situation: "She gets punished because there’s a different system. I’m not very happy with that. But there’s no point in arguing." The heart of the intake center is, of course, the registrars, all of whom were immigrants themselves.

"I love to help people— especially when you come from another country," Gorski says. "I see the need people have. They want to have a better life."

The heart of the intake center is, of course, the registrars, all of whom were immigrants themselves.

Edwin Garcia Kercado, a native of Puerto Rico, says he has two points of reference for his job: the school system and the immigrant community.

"I feel like the middleman," Kercado says. "I’m the bridge between this system and the community."

Speaking in the parents’ native tongue goes a long way toward creating the bridge. But so does respect, he says.

"I don’t care if you’re the brother of the president of Tuare [a fictitious name], I’m going to treat everyone the same," Kercado says. "It doesn’t matter if you don’t read or write—it’s OK, you put your X there."

Sanchez, the registrar from Chile, says she sees herself in the families who come to the intake center, recalling her own rude awakening in trying to understand the American school system. A few years after immigrating to this country, she and her husband, a native of Spain, bought a home in Fairfax County, thinking they’d send their two daughters to the school at the end of their street. As it turned out, that school was in a neighboring district; officials said her children would have to take a bus to a different school.

"I thought they were crazy," she says. In Chile, she explains, children automatically go to the nearest school.

The center started with three registrars, but now has nine full-time registrars and 10 who work on an hourly basis. It grew in part because of the waves of immigrants who came to Fairfax County from troubled areas of the world, Sanchez says.

In the 1980s, the center registered an influx of families fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. Then they started coming from Kurdistan, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iran. More recently, the registrars have seen an increase in immigrants from the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, as well as from Bolivia and Peru, where the economy is struggling.

Sanchez predicts the next wave of immigrants will come from Colombia because of the unstable political situation there. She is acquainted with Colombians living in the United States and has heard that "they’re all receiving requests from relatives—‘How can I leave?’ They don’t want to wait for the worst," Sanchez says.

"We see the history of the world," she says, "by the effect on the personal lives of the families who are looking for a safe place for their children."

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Pages 38-43

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