Alisa Rhoads, certified ESOL coach for Beaufort County School District, left, conducts a workshop on cultural competency for board members and guests of the Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth. COURTESY LOWCOUNTRY ALLIANCE FOR HEALTHY YOUTH

In Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the main character finds himself inserted into a culture with which he is completely unfamiliar, from language to clothing.

The culture shock experienced by Heinlein’s fictional character is no different from what confronts many immigrants when they arrive in another country.

The visual impact of a different culture can be disconcerting, but the first interpersonal obstacle is most often communication.

While English is nowhere near the top 10 or even top 20 of the world’s most difficult languages, according to a number of online lists, it is nonetheless a challenge when the need to know is immediate for both adults and school-age children.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a grant-funded program used by the Beaufort County School District to help students adjust to their new country through language.

Alisa Rhoads, a district teacher and certified coach in ESOL, said there are 4,720 students in district who are second-language learners. “That is an increase of 273 students from last school year and more are enrolling all the time,” Rhoads said.

There are 20 to 25 different languages spoken by students in the district, she said. When those families come to register for school, quite often the parents do not speak English.

Rhoads recently conducted a cultural competency training course with board members and guests of the Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth (LCAHY), and discussed what the school district is doing to ensure the students are not falling behind because of lan­­­guage skills.

LCAHY is a local organization funded through federal grants and donations to promote positive development among young people by avoiding substance abuse and to identify factors that put them at risk.

Cultural competency, Rhoads said, is the act of looking into a culture and understanding why and how people do things the way they do. “It’s not looking at it from a right or wrong way; it’s understanding,” she said.

While the focus of the presentation to LCAHY was primarily on the local Latino population, the goal was to provide the group with information on all local immigration trends, how schools are addressing the changing demographics in schools with ESOL, how teachers deal with the personal and often traumatic experiences that happen during immigration and assimilation, and culture shock.

“Kids are coming here from political situations that are going on in their home countries and we talked about what teachers are looking for in the way of trauma,” said Rhoads.

Joy Nelson, an LCAHY volunteer who also a spokesperson with the Bluffton Police Department, said Rhoads’ presentation emphasized understanding that English is not the primary language for many families moving into the area. “It’s usually a second or third language,” Nelson said. “ESOL is making sure all children enrolled in the school system are getting the same education. LCAHY is also learning about the issues that face young people, and partnering with the public to prevent bad habits facing youth these days. As an alliance, we’re trying to educate and inform the public, whether you’re Spanish speaking or Chinese speaking.”

Charly Becker, ESOL/World Language District Coordinator, said there are about 50 ESOL teachers in the program in Beaufort County. Their professional development and training are paid for with about $300,000 in Title III funding, created to improve education under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Much of the training and development is aimed at helping teachers find ways to reach each student and that brings its own set of challenges.

“Sometimes it is understanding that using a visual may help clear up any confusion,” said Rhoads. “I think you have to get to know the students and the family because no two students are going to be the same. They’re all coming in with different levels of language, different levels of education.”

One resource specifically designed to help the families transition is the district’s Welcome Center, which opened three years ago. One is located at Islands Academy in Beaufort, and another at Bluffton Elementary.

Becker said the center have really helped in connecting with the parents. “Kids are pretty flexible, but parents do the registration and it’s always nice when you can come in and do it in your own language,” said Becker.

The center has made multilingual registration much easier.”Before the center opened, one year we enrolled 600 ESOL kids and our registration process was good but we wanted to streamline it for the parents who don’t speak English,” she said. “Now they come into a welcoming environment with someone who speaks their language. If we don’t have a speaker of some of the languages, we have a translation service in Massachusetts and we connect them with someone who, for instance, speaks Russian.”

As a result, in many cases the parents are more at ease and take on their own further education. Becker noted that the literacy outreach program at Michael C. Riley Elementary School in Bluffton has been very good and achieved success with their adult students.

“The parents are very involved in schools, especially elementary level such as at MC Riley. They are very involved in the children’s education,” said Becker. “With the parents involved, the students are that much more involved.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.