ARCADIA — Most Asian immigrants wouldn't have dared tread on such unfamiliar territory. But in 1986, Carol Fung joined what many consider the quintessential American organization: the PTA.
"When people saw my face, right away they assumed I had no knowledge of English or knew anything about the schools," said Fung, recalling her early days with the Holly Avenue Elementary PTA. "That's why Asian parents have to come out. Unless there's more of us, people will continue to have these stereotypes of Chinese people."
Today, Fung divides her time as hospitality chair of Arcadia High's PTA and president of the school's Chinese Parent Booster Club, a group designed to recruit Chinese American parent volunteers to the school.
Asians traditionally have not played prominent roles at their children's schools. But as the Asian population surges, schools are seeing the emergence of various Asian parent organizations representing limited-English-speaking, immigrant families.
Arcadia High School Principal Martin Plourde said the booster club has been effective at drawing immigrant parents to the school--a feat he does not take lightly.
"They serve as the tentacles for the Chinese community," he said.
Despite the new groups, Asian parent involvement is still minimal at most schools, particularly in poorer areas and in communities with many recent Southeast Asian immigrants.
Vietnamese parents in Orange County, for instance, have yet to organize a parent group, even though Vietnamese American students are the largest ethnic group at many Westminster and Garden Grove schools.
Indeed, most Asian parent groups have emerged in affluent suburban areas, where families generally are not struggling to make ends meet and have lived in the United States long enough to understand how American schools work.
Along with Fung's group in Arcadia, Asian parent organizations have sprung up in Fullerton, Irvine, Alhambra, Cerritos, Torrance and Cupertino.
The Asian parent groups play similar roles to PTAs, raising money for the schools, organizing school activities and sometimes taking stances on school issues.
But many Asians shy away from joining PTAs because of their limited English skills and because educators in their native countries generally discourage parents from getting too involved in their children's schooling.
"Most of us are immigrants, and we have a lot of insecurities when we first come to a new country," said Annie Yuen, a member of Arcadia's Chinese parent club. "And in Asia, the principals don't even welcome you on campus. But now, we want to show our support for the schools."
School officials generally praise the grass-roots organizations for reaching out to families with limited English skills. But the groups also are controversial, with critics accusing Asian parents of being divisive and interested only in promoting their own interests.
"I don't particularly care for having separate groups," said Alva Petway of Cerritos, an active parent at Whitney High School, which has Korean and Chinese parent groups. "I can somewhat understand the comfort level people feel being around their own, but it's disconcerting because it seems as though their own children will be looked out for at the exclusion of other people's kids."
In Fullerton, Sunny Hills High School's Korean Parent Support Group came under fire after it formed in the early 1990s, partly because it was erroneously referred to as a "Korean PTA."
"There was a perception in the community that the group would operate as a separate PTA, but that wasn't true," Principal Loring Davies said.
Myung Ja Choi, president of the Korean parent group and co-president of the school's PTA, said she ultimately would like to see the two organizations merge. But she said many Korean parents still do not feel comfortable speaking English and would not participate at all if the Korean group didn't exist.
This year, co-PTA President Phyllis Valla said one of her main goals is to strengthen ties between white and Korean parents. She already has paired current officers with "less experienced" members, or Korean parents, to foster interaction between the groups.
"This is a pivotal year at Sunny Hills," Valla said. "This year, we're hoping parents and students can come together."
What parents discover when they organize their groups is that they still must go through extraordinary lengths to recruit members. But as more parents get involved, the turnout increases.
To the amazement of Arcadia High administrators, more than 150 Chinese parents recently crammed the school's library to attend a college preparation workshop sponsored by the booster club.
In Irvine, Korean parents called their first meeting in late September, and more than 200 people showed up.
"I have a feeling a lot of people wanted to get involved, but they just didn't know what to do," said Sherrie Lah, a member of the group.