BOSTON – In Portland Oregon there is a hidden treasure, the Agia Sophia Academy, a unique Pan-Orthodox School built on the values of the Orthodox faith in which Greek and Latin is taught. It is housed in the facilities of the Church of St. John the Baptist, but is governed by its own separate board.
On June 1 the Academy will celebrate its 15th anniversary with the participation of Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco. In a telephone interview with The National Herald the principal of the Academy, Christina Bournelis-Blankenstein, said a big celebration is planned and that “All the proceeds will go to support the school. Our goal is to have 250 guests and 84 tickets have already been sold.”
She told TNH, “I began my tenure as principal on July 1, 2018 but before that I was development director, and for three years I did fundraising. Before that I was a kindergarten and first grade teacher for four years. I have been at the School or 13 years.”
Speaking about the establishment of the school she said, “The Academy was established in 2004 by a pan-orthodox group of clergy in the Portland metropolitan area and various people that live in Portland from different parishes, OCA, Antiochian, Greek. It was mostly spearheaded by Fr. Jerry Markopoulos who was at the Holy Trinity parish in Portland and now is at St. George in Eugene, OR. He had young children and he wanted to start an Orthodox Christian school and he was the driving force in establishing the Academy.”
Blankenstein explained that, “We are located at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church; we use their facilities. We have our Board of Directors that is made up of people from all the parishes in the Portland Metro Area. We don’t pay any rent; they let us use the facilities and we cover the utility costs. The parish is comprised of 120 families, but we have over 100 children in this parish.”
The Academy currently has 48 students and 9 teachers. “We have children from 3 to 6 years of age in the Montessori Preschool and then we have a kindergarten to 5th grade elementary school program. Our elementary program has 32 students and the preschool has 16.”
Regarding tuition, she said, “We have two different levels of tuition: We have the Orthodox rate if you are a member of the Orthodox parishes and then we have the non-Orthodox rate. The Montessori Preschool is more expensive to run than the elementary school: For Orthodox families it costs $6,800 and for non-Orthodox, $8,900 for full time students. The elementary program rate for Orthodox is $6,225 per year and for non-Orthodox it is $7,750.” She added “we keep the tuition as low as we can because we don’t have to pay rent; we have families that have 4 and 5 children and we want to make it affordable for them; we have a discount if a family has more than one child at the school and also if the father is a clergyman.”
The Academy provides a first class education. The principal said, “The school teaches all the classes the public schools teach, but we take a more classical approach to education, so we learn a lot about ancient history: ancient Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, North America, South America,” and the sciences are an important part of the curriculum. “We teach Greek, and have conversational Greek classes twice a week. We also teach Latin from second through fifth graders,” she said, noting that, “Latin and Greek form the basis of the English language. For vocabulary and spelling knowing those two languages is very beneficial to the students. We also have physical education three days a week while a lot of schools are cutting their physical education programs because of funding. We have an art teacher who comes once a week and she teaches the children.”
When asked if there are complaints from the parents about teaching Greek and Latin, she said, “no, as a matter of fact we have quite a few Russian students who speak fluent Russian and their parents say that it is great that we teach them Greek; We never had any complaints. On the contrary they are telling us ‘can you teach more Greek?’”
She went on to say, “Everything that we do is in the context of our Orthodox Faith and background. We start our day with prayers in the Church; Fr. Matthew joins us if he is able to. We teach the children music. It is a really amazing program, and we teach the upper elementary students how to chant the hymns of the Liturgy in Greek and in English.”
Asked why parents should send their children to her school, she said, “because the children are very well educated there. The teachers love the children and are devoted to them. Our classes are very small, 16 students in an elementary classroom. Also, the children are safe in a good Christian environment. Our mission is to educate the whole child by providing a rich academic and arts curriculum, grounded in Orthodox Christian values, while fostering love of learning, personal responsibility, and respect for each person.”
She added, “most of our staff have been here for a number of years and they are very committed; we have stability and continuity.”
When we asked her what attracted her to education, she said, “I like working with children.” Speaking about Hellenism and how she feels about it she said, “it is who I am. I treasure the closeness of the Greek Community, the hospitality, the family, the filotimo, and the love of life. I think we have a lot to teach our American brothers and sisters.”
Christina is married to Petros Blankenstein and they have two sons, Pavlos, who is 16 years old, and Petros, 13. Paul grew up in the Antiochian Archdiocese and the two met working for the Project Mexico missions program.