The recent passing of Steve Christopoulos, the Manager of Plato Academy Schools in Florida and a driving force behind this charter school network promoting Hellenism represents a major loss for the Greek-American community, but also an opportunity for badly needed introspection.
Together with his family, he leaves behind a network of nine Plato Academy schools, which represent one of the most positive developments in a decade where Greek education in the U.S. has faced many setbacks and challenges. During that time, New York has seen half its Greek-American parochial day schools close without any coordinated action being adopted to halt this vicious cycle.
Even in NYC, however, where some of the parish communities that shut down their schools are scandalizing the community by the manner in which they are squandering the profits from the rentals of their erstwhile school buildings on luxurious living, a favorable wind of change has begun to blow. Earlier this year, The National Herald published a story on a group of parents and educators who are lobbying for the inclusion of Greek among the Dual Language programs being offered in New York City public schools (for more information visit greekdualny.org). The success of such an undertaking would be monumental, because it will bring Greek language instruction into the 21st century by linking language learning with curriculum content – something that is sorely lacking in most instructional models today.
The key feature of the Dual Language programs in NYC public schools is that they teach children the standard curriculum in English as well as in a second language. Classes are taught in each language on alternating days. The expectation is that students will become fluent in both languages taught. Dual language programs seek to enroll 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percentwho are fluent speakers in the other language being taught. Compared to the traditional models in place today, this approach is revolutionary, in addition to being highly effective.
The benefits of this model have been known for decades, and gained wide acclaim through the research of academicians like Wallace Lambert, who tracked their implementation in Canada during the 1970s. Subsequent publications by contemporary researchers like Fred Genesee also amply illustrate some of the extremely encouraging results from dual language instruction. For example, there is documented data from research on Canadian students where students being taught content area subjects in their target (weaker) language actually outperformed students who were being taught the same subject in their native language. Moreover, this program was not only able to be successfully implemented during early childhood, but also in older grades.
To its credit, the New York City Department of Education has adopted this strategy and done wonders to improve bilingual education – a traditional weak point of education in the U.S., where school based bilingualism was not cultivated to the degree it was elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, until now, Greek parochial schools,and charter schools to a lesser extent, cannot be said to have pursued the same vision.
Especially in the case of our community parochial schools, which are tuition based and bill immersion in a Hellenic-centered environment as a selling point, the adoption of a more modernized approach to language instruction has been slow in coming. In many ways, the instructional techniques and curriculum approach remain the same as they did in decades past. Naturally, this unwillingness or fear to adapt has diluted the effectiveness of their product and contributed to today’s community educational crisis.
Today’s Greek language learners likely have less exposure to Greek in their home environments in terms of native fluency (although the benefits of the digital revolution somewhat ameliorate the negative effects of this, if applied correctly). Tuitions are on the rise, teacher salaries remain woefully uncompetitive, and parents/students sometimes complain about a lack of advancement.
Today’s students, who are growing up in the information age, require a different kind of motivation.
If learning a target language is not linked to utilitarian gains (acquisition of new knowledge, increased academic competitiveness, functional application of skills) and creative engagement (forging of relationships, exploration of shared interests, self-improvement and growth), then the motivation to learn it will be low. Thus, the target language must take on equal status with students’ native language by making it a genuine means of transmission of knowledge and social interaction.
Teaching Greek for one period a day as a foreign language, independent of content area subjects, doesn’t facilitate the aforementioned goals. Simply put, it’s outdated. When fairly linguistically conservative institutions like U.S. public schools (let’s not forget the influence that American exceptionalism still exerts) make a concerted effort to switch their mode of instruction, it’s pretty evident that the time for change has long since arrived.
Sadly, this issue was likely never even discussed at the Archdiocese’s Clergy-Laity Congress, where Greek Education is typically relegated to a mere formality. As was the case in countless previous Congresses, discussions will revolve around finances, Protestant-inspired moralism, recreational activities taking place on the sidelines of the conference, etc.; however, Greek education will once again be the ugly stepchild of the assembly. From this standpoint, the educational crisis that the Archdiocese is experiencing and the cultural illiteracy exhibited by some of its spokespersons or officials shouldn’t come as a surprise. The perils of not investing in the education of one’s progeny have been universally underscored.
Still, change doesn’t necessarily have to come from the top down. In many instances, grass roots movements can be just as, if not more, effective. If one really wants to see the success of the dual language model, all they have to do is walk into local public school classrooms and observe as ethnically diverse children speak both English and their target language with admirable efficacy. The question now is which Greek parochial school will demonstrate the vision and boldness to make this long overdue change and revolutionize the way that Greek is taught and viewed in our Archdiocesan educational institutions?
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