Investing in Greek Education in the United States

NEW YORK – Greeks know what a foundation is. After all, they have been builders for 4000 years. Greek-Americans appreciate that the community has built its success on the bedrock of education, including the character-forming experiences of Greek School and Sunday School, yet support for such schools, always insufficient, appears to be dwindling.
As Greek Letters Day is celebrated across the country during this week, TNH is spotlighting a few of our key schools and listening to their officials.
Anastasios Koularmanis is the Supervising Principal of the St. Demetrios of Astoria school program, which includes the only Greek high school in America.
Virtually all of the educators with whom TNH spoke stressed three things, two positive, and one negative. First, the value to the students of the Greek culture and language, as well as the environment the schools provide. “We are a safe school, we treat students as individuals. They are not just a number in our system. We care for the community. We work with the parents. We are a family-oriented school. We believe that a child will flourish only in the parents work with the school,” he said. Second, the staff’s energy and dedication. And finally, but unfortunately, the ability to obtain the resources they need and deserve. His testimony merits our attention.
Koularmanis said the key is finances. Their budget is currently strained and although they need to expand, they are wary of putting the school in debt. He is shocked that the only high school in America does not attract more financial support, especially from the affluent “who have made such tremendous contributions to non-Greek institutions.” {43820}
“This would be pocket change for many of them and whatever they can give would make such a difference,” Koularmanis said. He deeply appreciates benefactors who have come through. “Many kids can’t come here because parents cannot afford a private school. We give more than $250,000 in tuition assistance through endowment funds supported by the Niarchos Foundation and George Andriotis.” He noted that with low current returns, they are forced to dip into the endowment.
As much as he appreciates the support the Church does give, he believes the Archdiocese must do more. “These are [Archdiocese and Metropolis] schools and they should dip into their pockets.”
He pointed out it is in the Church’s long-term interest to have as many children attend the parochial schools as possible. “Kids are not going to church and they will face a tremendous crunch in a little while. Going to church for Christmas and Easter and putting a dollar in the tray is not good for the future,” and he pointed out busy working parents aren’t teaching kids about the faith. “They learn in the schools, but the schools are closing down,” he said, referring to the shutdowns in Corona and Brooklyn and the dire problems at St. Demetrios of Jamaica. “It’s a shame, because the budgets and the losses are not that big.”
Ordinarily a positive thinker, Koularmanis had to declare, “Once this place closes down, it’s over, It’s sad.” He feels Greeks outside New York should support the high school, but all the nation’s schools should be supported, saying that “if the wealthy Greek-Americans were to establish a national endowment fund in support of our Greek schools and each of the top 50 donated $1 million, with a proper board of trustees,” they would thrive. “Something has to give, because we will lose our language and our heritage,” he declared.
Koularmanis believes the community can be better organized and more efficient with its resources, citing the lost opportunity in the 1970s when the four Brooklyn parishes could not agree on a plan to combine their schools. He said the problem then as now is a lack of leadership. When the churches could not agree, someone needed to step in, either Archbishop Iakovos or a lay leader. As an example of the kind of leader who could take Greek-American education to the next level, Koularmanis referenced a person of energy and vision: the late Constantine Papadakis and what he did for Drexel University.
Koularmanis emphasized leadership is what is needed to save the community’s schools. “We have those Greeks around, let’s find one that could lead us. We will follow,” he asserted.
Family is a universal theme among Greek-American educators, and the support of the clergy is a vital ingredient. Doug Anderson is principal of the Hellenic American Academy of Lowell, MA, which was founded in 1906 by parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church.
He said they are fortunate that Father Nikolaos Pelekoudas is very involved in the school and is very supportive, but he emphasized families are critical to their students’ and the school’s success.
Proof of the lasting impact of the school on people’s lives is the attendance of 400-500 people at school events, many of them graduates showing their appreciation. He is proud of the fact that students who had problems in other schools go there are helped to turn their lives around. “Because we are a loving school,” he said, echoing his fellow principals.
Anderson said that one of the challenges they face is that although the elementary grades attract many students, parents look for fancier for the later grades, but he believes they have much to offer. “I am very proud of the school and the culture in my five years here. I think the Greek language and culture and the experience they have here greatly prepares students for secondary education and the challenges they will face in life. I can’t say enough about their faith and their values.” He has been embraced by the community even though he is not Greek or Orthodox.
Like other successful schools within the Greek-American community, the Academy incorporates the cultural institutions and experiences of their locale into the education program, visiting museums, performing arts centers. Philanthropic activities are part of the experience, as well as what nature has to offer. This week the seventh and eighth graders attended a rehearsal of the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Greek families in the Lowell area are now spread far and wide, putting pressure on enrollment. The Academy still relies on the parish for support, but they deeply appreciate a grant they received from the Niarchos Foundation five years ago to create a new middle school.
The community, however, is not standing still. Relying on what its members learn from government evaluations and input from educators, they are developing a strategic plan for how to better support the Academy, especially the middle school.
They are working on a business plan that will make the school less dependent on the parish. One fresh approach is to have third party evaluators determine how much given families can afford. They are part of a more cost-effective management team that helps administer many other schools. A foundation that will provide tuition assistance is also being explored.
Athena Kromidas presides over one of the community’s most respected schools. The William Spyropoulos Greek-American School of St. Nicholas in Flushing opened in 1977. It serves 450 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and a separate pre-K program. The School’s educators are very proud of their programs and the academic success of their students, especially since they are located in Queen’s top school district, but Principal Kromidas also credits the support of the parents, with whom the staff is in constant communication.
Kromidas described the security, love, and attention the students receive as the heart of the learning experience, providing them with more of a family than an institutional environment. She was most pleased to reveal that despite the heavy workload – she and the teachers do sympathize, but they are strongly committed to excellence – the children are happy. Kromidas, who joined the staff in 1985 and became principal of the day school in 2000, attributes its success to the facts that teachers treat the students as if they are their own children.
One of the program’s features is three-level Greek language instruction that matches individual students’ needs, but she is most proud of the annual dramatic presentations in Greek, from the ancients to contemporary Greek theater.
Kromidas acknowledged that the economic crisis has also impacted them, but the families are committed to the school and their benefactors have stepped up.
One of the proudest days of the year for the communities and their students is when they march in the local Greek Independence Day parades. The always elicit the loudest cheers, but checks would also be a good way for the community to express its love and support.

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