Socrates Academy students enjoyed an unforgettable trip to Greece this summer. (Photo: Courtesy of Socrates Academy)
It’s not many American secondary school students who travel to Europe with their classmates before their senior year, much less before high school.
But that’s exactly what happened when a group of middle school scholars and a few high schoolers visited Greece this summer for a once-in-a-lifetime educational tour with Socrates Academy, a public charter school outside Charlotte, NC.
Socrates educates all students in Greek language and culture starting in Kindergarten. Greek instruction is scheduled for two hours each day, and students can receive high school credits for their courses, with the opportunity to sit for the Ellinomatheia exam to demonstrate proficiency in Greek language during 7th or 8th grade.
Socrates, which will become a fully K-12 school next fall, took a group of 33 scholars and 27 teachers, administrators and parents, on a two-week tour of some of the most treasured cultural landmarks in Greece.
“Going to Greece was such a meaningful experience,” said Mary Montgomery, a 10th-grade scholar. “It was great to experience a different culture and learn about Greek history, especially since so much of the modern world was influenced by ancient Greece.”
Between June 30 and July 13, the group stopped in at least 20 cities, towns, beaches or villages, with Athens, the Peloponnese, and the Macedonian region as focal points. Ilias Tomazos, the University of Connecticut Hellenic Studies Center ‘Paideia’ Director who has conducted educational tours and study abroad programs in Greece for more than 30 years, led the trip. He collaborated with Matthaios Stamoulis, the director of Greek Studies at Socrates, to create the itinerary. Both, along with Aikaterini Karatzina, a teacher of math at Socrates, served as hosts, local guides, and translators for the student group.
Dr. Stamoulis enjoyed showing the students his native land. “It was a great pleasure to be on this trip with the Socrates Academy community and share with them Greek history, culture, traditions… and the Greek cuisine,” he said.
Dinners for the group were usually served family style, amazing the hungry travelers with the variety and abundance of horiatiki salata, tzatziki, patates sto fourno, fava, fasolakia, giouvetsi, and many more delicious national dishes. Eating outdoors in the evening, surrounded by old and new friends (and often many adorable stray cats and kittens) surely created fond memories for the scholars and families.
This unique voyage was based on the principles of ‘paideia’, the ideals of Greek culture that foster an educated and well-rounded society. The group started in Athens, absorbing the sights and sounds of Monastiraki Square, the Agora of Athens, and the lush National Garden. A visit to the Panathenaic Stadium in the blazing heat included some quick foot races on the historic track.
Other highlights included the Corinth Canal, the ancient healing site of Epidavros, the port town of Nafplio, and the ruins of Mycenae. Students learned about the bravery of the Spartans when traveling in and around their city, climbing winding stone pathways to the fortress and monastery at Mystras before returning in the evening to the Central Square in Sparta for Greek dancing and pickup soccer with some local teens.
Later in the trip, scholars earned laurel wreaths while racing again at Ancient Olympia, relaxing afterward with a cool dip in the sea at Gribovo Beach in Nafpaktos, a favorite stop for the students in the summer heat.
The tour stopped in mountain villages, too. Visits to the caves of Kalabaka and the monasteries on the hills of Meteora made for sights that were almost unbelievable to those seeing them for the first time. Before heading to the port city of Thessaloniki for three days, the intrepid tour group walked– and raced– through the cobblestone streets in the ancient town of Aiani.
Highlights of the visit to Thessaloniki and nearby sites included walking along the waterfront, seeing the White Tower, eating fresh bougatsa courtesy of Mr. Tomazos, and exploring the Royal Tombs of Vergina as well as the Holy Church of Agia Sophia and the Church of Saint Demetrios, Patron Saint of Thessaloniki. Everyone was happy to relax at Katerini Beach before the trip’s culmination: a return to Athens on the last day to see the Acropolis and marvel at the majesty of the Parthenon and the view of the city from on high.
“The highlights of the trip for me were visiting all the archeological sites, especially Dion and Olympia,” said Ms. Montgomery, “as well as getting to explore the cities and speak in Greek.”
At various points throughout the trip, Greek teachers who work at Socrates during the school year met up with the students and welcomed them with warmth and hospitality to their home cities. They generously showered students, staff and parents with ravani, spanakopita, tyropitakia, and freshly made Greek cookies.
The Greece trip has been the capstone of a Socrates education since 2013. Typically, students would travel to Greece during the summer after seventh grade, but the trip was put on hold due to the pandemic from 2020 to 2022.
Since so many students missed out on the experience, this summer the trip was open to not just 7th graders, but 8th graders and high schoolers. And like many foreign journeys, this one had its own sort of magic.
Ms. Montgomery said that despite the disappointment of not traveling to Greece with her friends from middle school due to COVID, “I was able to meet new people that I wouldn’t have talked to otherwise, which made the experience even better.”
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