NEW YORK – They are a. Dynamic, active, but above all, a team The Hellenic Classical Charter School’s “Dream Team,” Christina Tettonis, Joy Petrakos, Natasha Caban-Vargas, and Cathy Kakleas, work hard alongside children, parents and teachers, spreading Hellenism and making their school one of the best in New York. Last year, it received the National Blue Ribbon School Award and for six consecutive years received the High Performing Award & Recognition for the School.
Looking back, the school’s history begins in 2005. Petrakos, Kakleas and Caban have been there since the start. Two years later, Tettonis follows.
Tettonis, head of both schools, served as principal at the Brooklyn school from 2007 to 2019. Under her leadership, the school has won many awards.
“I feel honored and privileged to work with such a team. I’m proud to be Greek. We want to help all children, not just our own. And the other schools want to learn how we do so well and want to learn from us.
“We work with each child individually. Teachers take special seminars for their development. They learn with us. Strategies, research, visits to other universities. We never say we know it all. We are constantly learning and that is why I think there is such quality in our teachers. The children learn from good teachers and I am proud of ours. We need to prepare them for the next generation.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Tettonis has roots from Kalamata, Messinia, and has twin boys.
She has known Cathy Kakleas since childhood. They went to the same school together, A. Fantis. And years later they came back to this school to work together. Kakleas is now the head of the new branch of the school that opened in Staten Island.
“I never thought I’d be here. Today, I am the director of the new branch of Staten Island which started operating last year with kindergarten and first grade. We also have the best teachers there.”
Kakleas has attended many educational seminars and helps teachers with her knowledge and experience. “We have an academic team that goes from here to the Staten Island school and supports the teachers there.”
She herself was born in the U.S. with roots in Crete and Syros, a first generation Greek-American, and the first in her family to go to university. She has three children who attended Greek schools.
Petrakos is the soul of Hellenic Classical Charter School. She has been there since the day it opened, helping the school’s progress year after year. She herself remembers the first day when Charles Capetanakis got the charter school license.
“In 2005, when we were starting to set up this school, the School Board Chairperson Charles Capetanakis, came and said to me, ‘We got the charter. Here is the ball, now keep it rolling! ” And I ran. I’ll never forget his words. We are doing our best for this school. We are a team that is very dedicated and committed to achieving the best. Many times we don’t even know how we managed it ourselves. When the result comes, we look at it and don’t believe it. We are humble, we do not understand how we did it. I can’t describe this feeling.”
She started as a school administrator in Brooklyn and is currently Chief of Operations for both schools.
What is the key to this team’s success? Communication is their great strength.
“It’s very important and rare, there are no selfishness and personal ambitions but teamwork. We’re here for the kids,” Kakleas said.
Petrakos added, “We don’t have a personal agenda. We plan every day, we discuss how we want to move, we have a vision and a goal. Of course, and sometimes we disagree, that’s healthy. I may have another opinion on something. I’ll tell her. We want to be honest when we are discussing the good of the school. We think of the smallest detail.”
Tettonis added, “We’re bound together, for both good and bad. The New York State Education Department loves us. And they ask us half in jest, ‘how can we copy you? We haven’t seen this before. You’re one of the oldest or maybe the oldest team, it’s amazing. Like a family.”
For Caban, it’s also like a second family. Although not Greek herself, she grew up with Greek culture to some extent. Every summer she visited the Greek festival in her Brooklyn neighborhood and her father loves Greece and mythology. She said, “I’ve always been passionate about Greece and mythology, something my father taught me from an early age. My father had gone to Greece and I remember a photo of him on a donkey. He brought home a set of mugs in black with gold and pictures of the Greek gods. My father was Greek for about two months when he came back from Greece and was very happy. This was my first experience with Greece as well as the festival I went to since childhood.”
Caban has been the Brooklyn School’s assistant principal for eight years and has been principal since 2019.
“I’ve been here since 2005. Together with Christina and Joy, I grew up in this school, matured as a woman, as an educator, as a mother, and whatever I learned, I learned from them. Then I worked next to Cathy. Although I’m from Puerto Rico, I feel pretty Greek, something I owe to my father. I love Greek culture, Greek philotimo, Greek tradition.”
Petrakos said, “A few days ago a student who graduated in 2011 visited. At that time, we were taking students from many areas. We had a very difficult class. These children had come from tough neighborhoods hoping for a better education. As the years went by, they made great progress. So this student came and hugged me and told me he became a marine biologist. He believed he would never succeed in his life. And he came back and said to me, ‘Mrs. Joy, if it wasn’t for this school and you always giving me a hard time, I probably wouldn’t have become what I am today.’ And I started to cry.
“No matter what type of student you are, we will help all children become something and not only learn their letters but everything from culture to their character.
“Everyone loves us because we are real people, we have emotions, we are not robots, we love, we teach, we explore.”