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Getting a Little Help from HELP

Hellenic Education and Language Program is a small, independent after-school language program created by first, second and even third-generation Greek American parents in Astoria who were looking for alternatives to the church-run language programs for their children.  Continuing our series of articles on the success of private Hellenic schools in the country, we focused on profiling HELP because of its uniqueness and its excellence in providing language and culture as a complement to the traditional English school day.
Operating from the first/basement floor of a newly constructed building off of Broadway and 37th Street in Astoria, HELP features several levels of instruction and makes a point of placing children according to ability and comprehension not on age.  While some might see this as awkward socially, most classes fall within two grade levels of difference.
Children discuss their designs for robot class on a typical afternoon at the HELP afternoon school

Children discuss their designs for robot class on a typical afternoon at the HELP afternoon school

Quite impressive for writers of this magazine is the fact that each classroom of the school is named after a famous Greek woman from history, including Hypatia, Adriane, and Sappho . In fact, the nickname of the school is the “Ypatia.”

On the afternoon we visited the school, students were engaged in a robotics making session using Legos while following a computer-generated program.  Others were reciting poems while others were coming off the ecstatic performance of the Perseus myth they had staged the weekend before.
HELP emphasizes student-centered, hands-on activities where the living language of Greek can come to life.  It is not strictly a cut-and-dry language program, but offers a more holistic approach to Greek culture.  Its curriculum is rounded out by courses in history, Greek geography and mythology, math in Greek, Greek civics, Greek dance and traditions and even environmental education.   It has expanded its offerings to include English for adults, modern and classical Greek literature, the Iliad, theater workshop and “Mommy and Me” classes.
HELP afternoon Greek school

a student in the after-school program of Hellenic Education and Language Program tinkers with Lego blocks to make robots based on computer-aided design

  • A Close-up Look at H.E.L.P. from the Chris Orfanakos, Founder

How is HELP different from the other schools that teach Greek language and culture?

We receive many students that come from homes of Hellenes that are dissatisfied for a plethora of reasons. The most common of reasons is that they are disenchanted with the level of education that exists within the established educational part of our community in the United States. Education for us at H.E.L.P. is not only language but the culture and history that helps empower children to understand why it’s important to learn the language.

Some parents do not like the idea that there is religious instruction in learning the Greek language. Some parents who had not baptized their children were not even allowed to attend a Christian school in the community. The community that first backed the program was YSEE. This is a movement of Hellenes that believes in the virtues and traditions of our ancient ancestors. We believe that Greek culture and identity is for any Hellene that wants to indulge in it, of any religion background. This was the main reason why we kept H.E.L.P. secular.

The Hellenic education and language program is not trying to reinvent the wheel but we like to think the wheel needs a challenge.  Learning Greek through activities and instruction, through art, theater, sports, science, mathematics to be able to learn their language and cultural identity. I never understood why the organization that has the monopoly on education in the USA ironically never truly indulged in the arts with regards to learning Greek when we are the first civilization to explore them in such depth.
How do you structure your program?  What offerings exist?
 Our program is an evening program weekdays and Saturday mornings comprised of six levels of placement based on level of individual comprehension and knowledge, not age.  The idea that a particular age accommodates a specific level is outdated. The idea that a 10-year-old who would be in fifth-grade American school can speak read and write Greek at a fifth grade level Greek school is preposterous. Roughly 25% of the children are from mixed marriages and the other 70% are second and third generation Greek-Americans. Most of these children do not hear Greek at home.  Hence the idea of grades one through eight is out the window because you have seven-year-olds that sometimes can speak read and write better than an ten-year-old and so you have to shuffle the children but not to a point where it’s an awkward situation where there is a 12-year-old sitting next to an 8-year old. Our grade levels run from pre-K to 9th grade but we are hoping to create programs that reach high school levels.

What accounts for the school’s success to this point?

The school program is successful for no other reason then the passion and conviction to keep it going by the community and the parents of the students. I strongly believe that that is the only way to build a proper Greek school. If we are not ready to bleed and sweat for it then we do not deserve it.

How do you get your financial support?
The program initially was designed to be on a donation basis but eventually we ran into quite a few problems with that. So we have added a tuition. With that said we have never ever turned away a student that could not afford the program. The parents and supporters of the program go out and try to find sponsorships for the students that cannot afford to pay for the education. We do a fundraiser to pay the bills and many times go deeper into our own pockets.
For the upcoming year we have planned an Ellinomathia curriculum for grammar and will also be prepping students for the Greek Regents exam.
Drop off at the HELP afternoon school program which offers classes in more than just Greek language and culture

Drop off at the HELP afternoon school program which offers classes in more than just Greek language and culture

  • A Word from Future Director, Eleftheria Oikouta 
What is your vision for HELP and after-school programs of Greek language and culture?
The way I see it Greek school must forge first and foremost an identity for the Greek community.  The imprint of Greek identity is vital to the continuance of our culture or else we will be lost. The first vehicle for identity is the Greek language, which is essentially an instrument of thought.   It is the responsibility of the teachers and the parents to continue this identity.  The Greek footprint is fading in other parts of the country. We are lucky we are in NYC that has a strong Greek identity with the changing crisis we are experiencing a new influx of Greek immigrants  My goal is to create a new generation of Greek children who will learn Greek as a way to become better American citizens.

What plans do you have for next year?

We are planning to expand our Greek program by offering the Greek Proficiency exam called the Certificate of Ellinomathia under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Education.  This is a certificate that vouches for the language proficiency in Greek by the Greek state and recognized in the academic and professional world.


Registration is currently ongoing from June 7th to June 27th for the upcoming academic year.  For more info email info@helleniceducation.com.