Plato Academy’s story is one of death and resurrection. The school started out struggling to survive. It was one of the first charter school experiments in 2004, the brainchild of the Hellenic community of Pinellas County in Northwest Florida. The idea was to educate the new generation in Greek language and culture using the Socrates model of inquiry. What started out as a great idea with 80 students quickly became a disaster. The schools finances plummeted, it’s enrollment dwindled to 32 students in three months, and teachers were dropping out. It was on the verge of closing. Then came Steve Christopoulos, a real estate developer from Massachusetts. Not only did he move his family to the Clearwater area, enrolling his three daughters in the school, he took over the helm of the school but worked without a salary, he satisfied its debts totaling over $150,000 from his own pocket, and he set up an educational management company that was in the business of producing efficiently run and effectively taught charter schools, Superior Schools. Now close to eleven years later, what started out as an experiment has become an enviable trend. Superior Schools will add two new schools to its existing 6 by September, including a high school. There are over 6,000 students on the waiting list for the schools, as it has achieved the status as the number 1 school among the 132 in Pinellas County.
Christopoulos explains the school’s business model, “Like any successful business it must have a sound business plan and an efficient management. Yet behind that management model is the Socratic method that is the driver of the success of our schools.”
The drive to increase the number of Hellenic charter schools in Florida and beyond has also something to do with the centuries’ old Greek-Turkish rivalry. Christopoulos hopes to trump the rapidly expanding very successful chain of Turkish-themed charter schools that has reached to 125 in number.
“Our plan is to expand not only in the State of Florida but nationwide and hope eventually to surpass the 125 schools with Turkish theme that currently operating in the United States. It is becoming however more difficult as we go forward due to the fact that originally the Greek language was funded primarily by the Greek government and now we only have 3 out of 17 Greek teachers that are paid by the Greek government,” Christopoulos explains.
Family values also play a role in the Superior School formula for success. Matthew Gunderson, the school’s Director of School Improvement and Quality Assurance says, “We like to call our system of charter schools a family because family values drive our success. Every student is cared for by many adults.” Gunderson points out that in contrast to the local school district where on average 40% of funding never reaches students superior schools runs a much tighter ship resulting in 80 to 90 % of tax funding reaching students. The family of Superior Schools also has a positive record of outcomes for African American and minority students in contrast to the local public schools, according to Gunderson.
“It is so comforting to walk through our halls in the morning and hear ‘kali mera’ from the teachers even the non-ethnically Greek children and teachers, ” cites Vassia Kallimachau, the school’s public relations director and a direct Greek import herself.
She explains that the school strives to bring Greek culture and letters to life in an engaging, student-centered way and not just some boring textbook exercise. Kallimachau notes the school is trying to resist the pressure from the surrounding community to trump the Greek as a second language program with a Spanish one. She notes that Plato Academy is the only school in the County that has refused this trend and keeps Greek and only Greek as its second language.
“We strive to make our students philhellenes . It’s not just about the language, we teach them to be like Greeks,” she states. The schools provide a cultural education to students of mixed races and ethnic identities. This education includes how to dance the kalamatiano; a Greek Christmas choral concert at the Tampa International Airport; taking part in the 25th of March Independence Day parade celebrations in Tarpon Springs; even taking a trip to Athens and Crete in the summer for every graduating member of the 5th grade class as a graduation capstone. Every 6th of May, the Schools come together to reenact the Olympic Games in intramural sports and academic competitions.
The Greek government funds full-time native Greek teachers for the Superior Schools, direct imports from Greece. This makes it possible for every student from age 5 in kindergarten to age 13 in 8th grade to receive at least a half hour of Greek instruction every school day. But keeping it Greek is proving a challenge in the wake of the School’s expansion. The Greek Ministry of Education had started with 17 paid Greek teachers, but due to the crisis it only can provide a total of 3 at present.
Christopoulos states, “Going forward in the opening of additional schools the Greek teachers funding issue may create a huge financial problem that we need to overcome because Greek language is not funded by the USA or the Greek government. We have to fundraise and come up with additional funds to pay for the Greek teachers.”
In answering the charge that Hellenic charter schools might be exclusionary or provincial, Christopoulos states, “Our schools are not considered elitist because we are open to everybody and there is an open enrollment, tuition free. In fact approximately 96% of our students are of non-Greek heritage. In addition the parents value the Greek language and culture as they recognize is to be the foundation of the Western European languages and the language of science and technology.”