Hellenic Charter Schools: Excellence Due to Keeping it Greek
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The American way has always been about choice. Choice for all aspects of life, and especially for education. For the majority of Greek parents in the US, there was two choices for their children–enroll in a public school and then supplement their Greek language and culture with an afternoon Greek program or else send them to a private all-Greek school, usually parochial, where all aspects of their culture would be taught, even religion. However, since 2000, a third option opened up–that of a charter Hellenic school. Although the charter school movement has been quite controversial in many states, with opponents charging that they are undemocratic, biased in the ways they choose students, and that they threaten true pluralism in education, one thing is certain, Hellenic charter schools are faring excellently. In this month’s feature at www.greekamericangirl.com, we rounded up some of the more prominent Hellenic charter schools from around the country (and even one college in the Orthodox tradition) to give readers a wide-angle perspective on the landscape of the Hellenic education movement. Now, parents and students are not conscripted to attending only private schools like St. George but have a choice to keep their Hellenic identity and get a free public education.
We will be posting a series of articles profiling these schools throughout the month of February. For this installment, Archemedian Academy, Socrates Academy, and Odyssey Charter Schools get the spotlight.
HISTORY OF A MOVEMENT
Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was the first to coin the idea of a charter school back in 1974. In fact, they were known as “schools of choice” back then. Albert Shanker, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, was a big advocate of the idea of giving a specific group of teachers a “charter” from their local school boards to try new approaches to education. While there were some charter schools, in practice “schools within a school,” in the 1980s, especially in Philadelphia, they did not come into their own until the 1990s. Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991 followed by California in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. As of 2013, 42 states and Washington DC have charter school laws. The number of American charter schools has grown from 500 in 16 states and the District of Columbia in 1995 to an estimated 6,400 in 2013-14. Over 600 new public charter schools (7%) opened, serving an additional 288,000 students (13%), totaling 2.5 million students. (wikipedia).
According to the first-year report of the National Study of Charter Schools, the three reasons most often cited to create a charter school are to: realize an educational vision, gain autonomy and serve a special population. For the Greek-American community, the vision and the need to serve the language and cultural needs of their ethnic community have been the driving force behind such schools.
Because they tend to be small, most average 250 students, charter schools tend to be safer than larger, more dense schools. Charter schools are most often founded by grassroots organizations of parents, teachers, and community members; entrepreneurs; or when existing schools convert to charter school status.
Charter schools were conceived to be real public schools (without tuition, religious affiliation, or selective student admissions), but that would operate much like a private business. As a result, they would be free from many state laws and regulations but accountable more for student outcomes than for how the school was run or how many degrees its teachers had.
The First Hellenic Charter School: Athenian Academy, Pinellas County Florida
Athenian Academy holds the title as the first and oldest charter school in the US having opened its doors in 2000. According to Kathy Hershelman, the school’s director, it first started as an immersion Greek elementary school program, that means students were taught entirely in Greek across the content areas. Because strict education laws made it impossible for the school to hold onto its status, in 2006 it switched to a charter school. Now after nearly 15 years, the school has become less ethnically Greek, (Greek students have become the minority), but still holds on to the core Hellenic virtues that have proved a cornerstone to critical thinking and inquiry.
“We believe in having a culturally-rich base,” Ms Hershelman states, “We are trying to have kids think more globally and having a daily exposure to the Greek language offers students the opportunity to open their minds to a second language and other cultures.” While it might seem strange to have ethnic Hispanics celebrating OXI Day, according to Hershelman, “American students have taken to Greek wonderfully.” Her own son came to Athenian in the 5th grade. The school has now included a Spanish language program to suit the needs of a growing Latino population.
The school has a good relationship with the Greek government which supplies it with a steady stream of certified Greek native language speakers. This allows students to get a daily dose of Greek for at least an hour.
The school is also expanding into a new building by August 2015 which will allow it to double enrollment.
Socrates Academy, Matthews, North Carolina serving the Charlotte area
Socrates Academy began as a dream back in 1997 with the principal of The Holy Trinity School of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a private Greek school. “We wanted to create an American school of the highest standards blended with Greek language and culture,” states Larry Peroulas, founding board member. Along with Dr Antonis Stylianou and John Couchell, the school took five to six yares to become reality in 2005. It started as a kindergarten to first grade school of 67 students adding a grade each successive year. It has now grown to a K to 8th grade school with 660 enrolled students and a waiting list of 500 more. It was historically the fourth charter school in the state.
In after four short years after its creation in 2009, Socrates Academy received highest recognition as an Honor School of Excellence by the State of North Carolina. This means it is in the top tier out of the 2,450 public shools in North Carolina. It is the only charter school with an emphasis in Greek in the entire state.
Peroulas claims that what accounts for its success is its insistence on high standards, the parent and community approach it takes to governance, and the emphasis on service on the part of its Board members who are not paid and have no personal interest in the governing of the school. No board member can become a director so that there can be no conflict of interest. “We wanted to create a school to have a mind, to develop critical thinking through Greek by using the Socratic method for learning and emphasizing mathematics,” Peroulas states.
The curriculum at Socrates includes a two-hour block of Greek language daily and includes a math class taught in Greek. This emphasis on using Greek to explain math has become a model for other charter schools to follow. To foster cultural connections with Greece, all 7th graders of the school travel to Greece for the summer (some reluctantly want to come back.) While it started out as a predominantly ethnic Greek school, over the years, it has grown to include a diverse population. Currently ethnically Greek students make up only 20% of its body.
Like other charter schools, it relies on a lottery system whereby students make an application for acceptance and rely on chance for admittance when there are not enough seats to fill applications. Peroulas admits that charter schools might start out as insular and catering to one particular ethnicity, the state education department thought Socrates was a Greek school when it first started, they develop to become more inclusive and diverse.
“What you must understand is that the Greek heritage does not belong only to the Greeks,” Peroulas emphasizes, “it belongs to humanity. This is the beauty of Socrates Academy–we are creating philhellenes here. It is a global school that offers a window of opportunity to interact with the world and other cultures by promoting critical thinking and Greek language.”
Remarkable is its success rate at churning out Greek speakers. (Try to imagine an all-American boy or girl in middle school speaking fluent Greek.) It averages 83% on the official Greek language qualifying exams given by the Greek Ministry of Education. This results not only in six full college level credits for language but three credits in high school as well.
Socrates is faring so well it has plans to expand into a high school once building funds become secure.
Odyssey Charter School, Wilmington, Delaware
Dr Manolakis, director of Odyssey Charter school, was ecstatic that the school got approved for a $35 million bond to purchase a new home when we interviewed him in mid-February. “Demand is so strong for seats in our school,” Manolakis states.
What started as a Greek school founded by a group of AHEPIANS nine years ago in the Wilmington, Delaware area has exploded into an academic phenomenon. Delware has been on the forefront of the charter school movement as it has always had a strong demand for parental choice. The school has received the official designation as a “Recognition School” from the Delaware board of education. This garners it as one of the elite schools in Delaware. Dr Manolakis attributes its success to a combination formula of excellent teaching, a clear vision of its founders, the parental community, and its strong foundation in the classics.
Like Socrates Academy, Odyssey operates by giving students a daily dose of Greek language and culture along with core content classes in a nine block schedule. Like Socrates, it also features “Greek mathematics,” grade-level math explained in Greek along with a block of standard math taught in English. “This curriculum is very unique,” Manolakis explains. When fielding questions from non-Greek parents, such as “Why Greek? What is my child going to do with Greek?” Manolakis explains that research has shown when children grow up bi-lingual, the process of switching from one language to another in the brain develops the pre-frontal cortex, that area responsible for what is known as “executive functioning.” This in turn develops skills such as decision-making. Greek as the foundation of the sciences provides students with the vocabulary to do well in other core areas, even in English. But more than just the practical benefits of learning a second language, the driving force behind the creation of the school was the insistence on life-long learning and the inquiry approach along with other ideals of Hellenism, says Manolakis.
To be fair in acceptance, the school also uses an open lottery system where anybody in the state can apply. “We pull out names one by one out of a drum and it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, African-American, everyone has an equal chance of getting admitted,” Manolakis says.
While the school stops at the 7th grade, it is planning to add 8th grade the next academic year in 2016 and then high school by 2017. The goal is to reach 1,700 students in five years. The schol has more than doubled in two years, currently serving 940 students.
“Parental demand for a Greek charter school grounded in Hellenic ideals and the Greek language makes us unique in the state of Delaware,” Manolakis, both of whose parents were Greek, exclaims.”Odyssey is here trying to carry on the Hellenic tradition.”
Next up: An intimate look at Archimedian Academy, Miami, Florida
St Katherine’s College in San Diego, California
and HELP a charter-like after-school Greek language and culture program in Astoria