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Into the light

Friday, September 11, 2015  | 

With Labor Day in our rear view mirror, Greek-Americans are just awaiting the kick off for most Greek schools and Sunday schools this weekend and we will settle in for another long school year.  By mid-year we will once again be agonizing over whether we are effectively passing on our language, our traditions, our history.

In 2013, Andy Manatos started ringing the alarm bell over the future of our community and church in an article entitled, “Our Children Victims of Darkness?”  On almost every front — Greek school attendance, church stewardship, number of sacraments, Greek speaking households — the community appears to be in decline.  Still, despite overwhelming evidence and a pretty open discussion about where we are coming short, the community has not committed to a major “rethink” of how we educate our children or retain our identity (religious or cultural).

Even in this time of darkness, there are rays of light.  Perhaps one of the brightest is The Hellenic Classic Charter School (HCCS) in Brooklyn.  The HCCS’ story is not an uncommon one in today’s America.    It occupies the building that was originally home to Soterios Ellenas Parochial School (SES). Declining enrollment and financial struggles — an apparent hallmark of Greek American private schools across the country — hit SES hard, and the decision was made to close the parochial school.  But this wasn’t a mere surrender by the SES Community (which was associated with the adjoining Kimisis Tis Theotokou Church).  One of the members of the community, Charles Capetanakis, pushed for establishing a charter school.  To say that the HCCS that arose from that crisis has been a success would be an understatement.  More importantly, the HCCS represents a paradigm shift.

The paradigm HCCS is following takes Greek education and puts it on a grander stage — the public education system — with all the benefits that come along with that.  HCCS, with a public school system behind it, can compete for better teachers than can private Greek schools, has more support on a whole host of issues, and can allow its students to compete against (and be judged against) a larger peer group.  More importantly, it takes the teaching of the Greek language, of Greek culture, mythology and geography and applies the rigors and standards that our children would face studying any other subject at any other school.

HCCS is exceeding all expectations, and it is expanding.  As of the end of the last school year, the HCCS  facility now features a $8 million+ expansion.  It’s first Pre-Kindergarten class “stepped up” last year, and Principal Christina Tettonis, her faculty and staff remain as enthusiastic and aggressive as ever.

I am not writing this merely to heap well-earned praise on HCCS, but to use this example as a starting off point for a discussion that our community needs to start (and with a sense of urgency).  Retaining the Greek identity is going to require quite a bit of investment, because we have clearly fallen behind.  But we can no longer invest in outdated strategies and second rate facilities; we cannot offer our children less resources and fewer opportunities.  We have to stop accepting the talking points of entrenched interests in the present private Greek education system that criticize Greek charter schools for among other things serving too few Greek children and too many non-Greeks (all the while the attendance at these private schools plummets and even they are appealing to non-Greek students).

HCCS and other Greek charter schools have shown that there is an alternative.  It is time that we have a serious discussion about a sustained, community wide investment into such an alternative.  Yes, HCCS’s student population is only 25% Greek, but what if we opened 3 or 4 more HCCSs?  Won’t that serve more than a single Greek private school?  Won’t that create more philhellenes and allow our children to feel even more proud of their culture, language and history?  When more than 120 Turkish charter schools have been established in the United States, why are we not having a serious discussion about taking the HCCS model and exporting it to major metropolitan areas (many of which have significant Greek American populations)?

This past June, HCCS gave me the opportunity to see Hellenes and philhellenes (albeit in pre-Kindergarten) sing “Feggaraki Mou Lampro”.    HCCS is that Feggaraki and it is shining the way.  Our children don’t have to be the “victims of darkness”; the light is out there – we just have to open our eyes.

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