Status of Armenian Schools in the Eastern Region

A Report by the AYF Eastern Region Central Language Council

OVERVIEW

The Central Language Council (CLC) is a newly-formed central council of the Armenian Youth Federation–Youth Organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (AYF-YOARF) Eastern Region. Its mission is to empower Armenian youth through the promotion of Armenian language use. As the representative of youth within the vibrant and evolving Armenian language space, CLC has a lot to learn from established organizations and institutions already working to cultivate our mother tongue in the diaspora.

CLC would like to recognize the formative and foundational role played by Armenian schools and their tremendously selfless faculty in serving as the bastions of Armenian language preservation and cultivation in the Eastern US for over a century. From small 15-student Saturday workshops to 700-student day schools, the self-sacrifice embodied by our largely volunteer Armenian teaching corps is in many ways unrivaled. Accordingly, we owe it to our teachers and our young Armenian-American generation to commit our communities to the pursuit of Armenian excellence through well-resourced and community-supported Armenian schools.

To this end, it is the objective of this report to turn the community’s eyes toward our schools in appreciation for where we are and in dedication to where we need to go. The report is a product of qualitative and quantitative data compiled from nine interviews, which included both day and one-day schools from all affiliations; these schools teach both Eastern and Western Armenian. 

CLC hopes that readers who engage with the report can develop a closer and more profound understanding of where and how the Armenian language is taught, the challenges Armenian schools and educators face, and the implemented and potential strategies that will serve to ensure a 21st century Armenian-American generation that lives with and takes ownership of its mother tongue. 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report seeks to ask and offer solutions to the following central question: how can our communities better support our schools based on their needs? First, big picture quantitative data on enrollment, teachers, curriculum and leadership is presented to depict the status of our schools in broad strokes. This data is then further detailed by what our school leaders expressed as four key challenges facing their institutions today: adapting to the pandemic, maintaining alumni engagement, providing engaging content and creating an environment for conversational Armenian. To address these and other challenges, the report communicates four opportunities for action that are in large part informed by school leader recommendations and best practices. Lastly, CLC presents its current role in the space and its next steps with a new Armenian book club and a virtual fundraiser.

BY THE NUMBERS

The CLC interviewed three day schools and six one-day schools. Please note that there are a total of five day schools and 15 one-day schools in the eastern region and the data shown below only includes data collected from the nine schools interviewed (exception: figures shown for “School Leadership” include data that was collected outside of interviews). Also note that “day school” refers to schools that provide instruction five days a week, while “one-day school” refers to Saturday or Sunday schools with Armenian language instruction.

Out of interviewed schools, 410 was the highest enrollment and 27 was the lowest. The average among the day schools was 203 and among the one-day schools 68.
Given the need for a next generation of Armenian teachers, schools were asked how many teachers they have below the age of 50. From interviewed schools, 38 percent of teachers are below 50 years old.
This graph offers the breakdown of all 20 schools in the eastern region by leadership. Most prelacy schools are centrally governed by the Armenian National Education Committee (ANEC). Diocese schools are usually locally-run and don’t have a central body. “Other” includes schools run by ARS, AGBU and private institutions.
This bar graph and the pie chart below depict the curriculum employed by our schools measured by 1) subjects taught in Armenian and 2) Armenian as a Second Language (ASL) programs. While schools always teach Armenian language in Armenian, other cultural subjects (e.g. Armenian history, dance, etc.) are at times taught in English. In total, 41 percent of cultural classes taught across all interviewed schools were taught in English. At the same time, 38 percent of schools offer Armenian language instruction in English as part of an ASL program.

KEY CHALLENGES

In addition to collecting quantitative data, CLC sought out the most pressing challenges facing school leaders and identified four key areas.

Administrative

Challenge 1: Adapting to the Pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, Armenian schools across the eastern region have experienced a hit in enrollment. More so than day schools, the pandemic has disproportionately affected one-day schools, which already struggle with low attendance and limited resources. Two one-day schools, for example, cited that their enrollment dropped by over 45 percent. While enrollment is expected to bounce back with a return to in-person learning, it is unclear how the negative impact of the pandemic on Armenian schools will affect attendance long-term. (See Opportunity 2).

Challenge 2: Maintaining Alumni Engagement

Educators repeatedly pointed toward a large gap in Armenian language exposure and retention experienced by Armenian-American students that takes place between graduation from Armenian school and “re-entry” into the Armenian language after college. Only two schools run until 12th grade in the region. This means that the vast majority of students stop Armenian language learning at 8th grade or below. Graduation from Armenian school is a crucial time to commit to the retention and application of language skills, especially for students who don’t live in Armenian-speaking households. However, the challenge of engaging alumni in Armenian school life post-graduation has been widely experienced in the region. (See Opportunity 3)

Pedagogical

Challenge 3: Providing Engaging and Culturally Relevant Content

Educators communicated that students are likely to learn best when the content is culturally relevant to their lived experiences. However, there seems to be an insufficient amount or overall lack of awareness surrounding ways to access content that speaks to the 21st century Armenian-American student. Engaging textbooks with culturally relevant short stories were frequently mentioned as difficult to locate, especially in Western Armenian. As a result, 50 percent of interviewed schools expressed that they have decided to teach some extent of Armenian history, literature or religion in English. (See Opportunity 1 and 4).

Challenge 4: Creating an Environment for Conversational Armenian

While students demonstrate strong reading and writing ability, educators discussed the central difficulty of helping students reach a conversational level of speaking Armenian. This challenge is compounded by the fact that Armenian proficiency is highly variable even within the same age group and that students have limited exposure to conversations in Armenian outside of school. (See Opportunity 1 and 3).

OPPORTUNITIES FOR ACTION

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, educational leaders in our community found creative ways to adapt and support our youth in Armenian language learning. The following opportunities for action stemmed from a diverse set of educators across the eastern region and can be applied not just to school settings, but Armenian communities as a whole. 

Opportunity 1: Rethink Curriculum 

    1. Leverage Fun: Support learning through exposure, games, content creation and entertainment in the school environment rather than repetition and rote memorization to better engage students. 
    2. Use Translation: Employ English-Armenian and Armenian-English translations as a means to strengthen students’ bilingualism.
    3. Be Relatable: Include Armenian-American Armenian language content, especially produced by Armenian-American youth, in class syllabus.
    4. Diversify Mediums: Support textbook readings with content from different mediums such as newspapers (old and new), poetry, songs, academic journal articles, program reports, legal writing (laws, case decisions, etc.), primary source texts, etc.
    5. Organize Competitions: Organize Armenian language competitions both within and between schools, like Armenian spelling bees, poetry recitations (asmoonk), creative writing, oration, geography, history, etc. 
  • Innovative Examples in the Community
    1. New pedagogical training that focuses on reimagining language instruction is taking place for Armenian language teachers via Zoom.
    2. Online exercises are being used instead of “paper and pencil” workbooks to provide students with easy-to-access practice.
    3. A school has students place Armenian and English versions of the same text next to each other when practicing reading in order to employ “learning through translation.”
    4. Book talks have been held with new Armenian-American authors of Armenian language content, but their work has yet to enter school curriculums.

Opportunity 2: Support the Next Generation of Educators

    1. Support Educators: Provide financial support or scholarships to students who want to pursue education and pedagogy, especially in the Armenian language.
    2. Be Open: Support the experimentation of new pedagogical methodologies. 
    3. Provide Incentives: Attract and retain young talent by providing competitive pedagogical training, continuing education, mentorship, and pay or perks.
    4. Build Partnerships: Build stronger working relations between Armenian schools and Armenian Studies departments of universities that provide programs and resources for Armenian language teaching credentials.
  • Innovative Example in the Community: A school runs a teacher’s assistant program for upperclassmen and alumni to gain experience teaching Armenian language.

Opportunity 3: Reimagine Language Retention 

    1. Engage Alumni: Develop programs to engage alumni who move on to middle school, high school or college and don’t actively use their Armenian until they become parents.
    2. Connect Alumni: Take advantage of videoconferencing to convene alumni in an Armenian language environment post-graduation.
    3. Foster Relations: Foster stronger relations between alumni and current students in mentoring, career development and professional capacities that center around Armenian language conversations, presentations and discussions.
  • Innovative Example in the Community: A school has a theater group with alumni who put on periodic plays in Armenian. 

Opportunity 4: Boost Attendance through Coalition Building

    1. Recruitment: Develop stronger relations with Armenian youth groups to recruit students
    2. Public Relations: Recruit the help of young Armenian community members to produce promotional videos and other content to market school to wider community.
    3. Accessibility: Provide support for families who live far but want their children to learn Armenian by offering transportation stipends, a school bus, carpool facilitation, etc. 
  • Innovative Example in the Community: A school has regular and constant relations with its local AYF chapter and leans on them for support in various school activities.

The AYF’s Role

As the newly-formed Central Language Council of the AYF-YOARF Eastern Region, we are eager to play an active role in increasing the use of Armenian language throughout our region. We have been hosting a weekly conversation hour called “Զրոյց Մրոյց – Zruyts Mruyts” for AYF members. We also introduced an Armenian language booth at the 2021 AYF Senior Olympics in Providence, Rhode Island and conducted an Armenian language workshop at the 2021 AYF Senior Seminar in Franklin, Massachusetts. 

On December 1st, we launched an Armenian-language e-book club called “Ընկերական Գրադարան – Ungeragan Krataran.” This program will serve two main goals: 1) improve participants’ Armenian language proficiency by reading and critically engaging with Armenian literature and 2) learn about Armenian literature by contextualizing author biographies and discussing narratives.

CLC would also like to announce that the AYF will be organizing a virtual fundraiser on social media named «Դեպի Դպրոց – Tebi Tbrots». All proceeds will go to an “Armenian School Tuition Scholarship” that will support selected Armenian-American youth in attending an Armenian school in their area.

With this report and “Tebi Tbrots,” the AYF-YORF Eastern Region has taken its initial steps in building partnerships with our schools and teachersan endeavor we are very excited to continue pursuing.

State City Type Name Year Founded
Massachusetts Watertown Day School St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School 1984
Michigan Southfield Day School AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School 1969
New Jersey New Milford Day School Hovnanian School 1976
New York Bayside Day School Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School 1967
Pennsylvania Radnor Day School Armenian Sisters Academy 1967
Maryland Bethesda One-Day Hamasdegh School 1968
Washington, DC Tenleytown One-Day Shnorali School 1973
Florida Boca Raton One-Day St. David’s Armenian School
Florida Hollywood (Miami) One-Day St. Mary’s Armenian School
Illinois Chicago One-Day Taniel Varoujan Armenian School 1966
Maryland Baltimore One-Day Baltimore Armenian School 1986
Massachusetts Watertown One-Day St. James’ Armenian School 1923
Massachusetts Watertown One-Day St. Stephen’s Armenian Saturday School 1937
Massachusetts North Andover One-Day St. Gregory Armenian School
Michigan West Bloomfield One-Day ARS Zavarian Armenian School 1942
New Jersey Ridgefield One-Day Nareg Armenian School 1960
New Jersey Paramus One-Day Sipan Armenian School 1978
New Jersey Tenafly One-Day Kirikian Armenian School of St. Thomas Armenian Church 1961
New Jersey Fair Lawn One-Day St. Leon Armenian School 1935
New York Douglaston One-Day St. Sarkis Suzanne and Hovsep Hagopian Saturday School
New York Woodside One-Day St. Illuminator Armenian School
Philadelphia Pennsylvania One-Day Haigazian Armenian School 1938
Rhode Island Providence One-Day Mourad Armenian Saturday School 1934
Rhode Island Providence One-Day Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian School 2016
Wisconsin Racine One-Day ARS Marzbed Armenian School

Editor’s Note, December 29, 2021: St. Stephen’s Armenian Saturday School was added to the list of available Armenian programs in the eastern region. We apologize for this omission.

Editor’s Note, December 29, 2021, 12:02 p.m. ET: Haigazian Armenian School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was added to the list of available Armenian programs in the eastern region. We apologize for this omission.

Editor’s Note, January 5, 2022, 8:21 p.m. ET: It was brought to the CLC’s attention that the following four programs were excluded from the original list: St. Sarkis Suzanne and Hovsep Hagopian Saturday School in Douglaston, New York; ARS Marzbed Armenian School in Racine, Wisconsin; St. Gregory Armenian School in North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Founded in 1933, The Armenian Youth Federation is an international, non-profit, youth organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). The AYF-YOARF Eastern United States stands on five pillars that guide its central activities and initiatives: Educational, Hai Tahd, Social, Athletic and Cultural. The AYF also promotes a fraternal attitude of respect for ideas and individuals amongst its membership. Unity and cooperation are essential traits that allow members of the organization to work together to realize the AYF’s objectives.
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@AYFeast

AYF-YOARF | ՀԵԴ Armenian Youth Federation - Eastern Region USA Հայ Երիտասարդաց Դաշնակցութիւն - ԱՄՆ Արեւելեան Շրջան
ՀԵՄ-ի Ընկերներուս Կողքին #Resistance https://t.co/auqOGWGh1F - 3 days ago

3 Comments

  1. I think the leaders of these schools should be sent to the West coast ARMENIAN schools for professional and social development. Some of the pedagogical strategies at KZV ARMENIAN school in San Francisco are using 21st century skills and perhaps the east coast schools would benefit by sending the Armenian language teachers to San Francisco and LA to observe the excellent ARmenian instruction in the prelacy schools.

  2. Thanks for this survey information. Considering there are so few Armenian high schools and there is such a severe drop in Armenian language retention among alumni of Armenian elementary and middle schools, I think those schools should seriously consider establishing after school Armenian language programs for their alumni.

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