St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School Marks Quarter Century


The staff and the students at St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School

WATERTOWN, Mass. — St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School (SSAES) is celebrating its 25th anniversary, on Saturday, November 20, with a glittering gala at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, featuring Dr. Joyce Shushan Barsam as keynote speaker.

Since opening its doors with a handful of students in 1984, St. Stephen’s has become a vital force in the Armenian-American community of greater Boston. The school emphasizes a rigorous bilingual program in a warm atmosphere of family and community. Students receive an in-depth instruction of the Armenian language, culture and history in addition to the high level of education provided at any top private school.

In 2003, the prestigious Association of Independent Schools in New England (AISNE) accredited the school, making it the only Armenian school in the region to achieve this status.

Since 2004, every fifth-grade graduating class takes a two-week field trip to Armenia as part of their curriculum. The trip connects students to their ancestral homeland and creates a lasting bond between them.

Said the school’s principal of 23 years, Houry Boyamian, “We are passionate about the school. I am putting in a lot of effort to keep us on such a high level that parents would not hesitate to enroll their children. We have many second-, third- or fourth-generation American-Armenians who bring their children here, in order to foster their Armenian spirit while giving them a first-rate education.”

The school keeps up with the latest educational approaches, and the students consistently achieve top marks in the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

Many of St. Stephen’s graduates go on to receive their higher education at world-class universities, including the London School of Economics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts and Dartmouth.

Currently, the school has about 180 students, many of whom live in communities with excellent public school systems.

A recent study by Harvard University showed the importance of a strong kindergarten education, as well as the impact of a rigorous academic curriculum at a very young age, on the future of students. In addition, studies have shown that learning a second language at a young age can increase a student’s creative and complex thinking, as well as develop neural pathways more fully. Part of that rigorous yet child-friendly education at SSAES is a full-immersion bilingual education.

The school has experienced an organic growth; within the past decade, it has added a separate nursery building, to accommodate the growing list of enrollees. Housed in the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center, the elementary school has established thanks to its Armenian character, academic strength, devoted staff and low student-to-teacher ratio.

Dr. Joyce Barsam

The gala committee members have expressed their joy that Barsam has agreed to be the keynote speaker at the affair. Barsam has been deeply engaged in teaching and education throughout her life. She received her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from Tufts University, majoring in French literature, and acquired her secondary school teaching certification, but also taught foreign languages in the elementary schools. After receiving a master’s degree in French from Stanford University, she taught language and literature at Cardinal Cushing College, where she served as chair of the Foreign Language Department.

After her marriage to Dr. Paul Barsam and when the last of her three children had entered first grade, she returned to Tufts University to complete her PhD degree in French literature. She has subsequently been on the faculty at Tufts and Northeastern University.

She has been active in numerous community organizations from being a founding member of the board of the Zoryan Institute, vice chair of the National Center for Genocide Studies, board member of the Friends of Armenian Culture Society and a consultant to the Town of Belmont foreign language curriculum committee.

Elected to a 10-year term as Trustee of Tufts University from 1994-2004, she served as chair of its Academic Affairs Committee and has been appointed Life Trustee Emerita. She has also served for 20 years on the Tufts Board of Overseers for Arts and Sciences and is currently an active member of the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Since 1997 she has been vice president and trustee of the Tavitian Foundation, Inc., whose primary mission is to provide academic scholarships to students of Armenian descent. From 1999 to the present, Dr. Barsam has brought together the resources of the Tavitian Foundation and the Fletcher School by creating advanced certificate graduate training programs for young professionals from Armenia’s government ministries and agencies.

St. Stephen’s Students Recall their Time at the School

Of course, there are many intervening years between when a student graduates from SSAES at fifth grade and when they reach college, but several alumni attributed their successes to learning skills and disciple first exercised at SSAES.

Vazrik Chiloyan, a 2000 graduate of SSAES, is currently a senior at MIT, double-majoring in mechanical engineering and physics. He said, “For me, St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School gave me the academic discipline I needed to excel in school after elementary school. I remember even in middle school I took my work very seriously, always trying to put forth my best effort and taking the extra time to check over my work rather than just completing it and turning it in. I am really grateful to have gone to the school so that I could keep my Armenian language strong.”

Another graduate, Armine Nalbandian, a 1996 graduate of the school and a Fulbright Scholar, concurred: “I think St. Stephen’s actually made a huge difference in my approach to learning. Though I can’t say I was the best student while I was there, I have such incredibly fond memories of not only my classmates (many of whom I still keep in touch with), but also the teachers. The attentive instruction, small classsizes and incredible community feel just cannot compare to the experience most students at that age have. I clearly remember my third grade teacher describing my unique learning style to my inquiring mother, a very important observation that is true to the way I learn to this day. I would definitely say that knowing how to learn a second language was important and the knowledge I gained of Armenian at St. Stephen’s has stuck with me to this day. St. Stephen’s isn’t just a school, it truly is a fantastic community and I hope that my kids can be part of it as well in the future.”

Her sister, Ani, concurs. “In a short period of time, SSAES helped teach me the focus and motivation I needed to succeed within the public school system. Having moved from Yerevan only one year prior to my entry into SSAES, I was quickly surrounded by the appropriate nurturing environment and educational atmosphere, which helped foster a strong foundation and build the skill set I needed to thrive. I am grateful for the lessons learned and the community created at SSAES by both my teachers and my peers.”

To secure a brighter future for the school, the board and the administration have organized the gala.

Boyamian said the school keeps up with the latest educational approaches. She also praised the school’s parents, who “through their love and care” help the school with regular fundraising. Rouzan Abrahamian, co-chair of the gala committee, said, “This gala will celebrate the school’s past, but will aim to make its future even more brilliant. Truly, we want to live up to our slogan for this event, ‘opening doors to a bright future.’”

Added Boyamian, “I have seen the journey of this school and I am very, very happy with its progress. It is a vital and critical institution. The support of the larger community will ensure another 25 successful years.”

For tickets to the gala, call the school or write to gala@ssaes.org. To learn more about the school or the schedule to a tour of the school, visit www.ssaes.org.