By Alin Gregorian
WATERTOWN — By mid-September, St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School (SSAES) will throw open the doors of its new 6,000-square-foot addition, built to accommodate its growing student body as well as provide more instructional and recreational spaces for current students.
The projected cost of the construction is $1.3 million; through a variety of fundraising activities, the school is on target with the project’s funding. Creative means for raising money have included a phone drive by recent graduates and selling bricks with students’ names, which will pave the walkway in front of the building. Avak Kahvejian, the president of the Board of Directors of SSAES, said the project is timely. The bulk of the SSAES campus — kindergarten through fifth grade — is located inside the Armenian Educational and Cultural Center (ACEC) on Nichols Avenue. Under the plan, the existing nursery building on Elton Avenue housing pre-nursery through two nursery grades — will expand into the site of a now-demolished house next to it, which St. Stephen’s Armenian Church, the parent organization of the school, had bought long ago, with a future expansion in mind.
Construction of the addition to the nursery building began immediately upon the conclusion of the school term in June. The school will open on time in early September, but the kindergarten classes will relocate to their new home in the new addition later in the month.
Houry Boyamian, the principal of SSAES, praised the expansion effort. “The expansion will give us the opportunity to breathe here. It is so congested. There is no room for growth. This solves our capacity issues and also give us the opportunity to participate in new programs,” she explained.
When the expansion is completed, the building will accomodate about 60 students, roomy enough to add more nursery classes as well as be the new building for kindergarten classes. There will be four new classrooms and on the basement level, a large activities area for flexible use by all students.
“The idea isn’t to add classes, but to relieve student density and prevent overcrowding at the ACEC building,” Kahvejian said. “Spreading out students will allow us to split classrooms. The demand is there. We have had to put some students on a waiting list.”
The expanded facilities, Kahvejian added, will also help create necessary space for elementary students to participate in the programs for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Initiative, for which the school has received a $10,000 planning grant from the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust. The new additional space will allow the elementary division to have a science lab.
With the new lab, “The kids can experiment, collect data, and analyze them,” Boyamian said, thus meeting STEM criteria. In addition, the additional space can help with the increasing number of toddlers participating in the Mayrig and Me and Manoog and Me music programs.
Currently the school has almost 180 students. The incoming kindergarten class will have 26 students, first grade 20 and second grade 21 students, making it the first year there will be two classes for the second graders.
“The trend is that at the elementary level, every grade will have two classes,” Boyamian explained. “I’m very excited. I’m very happy. This shows growth.”
Noted Kahvejian, “These projects are very important. The diaspora is an important part of the Armenian community. Half of the Armenian population lives outside Armenia. We are one nation and spread out. It is imperative to support the
schools” in order to prevent the loss of Armenian identity in the diaspora.
Kahvejian is happy with the pace of the construction as well as the execution of the expansion. “Many people thought we couldn’t be successful. There was a lot of skepticism.”
Boyamian said the school has produced 236 graduates. “When we started, all the students in grades nursery to fifth were in this building [the ACEC]. Then, when it wasn’t feasible, the church gave us a building and we added five classes” for the nursery students, moving them out of the ACEC. “Some asked if we could fill it. Within two to three years, we had to add another classroom,” she explained. Now, again, the school has reached a similar situation.
The private, pre-nursery-Grade 5 elementary school, which was founded in 1984 with a handful of students, received an award from Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora in 2010 as “Best Armenian School” in the diaspora. It is the only Armenian day school to be fully accredited by the Association of Independent Schools in New England, the accrediting body for independent elementary schools in the region.
For more information about the school, visit ssaes.org.