In Search of Community Priorities

By Edmond Y. Azadian

“The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of the cities, nor the crops — no, but the kind of man the country turns out.”

The quote above is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who issued the challenge to all leaders in charge of running countries or organizations or guiding communities.

Almost a century after being uprooted from our homeland, have we ever asked what kind of man or woman our community would turn out? Maybe the question has weighed heavily on the minds of some leaders but it does not seem that it has bothered us collectively, as we are paddling down the stream without concern about our destination.

To say the least, our community has its priorities backwards, yet we still hope for a positive outcome.

It was quite appropriate for the first Armenian settlers in America to build churches; the churches have played their role in preserving our faith and also our identity. However, ironically, the focus on church building has accelerated, even as the number of potential parishioners has dwindled. We continue building churches that have empty pews on Sundays, until we find another role for our houses of worship. Most have already become centers of civic activities, unrelated to the faith of the worshipers.

The Armenian Church in America has mostly abandoned its traditional responsibility of running schools, except for the Prelacy, in both California and Massachusetts. (The Armenian Catholic Church still follows the Catholic church’s tradition of founding schools, and in the US, it has schools in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California.)

The Armenian day school movement began fairly recently in America and it has already lost steam for a variety of reasons; some of the factors affecting the schools are beyond the reach of the community, whereas others can be helped. The important question is where to draw the line — to face the manageable factors intelligently and then claim that we did our best to keep the Armenian schools in operation, leaving the rest to the course of society’s irreversible currents.

It will be foolhardy to believe that to run an Armenian school in a globalized society is an easy task. But by the same token, to surrender responsibility because the challenges are great is not a choice, either.

The Armenian language is the fundamental ingredient of our identity. Some highly-motivated individuals will resort to virtual books or virtual colleges to learn the language, but the rest need to have access to Armenian schools, where language, history and culture are taught, but above all, provide an atmosphere that can awaken and strengthen Armenian consciousness.

In that sense, there is no alternative to the Armenian school; the alternative is only self-delusion.

To start an Armenian day school can only be done through vision. No matter how much an Armenian school spends on the material aspects of education, it will not match nor surpass private or public schools in the same neighborhood. The Armenian community in the US is affluent enough to meet the challenges, if it learns to set its priorities in the right order.

One of those visionaries was Gabriel Injejikian who opened the first Armenian school in America, to the amazement of the majority of the Armenians. Many organizations followed suit and today an entire network of schools is in operation from coast to coast. Most of the graduates have come to prove that in terms of professional success, they do not lag behind the graduates of public or private institutions, despite the scarcity of educational resources in their respective schools.

Most of the Armenian schools have fallen on hard times. Enrollments at some schools are declining and in some cases, the quality of the education is being compromised because of a lack of funds. One of those schools is the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s Arshag Dickranian School in Hollywood, Calif., which this September began its 34th academic year.

The Dickranian School has played a pivotal role in integrating generations of immigrant Armenians who have become successful citizens of the US. The school still plays an essential role in the growing community on the West Coast.

The eponymous late benefactor and his family have generously provided substantial funding. However, as the school’s enrollment continues to grow, more resources will be needed to meet basic needs.

Kirk Kerkorian’s Dream Fund today remains the major benefactor of Armenian schools in California. Kerkorian, a man who did not have the benefit of attending an Armenian school, believes in the role of that institution in preserving our heritage.

The same conviction has driven other benefactors to contribute to Armenian schools because they know they have a stake in building and preserving Armenian identity.

The Dickranian School is owned and operated by the Tekeyan Cultural Association. Since its founding, dedicated cadres of educational leaders and innovators have been running it.

As times get tough, the community has to be sensitized about the needs and challenges of the school. In the first place, the mobilization of Tekeyan members and friends will be required to set the pace for the rest of the community to help the school survive.

As the demographic profile of the community undergoes changes and as educational tools and methods become more sophisticated and expensive, they pose new challenges for the leaders who believe in Armenian education. Instead of giving up, they look to new alternatives. One such alternative is to have more community involvement in the public schools, where substantial numbers of Armenian students are enrolled. That can keep in place the instruction of the Armenian language at the state’s expense.

The other alternative is to explore the feasibility of charter schools. The Turks have been ahead of the Armenians by taking advantage of the possibilities in American educational system and they have already a network of charter schools founded by Fatullah Gulen in many states. Although they have abused the system and many Gulenist charter schools are under investigation in California, Illinois, and Arizona and in other states, making it harder for other groups to obtain licensing for new charter schools.

One exemplary school seems to be the Ararat Charter School in the Valley and others may be on the drawing board. It is embarrassing to admit that we need to learn from the Turks how to use the system to our advantage.

When we soberly prioritize our community needs, we see that the school and language remain at the top of the list, but not at the expense of dropping other priorities, which have their essential role in consolidating the Armenian identity.