By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN — The refrain is always that the Armenian language is in retreat in the United States, and in the diaspora in general. Western Armenian is even considered an endangered language by many. Still, here and there we can see some bright spots. St. James Erebuni Armenian School is one of them.
It is a Saturday school with a growing enrollment that provides a broader series of cultural and social events and a support network for students and parents. It is the result of a merger last September between the previously independent Erebuni School and the St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian School Saturday language programs at St. James. It provides programs for children from the pre-school to the eighth-grade level. Classes are three hours weekly.
Like many other Armenian institutions, there is a long and complex history behind it. Fr. Arakel Aljalian, the pastor of St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, said that the Saturday school that was part of the church was independently founded more than 90 years ago, and actually preceded the establishment of the church by a decade. It was founded by the wife of the editor of Baikar, the Armenian-language sister publication of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, and for many years the classes were held in the Armenian Democratic Liberal club.
Decades ago, there were as many as 300 to 400 students but these numbers declined over the years. When Aljalian first became pastor at St. James 16 years ago there were 40 to 50 students, and these numbers declined further to 18. Until the merger, only Western Armenian was offered. The church has Sunday schools that are completely in English and Western Armenian night classes for adults.
Meanwhile, the Erebuni School was started in 1988 in Belmont by some parents who felt the need for Eastern Armenian language instruction in the Boston area. The Armenian Society of Boston, an organization established by the Iranian-Armenian community, was its sponsor.
Over the years, the mix of students shifted from Iranian-Armenians to more and more Armenians from the Republic of Armenia and Russia. Armine Manukyan, who began teaching there as a volunteer in 2002, was asked to take over as principal in 2008 after a period of declining enrollment.
Born in Armenia to a family of educators, Manukyan obtained a master’s degree in education and human development from Yerevan State University, and a second master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 2013. She became a licensed principal through the Massachusetts Department of Education during the same year.
Manukyan has presided over Erebuni’s revitalization. The enrollment consistently rose from 24 students in 2008 to over 150 in 2016.
At St. James, Fr. Aljalian said that he was not happy about the situation with the church’s Saturday school. Then he learned about the Erebuni School, he said, “doing so well, but having to rent from an odar church in Belmont. I said to myself, we have the facilities here, and our own student numbers are not enough.” Manukyan said that some parents, Gary Markosyan in particular, initiated the dialogue with the church.
A meeting was set up. Aljalian said, “Obviously Armine Manukyan is the real force behind the success of the Erebuni School, and so it was clear that she would remain principal.” Agreement was reached on logistics, and Erebuni, now with St. James as part of its name, began last year to be integrated into the operational structure of the parish and the Diocese to which the latter belongs.
Manukyan declared, “The church and the school work together in the diaspora to keep the language and heritage. To have one school with two dialects is tremendous.” Aljalian, concurring, said “Seeing the place full of children was the whole point. We tried to establish something unique, and decided to offer both Eastern and Western Armenian dialects.”
Things have gone so well that the church had to open up a new classroom, and started running out of space. The numbers of young students in particular are increasing, as there seems to be a wave of immigrants who have started new families. The school continues to do its own fundraising, and in general has to be self-supporting financially. The church has agreed to step in in case of a crisis.
When Manukyan began her tenure as principal, two types of textbooks were being used, Iranian-Armenian grammars, and books from the Republic of Armenia. In 2008, she switched completely to the latter. She established close relationships with educators in Armenia. She went to an annual seminar there in 2012 organized by the Armenian Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Diaspora for teachers and principals.
In turn, she annually sends lists of new materials she requests from Armenia, especially visual aids and interactive games, which are donated by the Armenian government ministries. To ensure their transportation, Manukyan gets her teachers or other volunteers going to Armenia in the summer to bring the new materials to the US, as the mailing system does not always work well.
Fun games like Armenian Jeopardy are played in the higher grades, and presentations are made with projectors. DVDs and flash cards are used in lower grades.
Though the goal is to teach the Armenian language, there is a cultural component to the curriculum. In the higher-level classes, Armenian history, the Armenian Genocide, and basic information on Christianity and the Armenians is presented, including holiday celebrations.
The students at the school vary not only in the dialect of Armenian they speak, but also in their initial knowledge of that language. Manukyan said, “We have a lot of kids from mixed families, so many don’t even speak Armenian before they come here. For the kids who struggle with their language abilities, we have volunteer parents. We pull the kids out of the classroom and give them one-on-one tutoring.”
In addition, in order to follow the progress of the children and insure their improvement, Manukyan has created a chart from day one to the end of the school year in June to monitor each child.
The school attempts to only keep qualified teachers. There are four Western Armenian teachers, 12 Eastern Armenian teachers, and a music teacher, in addition to the principal and six teacher’s aides. Some of the latter are graduates of Erebuni.
Some of the teachers are pursuing their master’s degrees in education. Others have many years of teaching experience in Armenia and backgrounds in philology or history. Most of the teachers have children in the school now, which, no doubt, adds to their dedication.
In addition to offering more class hours per week than many other Saturday schools, a more advanced teaching methodology is used. Manukyan said, “We have to be creative to make children want to come to school. We try to make learning fun. We do professional development.” Teachers share the methods they find work best, and many obtain new materials from teachers they know in schools in the Republic of Armenia. Every grade has its own curriculum, but the teachers make a lot of extra materials.
Manukyan said, “It is very important for our community to understand the scope of the work involved. It is seven days of preparation for a one-day school.”
In the coming year, Manukyan promised to focus more on Western Armenian instruction. New updated textbooks and materials have been obtained through the Ministry of the Diaspora in Armenia, but more instructional aids and audiovisual materials are needed. Manukyan said, “I want to encourage more Western Armenian families to come to the school. The third generation of Western Armenian speakers are losing their heritage. We can provide them with an opportunity to get involved.”
During the breaks each week, students learning Western and Eastern Armenian can play together. The music classes, field trips and school events also allow interaction between the two groups of students.
The school does not just offer formal language lessons. Music classes are part of curriculum. The 15 classrooms are divided into 4-5 groups, who receive half an hour of music each week. They usually learn Armenian folk and modern songs. In addition, Zangakner Performing Arts Ensemble, an affiliated but independent organization established by Hasmik Konjoyan, holds optional classes teaching song and dance from 9 to 10 a.m. before formal instructional hours. Erebuni also usually has a year-end special hantes where children perform pieces connected with Armenian culture and literature.
Extracurricular activities, including afterschool programs, field trips and social events, provide an added dimension for improving language skills and learning about Armenian culture. The stated goal is “to preserve the heritage of the Armenian people, language, culture, traditions and religion.”
Periodically special guests come to lecture to the students. For example, the renowned journalist Stephen Kurkjian came to the school on April 30. In the past, the Armenian Club members from Boston College came to speak to the older grades, and share experiences about being Armenian in college.
Field trips have been organized to the Armenian Museum of America and a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are many social events, which are important not only for the children, but for the parents to get to know one another.
In addition to its primary Armenian component, the school attempts to help its students educationally in a broader sense to grow as individuals and to do well in American schools. It may add optional free math enrichment classes after the Armenian classes, and already has a chess club. There may be other types of clubs, such as in Lego Robotics or computer programming, which may be organized after the formal school ends.
The school is also active in broader educational circles. It is hosting the Northeast Armenian Teachers Seminar on May 7 at St. James Armenian Church (2 to 4:30 p.m.). While it is primarily for teachers, anybody can attend.
Tuition is kept as low, and special arrangements can be made for very recent immigrants. In order to make up for this, various events have been organized as fundraisers. Several were done together with the Amaras Art Alliance. Parent participation in these events is vital.
Frequent ongoing communication is maintained with parents through a monthly newsletter on developments in the classrooms, as well as a Facebook page and a website (www.erebunischool.org and http://stjameswatertown.org/organizations/schools/armenian-school/). Weekly emails are sent to parents. Individual teachers also send emails to classroom parents.