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Krouzian-Zekarian-Vasbouragan Armenian School banquet keynote address

Address by Dickran Kouymjian, November 9, 1996, San Francisco

We are here to celebrate another anniversary of the Krouzian Zekarian Vaspouragan School, well near the end of its second decade of providing a special style of education to a special group of students.

We are also here to participate collectively in the ritual of the annual school banquet. Such gatherings, whether associated with Armenian schools, the church, political parties, cultural associations, university chairs, or humanitarian aid, have become the unifying, and even the identifying, elements of Armenian communities living in urban diasporas all over the world. We meet old friends and make new ones as we work to perpetuate a national culture through these annual events and the institutions they support.

It is strange to observe that as Armenians living outside the ancestral homeland our life is at least in part defined by banquets and celebrations. Strange, because we cannot imagine American life being defined by banquets, picnics, charity balls, or cultural gatherings. We understand this well. It is part of belonging to an ethnically conscious minority in a large nation like America.

As a group within a group we are forced to satisfy the demands of the larger environment, our city, state, and nation, and at the same time the more reduced, more immediate one of Armenian community, church, and school. We have the privilege and the joy of celebrating both, and this duality has become natural to us. We play the different roles without reflection, and we are richer for it.

This banquet is a celebration of another year of hard work completed for the Krouzian Zekarian School, but it also marks the beginning of twelve more months of planning, meetings, fund raising, and of course administrating, teaching, and learning for its students. It is one more ritualistic gathering which defines us, allows us to be together, shows us that we are not alone in the work, provides us the energy and the motivation to move forward, to continue another year, to strive to have an even better school. To provide and elite education to any student whatever the resources of their family. Because you are here, you are already committed to this ideal. Let me then try to offer a few reflections about the idea of Armenian schools in America and elsewhere, to assess the meaning of this phenomenon.

The Krouzian Zekarian Vaspouragan School is now an important resource, one that belongs to the Armenian community and church, which itself belongs to the community. It is our collective property, providing a special education to a minority within a minority. How can we define or explain this school? In order to understand it better sometimes it is useful to compare such an institution to others like it. Let us for a moment compare the Armenian School of San Francisco to School Number 130 in Erevan, Armenia. How are they similar and how different? Each of you can immediately think of likenesses. Armenian is the language of both school, but instruction is also in English, in San Francisco out of necessity, in Erevan out of choice, since English is gradually replacing Russian as the second language. The students in both schools are Armenian, and most of the teachers and staff too. There is a national, perhaps even a nationalistic, orientation of the curriculum in both, and certain subjects are similar in content, for example history and literature, as well as math and science. The differences are harder to define because we confront the issue of how schools in Armenia should function versus how they actually survive under the difficult conditions of the new Republic. I am interested in what should be and what we hope will be. School No. 130 in Erevan is maintained by the state, it has a budget to provide proper resources for adequate staffing and teaching, it is part of a system of schools with experts in education designing long and short term programs supervised by trained professionals from the Ministry of Education. It has specially designed textbooks on all levels and in all subjects. On the other hand, parents have little or no say about the curriculum or school policy. There is not a close, symbiotic relationship between administration, faculty, students, and parents that we find in the Krouzian Zekarian school. The student body in School 130 of Erevan is homogeneous, all were born in Erevan and so were their parents, and probably their grandparents, too. In the San Francisco Armenian school, though many of the students were born in the Bay area, their parents are often from other countries; there is diversity. And if we compare Krouzian Zekarian to other schools outside of Armenia, in Beirut or Aleppo or Istanbul or Tehran, would we not find the same kind of similarities and differences, except that in these countries an Armenian school belong to a well defined, long established, semi-autonomous micro-system within the educational structure of the larger nation. We do not need to draw conclusions from these comparisons, but simply to note them so that we can think about where Krouzian Zekarian fits, in the global network of Armenian education.

Of course we could and should also compare the San Francisco Armenian school with American schools right here in the Bay Area. The diversity of origin of the students and especially the parents of students in Krouzian Zekarian is much closer to that in public schools here than to schools in Armenia or Armenian schools in the Middle East, and we need to remember that too. It is important to remember that there are many options for Armenian parents in the United States with school age children. They can send them to public school, a variety of private American schools, or to a private Armenian American school. The same choices do not exist in Armenia, though in higher education there is now the private American University of Armenia. In Lebanon and Syria, perhaps also in Iran, there are French and English schools, private of course, and in each of these countries also national schools with primary instruction in Arabic or Persian or Turkish. A private school in any country, even though it is outside the public, government supported and government directed school system, still prepares its pupils to be educated and responsible citizens of the country in which it is situated.

The San Francisco Armenian School is not preparing young people to return to Armenia or somewhere else, other spot in the world, but to live and work here in America. It has, however, an additional function: to teach a difficult language and instill cultural values of a heritage in order to help guarantee the vitality of that language and tradition. We know very well what we expect of Armenian schools in America: that they offer a good, in fact superior, American education, while providing an excellent Armenian one. We expect the students to accommodate themselves to this double course of instruction, as we demand that the administrators and teachers in the institution effectively provide this two fold opportunity.

Each student upon leaving Krouzian Zekarian Vaspouragan will one enter a purely American high school and then college. We hope and expect that each will be an outstanding achiever. In this we have not been let down by this or other Armenia schools. Graduates as a group have consistently out performed the average American high school or college student in this country, a tribute to the collective effort of an entire Armenian community united around a single school. But the problems associated with the performing of this miracle, year after year, are dramatic. The Bay Area is a highly professional one, and citizens here expect and demand professionalism. Thus, teachers and administrators at an Armenian school must be fully versed in both the American system of education and competent and well informed in Armenian language, history, and culture. We demand of them a certain rigor, but fear an over rigidity in style, one more closely associated with the discipline demanded in schools in the Near East and Armenia (and if we think about it in American schools at the beginning of this century), because as Americans we encourage a kind of education that teaches creativity, independence, and critical thinking, rather that learning by rote or memory. And yet, we are confronted with a paradox, for in our schools, and one might add in our churches, the demands of Armenian language instruction, or church service in Armenian, require the employment of competent teachers (and Priests) who were trained for the most part elsewhere in systems that are different , sometimes radically so, from those of the public and private schools in the United States. How have we overcome this dilemma? In part by working harder, by creating parallel structures for the Armenian and the American parts of the instruction in our schools. It is a dilemma from which we cannot escape as long as Armenian language skills are deemed fundamental to the definition of an Armenian school. So far that has been the primary definer and one cannot imagine a change in that perception soon. So what is to be done? First, of course, to continue to do what we have been doing: Giving our money, volunteering our time, and sending our children to the school. But beyond this, it is important to periodically come together as we have done this evening to confront the school's reality, to understand how it all works, to review the problems, face them clearly and devise a strategy, but also to rejoice in the accomplishments of the students and their teachers. The extraordinary strength of the Armenian school derives not only from the concern and loyalty of the parents, of its students, but perhaps even more, as I have already said, from the commitment of the entire community of which these parents and their children form a vital part, a community in which the graduates of the Krouzian Zekarian Vaspouragan School will play a special role. What else can we do? Demand accountability. It is our school so we can let the administration know what we want.

Outspoken opinion, even when demanding, will empower the administration and the teachers. It will permit them in turn to demand of parents and the community support in two major ways: regular and appropriate funding, and promotion of the school by encouraging friends and relatives with children to take advantage of the unique twofold education that the Armenian School provides. We should never forget that quality education is closely related to resources. It is no accident that the best American Universities -- Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton -- have the largest endowments. Perhaps it is time to endow the Armenian School of San Francisco. I have always thought the easiest way to start such an endowment is to add an endowment surtax, say 10%, 5% even 1%, to everything -- fund drives, tuition, banquets too, for instance a donation of $105 -- so that income bearing funds accumulate to provide budget stability. Imagine if that had been done 17 years ago! For parents and for students, public education is often an abstraction over which they seem to have no direct control. In a community school, even when only a small minority from the community takes advantage of it, there is the luxury, and of course the burden, of total control. The Armenian school forges a remarkable bond where each student becomes the concern of the entire group, very much like the nurturing a family provides for each of its members. Furthermore, a school like Krouzian Zekarian is a reflection of an entire community whether or not all the members support it. It is imperative, therefore, that the pan-community dimension of the school be constantly stressed. After seventeen years a continuity in Armenian education has been established in San Francisco and you are part of that. Today it is your task to ensure that your school is financed and administered as best it can be. In the years to come it will be the task of others, who will come together for banquets like this one, amazed that the Krouzian Zekarian Vaspouragan school has survived so well and for so long, providing a caring and elite education. Others will do just as you have already done and continue to do: give generously to the school, while demanding accountability from administration, faculty, and students by talking about their plans, asking how you can help, letting them know that their problems are also your problems.

During the coming years the concerns will be the same, but through engaged involvement, the mission of the school will become clearer, and the comfort gained by collective effort will assure us that things are moving in the right direction and that the community's children, indeed, America's children, will continue to enjoy the rewards and privileges of going to the Krouzian Zekarian Vaspouragan Armenian School.

Thank you.

Source: Armenian Studies, 1996

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