BY RAZMIG SARKISSIAN
On September 13, 1965, Armenian Mesrobian School, the nation’s first full-time Armenian elementary school opened its doors. In 1975, Mesrobian School graduated its first High School class. Today the school continues to thrive and innovate its way into the future in its 50th year of service with the leadership of a Mesrobian graduate, Principal David Ghoogasian (Class of ’82), who is continuing Mesrobian’s legacy of tradition, innovation and excellence into the 21st century. Armenian Mesrobian School will continue to celebrate its half-century of education and service to the community with a 50th Anniversary Gala, which will take place on Saturday, February 20, 2016, at Armenian Apostolic Holy Cross Cathedral’s Bagramian Hall.
Principal Ghoogasian is an educational consultant/trainer and school improvement facilitator, who has a rich background in education, which includes teaching, counseling, administration, and professional development. The University of California, San Diego, Irvine, and Riverside education extension programs are among the schools through which Ghoogasian has taught and trained. He has presented nationally and internationally for public, private, and independent schools, school organizations, school districts, institutions of higher learning, conferences, and the corporate world, where his counsel continues to be sought on improving learning and schools.
He is a member of the Gift and Talented Education (GATE) and Professional Teaching certificate program advisory boards at UCI Extension. He has served on visiting committees for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Schools and has been a member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the California Association for the Gifted (CAG). Among the areas of emphasis in his training and consultation are the classroom applications of brain research, learning styles, teaching styles, multiple intelligence theory, differentiated instruction, critical thinking, classroom management, mindset, and emotional intelligence.
Armenian Mesrobian School, established in 1965, is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and has High School (12th Grade) through Nursery School (2 years old) on the same campus. Mesrobian’s environment offers a unique opportunity for students, teachers, and parents to grow together.
RAZMIG SARKISSIAN: How is Mesrobian innovating the field of education and what is your general approach?
DAVID GHOOGASIAN: We’ve changed the conversation around education. We’re not just looking for the next iteration of what we already have, but rather a new paradigm of learning that takes into account cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral economics, a blended learning/mastery approach enhanced by technology, etc. Mesrobian is redefining pedagogical approaches to help students develop the critical and analytical skills to prepare them for a rapidly evolving 21st century economy and careers that do not yet exist.
We want students to not only survive school or simply get by, but to thrive. An emphasis on academics goes without saying, but we also know we need much more than academics alone to have success in life. School is not a rehearsal for life, school is life. Every student here is an individual and is treated as such. We want nobody to fall through the cracks. Our teachers talk with students not to them as though they are objects. We have dedicated and caring teachers, staff, parents, board and community members along with very good relationships with our church and Armenian Center. Parents are offered education workshops to equip them with resources to better raise their child. Students, teachers and parents remain in constant communication to ensure there are no sides, in the classroom or at home. Ultimately, students will do well if given the opportunity.
R.S.: What are Mesrobian’s approaches to student behavior and how does it reflect your views on discipline in schools and society?
D.G.: One of my fundamental philosophies on this topic is that you have to start with the following question: ‘What do you think about the nature of human beings?’ Are they inherently bad and need to be managed? Or are they inherently good and will do good if given the opportunities?
When children or adolescents come into a school not knowing how to read, the school strives to teach them how to read. When they don’t know how to add or subtract, the school strives to teach them how to add or subtract. When they come in and don’t know how to behave, schools punish them — and when they do that it doesn’t serve them or the school well. Students need to learn to behave properly and appropriately and to regulate their own behavior. When rules are too rigid, placing too many detailed demands on people, they tend not to know how to act on their own.
Woven in everything we do are the principles of education, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, social psychology, sociology, communication and a number of other fields. No one field has the answer to all that is needed in education and this is why so many educational systems fall short. But when you draw from all of these fields, which is what I do in my practice, you have enough answers to move forward, and that’s what we’re doing.
Fairly simple principles that seem counterintuitive, when applied properly, bring about major change. What you’ll see at Mesrobian is innovation that’s not only changing the face of Armenian education but education itself.
There has been no need for detention or suspension for two years. Student behavior has improved and students are happier. Academic achievement has improved. Student population has increased significantly.
R.S.: Mesrobian is receiving quite a lot of attention and has increased enrollment by an estimated 47% since 2013. Which areas are new students coming to Mesrobian from?
D.G.: Mesrobian has grown significantly since June of 2013 and it is still growing…even mid year. Families across Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, and Orange Counties are converging upon the school as the fruits of our labor continue to spread. Families come from Montebello, Pico Rivera, Whittier, Pasadena, Glendale, Azusa, La Habra Heights, Hacienda Heights, Burbank, Rosemead, Duarte, Downey, Chino Hills, West Covina, San Dimas, Arcadia, La Puente, Huntington Beach, Glendora, and Rowland Heights. Some have even moved from out of state. Many among our first wave of new students matriculated from public schools. Among the new students in our second wave are many from private schools as well as public schools. We are proud that this has been mostly word of mouth. There have been no major widespread recruitment efforts. While we do hold Open Houses, we try to avoid large staged events that can have a somewhat artificial feel. Our philosophy is that every day is an Open House. We encourage parents to make an appointment and visit the school in operation on any given day.
R.S.: What is Mesrobian’s outlook on Armenian Studies and how is it making Armenian Studies instruction accessible to students?
D.G.: Mesrobian’s mission as an Armenian School is something we take very seriously. Our schools exists not only to preserve Armenian identity, but to also incubate and innovate it. Here, we don’t talk about assimilation, we talk about a balanced integration into fully functioning Armenian-Americans, taking the best of both worlds, into a community. Armenian Studies must be vibrant and living outside the school walls.
As is our approach globally at Mesrobian, we want all subjects to be academically rigorous and educationally excellent. We encourage our Armenian language instructors to use an array of approaches to engage students and bring Armenian Studies to life. These include everything from group activities to encouraging the use of digital language apps, such as Nairy.com. In addition, our Armenian language and history classes are certified to the University of California, and upperclassmen at Mesrobian have the opportunity to take Honors level Armenian Studies courses.
A crucial part of Armenian Studies for our students happens outside the classroom through community engagement and leadership. We believe in organically developing leaders by engaging students in grassroots-level work directly in the Armenian community. Our students are active leaders and organizers in the Armenian community through the Armenian Youth Federation and other Armenian youth organizations. This engagement gives students a relatable and tangible connection to their identity and culture. Our alumni have taken significant leading roles within the Armenian-American community.
R.S.: What is the role of technology at Mesrobian?
D.G.: Technology has a place and a purpose. While ubiquitous, we must be aware of the pros and cons of how and when it is used. Being a pre-school through high school gives us the opportunity to use technology judiciously and in developmentally appropriate ways. We use technology for those things that it does better than a human being can. We use technology not for the sake of using technology; we have a philosophy and approach that is again changing the way that schools do things. In middle and high school, every student has a Chromebook, which they use during instruction to take online tests, work collaboratively through apps such as Google Docs, retrieve information, etc. They are used increasingly with sound learning principles in mind that we would be happy to explain as parents visit the school, but would be beyond the scope of this interview. Fundamentally, we use technology at Mesrobian in order to make us more human not less. We have automated that which makes us more human. For example all grading is done electronically through learning management software that parents can login to and see updated in real time. The time saved here allows us to focus even more on education, communicating with parents and making sure students are thriving.
R.S.: How does Mesrobian connect students with its four decades of graduates, and where are some of Mesrobian’s graduates now?
D.G.: We have a formal Alumni Network and Mentorship Program that matches students with alumni in their field of interest to give personal advice and guidance. Our alumni have distinguished themselves in fields as diverse as education, science, business, media and advertising, medicine, music, law, dentistry, chiropractic, public service, politics, engineering, veterinary medicine, psychology, and others. We have among our ranks not only leaders in their respective fields but also as leaders in the Armenian community at every level. Students learn here to walk comfortably in both worlds and have taken leadership positions. My fellow alumni are always willing to help; many take the initiative themselves.
R.S.: Do you have any closing thoughts?
D.G.: This interview serves as only a sneak peak into the wonder of Mesrobian School. So much is still unsaid and must be experienced. We encourage parents and community members to experience Mesrobian.