Armenian High Schools, the Lifeblood of the Community

With all the challenges of maintaining private community-based schools in the United States today, Armenian high schools like Rose & Alex Pilibos, Ferrahian, Mesrobian, and Sahag Mesrob continue to provide an invaluable service to the community. They instill in the youth the language, history and culture of their ancestors, develop in them a strong sense of community, and graduate them off to many of America’s top universities, prepared and ready for the future.

College Preparation

One mark of a successful high school is its ability to intellectually stimulate and challenge its students and prepare them for the transition to higher education.

“We have been pushing the Advanced Placement program at Alex Pilibos for a long time,” Pilbos Principal Dr. Vicken Yacoubian said. “The AP is very important for our school as it gives the students a more rigorous course of study and prepares them intellectually for college.”

“College level AP courses, raise the bar and encourage the students to challenge themselves,” he added. “Since 1993, when I started here we had 2 or 3 AP classes, now we offer 15 AP courses.”

By taking AP Exams, students have the opportunity to earn credit or advanced standing at most of the nation’s colleges and universities, according to collegeboard.com, a non-pofit association of over 5,400 colleges, universities and other educational organizations.

One of many Ferrahian students enrolled in the school’s AP program, Andre Aroyan, was able to score perfect scores on 4 out of 5 of his AP exams. As a result of his college prep classes, Aroyan will be graduating Ferrahian and will be attending UCLA in the fall to study Chemistry.

While at Sahag Mesrob, juniors and seniors are given the opportunity to take courses at PCC to fulfill their high school electives and college general education requirements. As a result of the PCC Bridge program, Vahe Nkhoudian will have 30 college units by the time he graduates from Sahag Mesrob this summer.

The primary goal of any high schools is to provide its students with not only the best quality education but also the opportunities to prepare for college, according to Sahag Mesrob Principal Shahe Garabedian.

Applying to College

Life in college is going to be big transition for these students. The university campus is not as friendly of an environment as the family oriented Armenian school. But one thing each student stressed during their interviews is their confidence in the preparation afforded them by their high schools.

“Although it’s going to be a big change, I think Pilibos has done a good job preparing me,” according to Lilit Arabyan a senior at Pilibos who will be attending UCLA in the fall. They helped me realize that I was capable of going off to bigger and better things.”

Many of the students interviewed said the opportunities provided by their high schools were a major factor for why they were accepted into their respective universities.

Extracurricular

Aside from providing their students with a challenging curriculum, Armenian high schools also offer a broad base of extracurricular programs. Through academic, athletic and community-based activities, students are given the opportunity to build skills, develop character, and meet new people outside the everyday environment of the classroom.

For the last 6 years, students at Pilibos have been able to take part in the school’s Mock Trial and Model UN programs as well as participate in an Academic Decathlon that places students from different private schools in a ten-subject competition, according to Yacoubian.

“For this year’s Academic Decathlon, I had to learn everything about the Civil War period; its economics, art, literature, music, history, architecture and scientific development,” explained Patil Varvarian, one of twelve seniors at Pilibos who went last year to the UN headquarters in New York to participate in a mock Global Summit for Model UN.

“Model UN was a big eye opener. It showed me another side of the world that I was previously unaware of,” she added. “I had to write a speech. It was very daunting.”

“Other than keeping our kids sharp, these activities also give them a sense of how knowledge becomes applicable in the real world,” Yacoubian stressed. “That interface between intellectual inquiry and the application of knowledge is very important.”

Teenage Confusion

Like all teenagers, these students are still growing up and in the process of learning. They are not perfect. Some are confused, while others still need time to figure out what they are passionate about studying. While some like Galstian have decided to go directly to four-year universities, others have chosen to study at community college first. In some cases, like at Sahag Mesrob and Mesrobian, students have been able to complete many of their college general education requirements while still in high school.

Mesrobian’s Jessica Vartanyan and Taleen Badewi, for example, took courses at Rio Hondo community college in order to discern what they would be interested in majoring when going off to university. Vartanyan decided to major in psychology as a result, while Badewi, who took courses in sociology and anthropology, has decided to major in interior design and visual communications.

Despite the fact that many of these students are still discovering who they are, one thing is apparent, attending Armenian school has definitely made an overall positive impact on their lives.

Broadened Horizons
Students at the various Armenian schools have a vast array of academic programs and extracurricular activities for their benefit, opportunities that most of their parents only dreamed of in their time. Ferrahian’s journalism class and its physics bridge building competition are just two examples of how students are given the opportunity to explore and develop unique interests and skills with real world applicability

In discussing her future goals to study communications at CSUN, intern at ESPN and eventually become a professional broadcast journalist, Christine Tchalikian noted the enormous impact Ferrahian’s journalism classes have had on her. It was her favorite class, she explained. It gave her the opportunity to develop her passion and build experience by interviewing almost a dozen top ranking college basketball and football players.

“I also did a couple of stories for Horizon TV. I covered the varsity girl’s playoff games and emailed them to Harry Vorperian and it was read with the weekend news on TV,” Tchalikian explained.

Meanwhile, students like Mesrobian’s Rostom Saliba and Pilibos’s Armen Dermenjian citied the encouragement given to them by their teachers as an important factor in the development of their passions.

Early in the 9th grade, Saliba realized he wanted to get involved in graphic design. He will be attending PCC then transferring to Pasadena Art Center. Dermenjian, who is still waiting on an acceptance letter from UCLA, also developed his passion early on. But it was only at Pilibos, Dermenjian explained, that he got the opportunity to explore engineering by participating in the school’s science bowls.

“Just recently I did a physics project for school where I used heat to remove the graphite from a brand new wooden pencil without damaging it,” he said.

Involved in the community
In conjunction with helping to unlock passions and talents, one of the highest goals of the school’s administration, according to Yacoubian, is to create connections between the students and their community.

“Maintaining their cultural identity is also very important,” Mesrobian Principal Hilda Saliba added.

“We aim to integrate the students into the Armenian and American communities,” explained Yacoubian. “We instill in them the desire to become proactive participants of the community and society at large, so they may understand that they too can contribute to the destiny of this country,” he said.

“In that sense, I am very happy to see that our students are involved in their communities as well as in Homenetmen, AYF, and the ANCA.”

According to Arakelian, Ferrahian has a Service Learning and Community Awareness Program, which requires all graduating seniors to complete a minimum 60 hours of community service. The graduating class of 2010, she said, will be required to have 100 hours completed.

Many of the students interviewed listed their involvement with the Armenian National Committee, Homenetmen, and the Armenian Youth Federation among the many community service activities they had been involved with. Some, like Ferrahian’s Nareg Bostanian or Carolien Dimitian, from Mesrobian also volunteered on political campaigns or in congressional offices, while others volunteered for social services, like Ferrahian Senior Kevork Khadarian, who worked at the Ararat home and the Armenian Social Services Center for Refugees.

The value of these opportunities was not lost on these students, as many of them were well aware of the valuable skills and life lessons they learned during their community service. In fact, most of the students were extremely grateful to their teachers for being involved in their lives and encouraging them to get involved.

Passionate Teachers

“Here, students end up developing strong ties with their teachers and they become your mentors not just people paid to teach you,” said Hovig Keushgerian a senior at Ferrahian who will be going to CSUN in the fall to study robotics.

Having the opportunity to connect with teachers and have mentors is very important, Keushgerian stressed. “The school’s journalism teacher and librarian, Mrs. Williams was my first mentor. She helped me develop my critical thinking skills, self-confidence and courage.”

According to Ferrahian senior Kevork Khadarian, he was able to do well in his AP classes and score highly on the exams because of his dedicated teachers.

“Our chemistry and biology teacher, Dr. Scarlet Relle, lives and breathes what she teaches,” Keushgerian added. “You can call her at two in the morning for help with a problem,” he added.

“The only important thing is a teacher’s dedication to the students and the subject they are teaching,” stressed Ferrahian’s Hai Tahd teacher Ani Bertizlian. “When you have a dedicated teacher everything else is easy. I am dedicated 100 percent to my students and to the subjects I teach them.

Ferrahian Principal John Kossakian is one of those exceptional administrators that dedicate themselves to their school and students, according to Hovig keushgerian, who commended Kossakian’s relentless drive to push through various projects for the school and its students.

“Ferrahian had plans for a new building since the early 90s,” he explained. “Mr. Kossakian fought really hard to get the permits for the building approved. He put together budget sheets and everything.”

Because the primary goal of these schools is to give their students the best all around education possible, they employ faculty members that are not only passionate about their jobs, but are also great mentors for the kids. They care about the students and provide them with guidance to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

Thanks to Ferrahian’s Guidance Counselor Seta Arakelian, Ferrahian has a mandatory one-on-one consultation program where students can receive full force college counseling to help them with the college application process. The school, she explained, has an academic guidance program in place for all 6-12th grades

Home away from home

It’s for these reasons that many of the students stressed their intent to one day send their own children to an Armenian high school.

“The teachers here are more involved and actually spend time with you so that you can improve,” said Hrag Jivalagian, a senior who left Pasadena City high school at the end of 10th grade to return to Sahag Mesrob. “I came back because I realized I made a huge mistake leaving to go to public school.”

“At public school, they just don’t care about you the way they do at an Armenian school,” he stressed.

One of Jivalagian’s best friends, Ari Jon, echoed his sentiments and said that he believes without the Armenian schools, the community would not be here today. K-12 schools like Sahag Mesrob play an enormous role in creating and maintaining Armenian communities, he added.

“Pilibos is my second family, my home away from home,” said Tanya Adjemian. “I would definitely send my kids here.”

Academic excellence

In the last six years, virtually all the graduating students from Ferrahian, which has 62 seniors this year, have gone off to higher education. Of those, 14 will be attending the University of California system, 24 will be attending a Cal State University campus, while 23 will be attending community colleges to ultimately transfer to a 4-year university.

Out of the 60 seniors at Pilibos this year, over half have applied to 4 year universities, while the rest are intent on transferring from community college. 18 of the 19 Pilibos seniors who applied to the UC system were accepted. All the graduates that applied to the CSU system were admitted and 4 students were accepted to private schools.

At Mesrobian, where the graduating class is 18 people, 4 of the 5 students who applied to the UC system were accepted, 3 are preparing to attend a CSU, while the rest will be going to community college and transferring.

Sahag Mesrob, which established its high school program in 2004, has 54 students, from which 9 will be graduating this year. All of the seniors are currently enrolled in Pasadena City College where they will continue their education as sophomores upon graduation.

The challenge ahead

But nothing is perfect. There is always room for improvement, explained Yacoubian.

It is getting increasingly difficult to maintain Armenian schools in the United States. With the demands of American life growing year by year, more families are beginning to send their children to free public schools in the hopes that their children will better integrate into society. Because of this, Armenian schools, now more than ever need the support of the community.

“The awareness of national schools needs to become greater among the members of our community, Saliba stressed. “We need to appreciate the value of our Armenian schools, and start sending more of our children to them.”

Saliba’s concerns are shared by many among the community who see the potential in Armenian schools as institutions for refined college preparation, especially in an increasingly competitive and demanding American workplace.

But funding is a serious issue for these schools, which are all non-profit community operated entities. Although Montebello’s ARF Dro Gomideh and the Mesrobian school board were able to raise over a hundred thousand for the high school, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Armenian schools to keep up with today’s costs, especially when the schools have a policy of providing financial aid to students who can’t afford the tuition.

With the proper funding and support, these schools can become centers of learning for the community, nourishing Armenian identity and ensuring success for the future generations of the Armenian-American Diaspora.

Aside from the costs, which can be considerable for a family that is barely making ends, there is also the issue of location. Glendale, the largest Armenian community in California does not currently have an Armenian high school. This can be a serious problem for some parents who are faced with having to manage difficult schedules and commutes.

The Armenian schools of the Diaspora are the lifeblood of the Armenian colonies around the world. They preserve the legacy of the people, develop their youth and build vibrant communities in the process.

Today, just as in the past, these schools continue to play a major role in the future of the Armenian Nation as they prepare to send yet another generation off to college. Unfortunately, each passing year raises a new set of challenges for these schools to meet and overcome to ensure their survival and continued success. It remains to be seen whether the Armenian community in the Diapora has the wherewithal or the resources to be able to answer these challenges. Upon the answer to this question, hinges the survival of these important schools. These schools cannot survive for very long without the support of the community, which they helped foster.

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