BY ALEEN ARSLANIAN
PASADENA—Students of the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Vatche & Tamar Manoukian High School (MHS) staged a classroom walkout Monday to protest a decision to shutter the campus and combine the school with the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School in Canoga Park.
More than 500 students, parents, teachers and staff, as well as supporters of the high school, gathered at the school to voice their concerns about the decision made by AGBU Central Board, the Manoukian Foundation and the MHS Board that was announced Friday afternoon in an email to parents.
The email read: “Despite the best efforts of the MHS community, the school has seen stagnant with declining enrollment for several years. We are very thankful to our administration, faculty and staff for their dedication and devotion to the school. Even with concentrated marketing, we have had disappointing results, reflecting a lower community demand, overall, for full-time private Armenian education.”
As the morning bell rang, signaling the start of first period, AGBU MHS students exited their homeroom classes and marched toward the campus quad, where Maro Najarian Yacoubian, whose children attended AGBU MHS, addressed attendees. Yacoubian described AGBU’s decision to close the school as a “modern day ethnic cleansing.”
“Armenian school is the pumping heart of the Diaspora and community. Closing each school means stopping the regular pumping of our community. We have to stand for every Armenian school, without political biases,” remarked Rev. Barthev Gulumian, an Armenian language and choir teacher at AGBU MHS.
Following remarks made by Yacoubian, Rev. Barthev Gulumian lead the morning prayer. The prayer was followed by the singing of the AGBU anthem, during which the students remained silent – in protest of AGBU and its decision.
The protesters were also joined by students from Sahag Mesrob Armenian Christian School and St Gregory A. & M. Hovsepian School, as well as Hovsepian Principal Shahe Mankerian. Attendees wore all black, reminiscent of a funeral.
Tatiana Demirjian, a 9th grader at the school, was in tears as she said, “I’ve been a part of AGBU since I was 3-years-old and it’s breaking my heart that this is happening.” She was consoled by a friend, who, like Tatiana, will most likely be taking a bus from AGBU MHS to AGBU Manoogian-Demirjian School in Canoga Park next year. The AGBU MDS campus will be accommodating students arriving from Pasadena by changing the school’s start time. According to AGBU MHS students, their sister school will be operating from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. next year.
During the protest, Yacoubian called on Yervant Demirjian, a member of AGBU’s Board of Directors, asking him to provide the community with answers.
“I was an AGBU student in Aleppo from kindergarten through 12th grade. In my adult life, I moved my family from San Jose to San Francisco – which was a big change – to put my kids in KZV, an Armenian school in SF. When I moved to Los Angeles, I started working at AGBU. I’ve given my life to Armenian schools, and everyone must do the same in order to keep them alive,” stated AGBU MHS Director of Technology and Chief Yearbook Adviser, Varant Chinchinian.
As Demirjian approached the podium to speak, the incredibly emotional crowd began to chant “Shame on you!” The AGBU board member was barely able to get a few words in before the crowd started yet another chant – “Save our school!” As Demirjian began to describe the very “comfortable” buses that would transport students from Pasadena to the Canoga Park campus, the crowd erupted in anger. He concluded his remarks by pledging to donate $100,000 in an effort to save the school, with the condition that the school community would also gather money – $1 million to be exact – through fundraising.
The student and community protests came to an end as the students were asked to return to their classrooms to continue their studies. As Yacoubian mentioned, many of the students are preparing for the upcoming SATs, college applications, and AP courses.
As students returned to class and supporters left the campus, Sevagg Kazarian, an AGBU MHS Class of 2011 alumnus said, “The Armenian schools I attended are the foundation of my identity as an Armenian. My elementary school, Mekhitarian (Mekhitarist Fathers School), already closed…I feel like high school is where I was able to take my Armenian-ness to a deeper level. If that foundation is lost, then we are lost.”
The protests at AGBU Vatche & Tamar Manoukian this morning were live streamed by Asbarez.