From the Principal's Desk

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From the Principal's Desk: St. Stephen's Armenian Elementary School
Interview by Sossi Essajanian

On November 29, St. Stephen's Armenian Elementary School principal Houry Boyamian discussed her impressions on the past, present, and future of the school as it prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Boyamian of Winchester, MA, graduated from the Nishan Palandjian Jemaran in Beirut, Lebanon. She went on to study pharmacy at the Universite de Saint Joseph in Beirut, moving to the US in 1986 where she passed the state board exam in pharmacy. Her father was the principal of the Palandjian Jemaran, and Boyamian's academic surroundings seemed to solidify her interest and commitment to education. As a result, she assumed the role of St. Stephen's School principal in 1988, going on to receive her masters in education from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Sossi Essajanian: Looking back at 20 years of the St. Stephen's Armenian Elementary School (SSAES), how would you describe the school's accomplishments? What would you say would be some of its greatest?

Houry Boyamian: As you remember, the SSAES started with only seven students. That in itself was a major accomplishment. Every year since, we have added a grade to reach the fifth grade, and today we have a student population of 185 students.

I would say that one of the school's biggest accomplishments is its accreditation in 2003 by the Association of Independent Schools in New England. The process called for the preparation of a new curriculum, rules, and policies and procedures. It was a good exercise, which helped us review our work; following the process, we received some good, productive feedback for improvement.

Another major accomplishment is the success of the school's first class trip to Armenia in May 2004. The graduating fifth grade students, with their teacher and some parents, experienced the Armenia about which they had learned at SSAES. Giving the students this opportunity was an important accomplishment for the school.

But even before that in 1998, the school built an additional preschool building to accommodate its budding student population. All of this shows the continuous growth and advancement of the school.

Outside of these walls, St. Stephen's School students have showed that they can excel. Each academic year, students in the first and fourth grades take the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills in reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies. Our fourth grade students scored in the top 10 percent in reading, language arts, and math, while students in the second grade scored in the top 15 percent in reading and language arts, and in the top five percent in math. Statistics of test results from previous years have shown a score improvement from year to year; and that, I believe, is a great achievement.

SE: What can you tell us about the strengths of the school and its curriculum today?

HB: A major strength of SSAES is its young, dynamic staff bringing new educational approaches to a program we consider both progressive and traditional.

The after-school and enrichment programs at SSAES, I believe, are other ways that this school continuously challenges and advances its student population. We offer classes in such areas as chess, French, basketball, and science, even adding dramatic and creative art as well as computer classes next term. As for our enrichment programs, we take the students on field trips to such places as the Museum of Science, the Boston Lyric Opera, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and invite guest authors, puppeteers, story tellers, and musicians to complement the students' in-class learning.

Another strength that I see is the school's new computer lab, featuring 10 new computers, established with help from the Armenian Youth Foundation and the Parent Teacher Organization. Also, with two computers in each classroom, students have the tools they need to learn with the technology of their time.

SE: What do you see as the role of the school in the Armenian community in the Boston area and beyond?

HB: Our school is truly a community school, because it draws students from all areas of the community and from all churches.

The school also brings parents together, creating close-knit relationships between parents, students, alumni, and teachers. I see this community building as a way to help students keep their culture and heritage. Even after they graduate from SSAES, our alumni are active in community organizations such as the Homenetmen scouts, the Armenian Youth Federation, and the church and thus actively ensure the survival and strengthening of the nation.

The alumni also perpetuate the school community as well, becoming board members and sending their own children to the school. Their bond with the school is very strong; they volunteer to help with school projects, frequently visit the school while picking up siblings still attending, and attend the Christmas shows and closing recitals.

But I believe that a very important player in this community building is the parent. St. Stephen's has a strong parent-teacher organization. The parents are always voluntarily chaperoning, fundraising, helping with after-school activities, organizing a walk-a-thon, family nights, and a grandparent's breakfast. We always want the parents to be involved in the school and believe that the school goes forward when they are interested in its future.

Their involvement is also important for the students. Seeing their parents involved gives students a strong role model and they seem to perform better when their parents are around. I see the students more dedicated to the school as they see their parent's dedication to the institution.

SE: What was the original mission of the school's founders and what additions are there to it today?

HB: The vision and foresight of the founders of this school was great. Their goal was to create a school in which the Armenian culture and heritage could be taught and blossom. Today, I believe that these goals are being accomplished and as a result our students are getting an excellent, well-rounded education.

As goals for the future, there are many. Building on these successes brings continued motivation and energy to keep expanding the school physically as well as broadening the curriculum.

SE: Turning to Armenian schools in general, what would you say are some of the advantages and disadvantages for students attending an Armenian school?

HB: Well, here at SSAES, students will be growing in a healthy, positive learning environment. One weakness could be that our young students don't have as much of the "American experience," meaning that they aren't as exposed to other cultures as, say, students in public schools might be. But we try to teach that here in our enrichment programs, and we incorporate appreciation and tolerance for other cultures in our curriculum.

SE: Why do you think Armenian schools are important for the worldwide Diaspora?

HB: History has shown us that without an Armenian school in the community people will find it difficult to sustain the culture. I believe that a school is a key component in the preservation of Armenian language and culture. If we are to prepare people who will be helpful to Armenia and the nation, they need a base, a tie to the culture.

Used with permission from (c) Armenian Weekly, December 25, 2004 issue