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Hellenic Classical Charter School: Paving the Way for a Universal Greek Education
by Athena Efter
The Brooklyn-based Hellenic Classical Charter School (HCCS), a relatively newcomer to the world of Greek education, has been growing very fast. In its 10 years of operation, since opening in September 2005, HCCS has received its second charter renewal in 2015, and has been awarded a distinction by the NY State Education Department as a high performing reward school. There are over two 200 charter schools in New York State. HCCS was among the eleven selected charter schools to receive this honor, and consecutively for two years in a row.
NEO had the opportunity to speak with the Director of Finance and Operations, Joy Petrakos, a former veteran of the Greek parochial day school system, to find out more about HCCS and what makes it a unique school. Although it is a publicly funded school, like all charter schools, HCCS has its own identity as a Hellenic school. The goal of its theme-based mission and philosophy is to instill in students a love of Greek through a study of language, history, culture, mythology, theater and dance. Students receive one period of instruction in Modern Greek daily.
Initially founded as a K-4 school, a directive of the charter, HCCS continued to build up with a grade level added each year, all the way to eighth grade. Oddly enough, with a high enrollment number of 498 students, only 20 to 25 five percent of the student population is of Greek descent. The majority of students are of non-Greek background.
By expressing pride in our rich culture and history, and without exclusivity, HCCS is paving the way for a universal Greek education mission, one that is open to an entire community of students who are learning to embrace a philhellenic ethos with enthusiasm. Students learn and are taught through a didactic approach to paideia, using the Socratic model of independent discussion, where the teacher introduces the topic and the students apply their critical thinking skills and analysis to lead the discussion. It’s a way of engaging the student to gain a true understanding of the content studied.
Joy expressed real heartfelt enthusiasm for the school, with an emphasis on the arts as a heavy influence. Student artworks decorate the halls, walls and classrooms with corresponding essays relating to their projects, which reflect both the classical and contemporary world. HCCS has partnered with the program, Studio in the School, to bring students a colorful and academically rewarding experience in the arts. Part of this creative experience also involves theater arts, led by Petros Fourniotis, who also teaches Greek Dance instruction.
For a second year in a row, students participated in the 26th annual NYC History Day Fair, and this year, sixth grade students won first place in the Junior Group Performance category with their play Lord Elgin and the Six Sisters. Students took a hands-on approach with this project, which was based on historical events and facts. They traveled all the way to London and Athens to do their own research and brought it back to present in a theatrical medium in a citywide and statewide competition. They are now ready to compete at the national level at the University of Maryland. The previous year marked a second place victory for them, but they were determined to win first place this year, and they did.
Partnerships feature heavily in guiding curriculum enrichment. HCCS has collaborated and partnered with Teachers College of Columbia University to provide a strong reading and writing program. Student teachers are sent to the school to assist and observe, and, in turn, HCCS faculty attend professional development seminars throughout the year at Teachers College. All HCCS teachers are NY State certified. In math, students consistently score very high and exceed city, state and district scores on their regents.
Assessment testing is done twice a year, in both the spring and fall, to ensure that students are meeting and exceeding NY State standards. Early intervention plays an important role as a support system for students. The Reading Rescue Program for grades K-2 is just one example of academic intervention. Students receive the services needed to support their learning needs. The Special Education Department provides a “pull-in/pull-out” program for students with Individualized Education Plans or in need of occupational therapy.
The HCCS’s excellent relationship with the Special Committee of Education provides any struggling students with the support and services they need to meet the standards set forth and the academic rigor expected of them. In a school that offers double periods of English, math and writing, there is no dearth of education. HCCS graduates continue to receive acceptances each year into the city’s most competitive public, specialized public and private high schools.
Students are also offered a variety of academic enrichment options. They receive instruction in chess once a week, every Friday, as part of a supplemental program. Computers can be found in every classroom, with a computer cart for each grade level, providing each child with technology benefits during that lesson. In addition, each student has an Ipad.
After-School programs and activities are an extensive list and all free of charge. Some of the athletic highlights include basketball, volleyball, and the Mighty Miles track team. To accommodate this growing athletics department, a whole new floor with a state-of the-art university size gym was recently added. HCCS had taken over the space of the former Greek parochial day school, Soterios Ellinas, which now only exists as a nursery. A 12 million dollar financing loan made all the renovations and expansion possible over the past three years. They are truly grateful for the support of Fr. Ganas of the Kimisis Theotokou Church, which rents out the space to HCCS.
The driving force behind all of this success is Christina Tettonis, the principal of HCCS, who, along with Joy Petrakos, forms a “Dynamic Duo” of strong Greek female leadership. Christina and Joy are unstoppable and guide this moving ship with a strong female crew of both Greek and non-Greek heritage. Assistant Principal Natasha Caban-Vargas is of Spanish descent, but as Joy pointed out, is “more Greek than most Greeks.” Guidance Counselor and Greek Coordinator, Anastasia Etimos, is of Greek heritage. She is always researching new ideas and programs to add to the Greek component of the school in addition to guiding students and families on high school placement and applications.
These women form a quadrumvirate of strength, dedication and determination, alongside the support of seven Board Members. The Executive Board is led by the founding fathers of the school: Charles Capetanakis, School Board President and former student of Soterios Ellenas Parochial School, Nicholas Leonardos, School Board Treasurer, and Harvey Newman, School Board Secretary and former educator/principal and Vice President of C.E.I (Center for Educational Innovation).
Still, this strong administrative team of women do it all, and without resting on their laurels. They are active fundraisers, constantly seeking funding options through grants, donations or bank loans, to implement their programs, renovations and expansion goals.
A staunch supporter of the school has been the Agnes Varas Foundation, which donated $150K for technology enhancement, and most recently $100K for individual student Ipads, starting as early as the universal Pre-K class. This grant also included instruments for the planning and formation of a big musical band, which will, of course, feature the influence of Greek music history. An initial first donation of $200K by the Agnes Varas Foundation went towards the construction of a theater and stage to bring their students to award-winning level productions.
They are a dynamic team of women who have taken, and continue to take, an active role in contributing to the overall success of this school. They write their own grants, do their own research, and collaborate together. A model of leadership, based on mutual respect and teamwork among adult mentors, is an excellent example for students to follow. The entire school community follows this team spirit. They are very proud of their dedicated teachers and their PTA, which works hard to fundraise and plan a lot of fun events for students. They even have a full-time parent and event coordinator, Dena Capetanakis, who works with PTA president Rania Koulouris Luchen to keep this “classic” school spirit moving.
Christina and Joy, often referred to as the “Dynamic Duo” around the school town, they have a dynamic and compelling vision for the future of HCCS. It’s not surprising that they were awarded a $500,000 dissemination grant from NY State to mentor a failing public school and take it under their wing. Many schools have approached HCCS to replicate their model and they have helped many schools get started. They have received a lot of support and encouragement from the Department of Education, which has also asked them to replicate their model. This expansion is part of their long-term future plan.
NEO asked Joy to sum up the school in one word, but she had several positive words to say. She chose a few key words that stood out: rigor, excellence, love, Hellenism, and philoxenia (Greek word for hospitality). With a candid enthusiasm and quiet humility Joy expressed the sentiments that sum the school up best: “We are all learners here. The love and warmth of our school community never leaves our students. Our students always come back and say how much they miss us and how it’s not the same anymore, especially after going on to big high schools and universities. That sense of community is just not there.”
Perhaps that spirit of Hellenism, like a winged chariot, continues to inspire these students and charge forward with them. If time is marked by the flight of passage, the Hellenic Classical Charter School didn’t waste any time. They grabbed the reigns and flew straight into the future. It’s a reward to our heritage that Greek-American educators and philhellenes continue to find new avenues and innovative ways to make Greek education and culture accessible to all.