Nancy Biska
As part of a series of features examining Greek language education in the USA, we present excerpts from a discussion between Gerasimos Arsenis and Nancy Biska. Mr. Arsenis, former Minister of Education in Greece, is now a member of parliament.  He is affiliated with the governing PASOK party. Nancy Biska has served as managing editor and journalist for leading Greek national and international newspapers and magazines. Over the past fifteen years, Ms. Biska has held the position of Producer for the BBC Greek service, and has produced and hosted broadcasts for an independent Greek television network in New York. Ms. Biska, who has received numerous awards for her contributions to Greek cuture, is President of the Democracy Foundation.

The interview, originally conducted in Greek, has been translated by Nina Gatzoulis.

Nancy Biska: I would like to discuss the issue of Greek education of Greek American youth. You probably have been informed about the issues that the Greek schools of USA, Australia, Canada and generally the schools of the omogeneia abroad have been facing.

Gerasimos Arsenis: Look, the issue varies from country to country.

Biska: You're right. The biggest problems concerning the Greek language are in the States.

I was aware of the language problems while I was the Minister of Education and I know what is going on right now as well. The Greek education of Greek-American children, and we are talking about primary and secondary education, lies exclusively in the hands of the Church. There is a tradition, at least while I was in the Education Ministry, for the Greek Church not to really press Greek education. There is no compliance from the Archdiocese in promoting the language.

Biska: You, however, Mr. Arsenis, were planning to send Greek educators to the U.S.

Arsenis: I had proposed to send eighty educators from Greece because some of the Greek-American educators (in USA) need strengthening in their teaching and many of them are not trained teachers. I can help the Greek education in the States because we do have such a program of supporting the Greek language abroad. It is essential that second and third generation Greek children have some knowledge of the Greek language. I don't mean that second and third generation kids will speak Greek fluently, but the language should not be something completely foreign to them and they should develop ties with the Greek culture. Here is where the problem lies: when the Greek omogeneia loses the Greek language, in essence it loses ties with the Greek culture.

Biska: Let me tell you something first. I want to inform you that the Greeks in USA are aware of your intentions to send the educators back there. They are also aware of the fact that the rejection came from the Archdiocese in New York. We tried to probe for an answer from the Archdiocese through questions on special live air shows, but we never received an answer. They are saying that they are examining it. Is it possible they did not find some time to respond to such a vital issue?

I am very aware of these issues and I know what the responsibilities of Church and Greek communities are in the States. Cooperation should exist between Church and community, after all it is the community's responsibility to enrich the youth with the Greek education. We can not deny the participation and the role that Greece wishes to play in educating the Greek-American youth. We have already sent in several urban centers education administrators that are watching how Greek children are educated. And I am telling you this seriously: the Greek government wishes to send many educators in America.

The Garden Nursery of Tomorrow's Philhellenes

By Nancy Biska
Translation by Nina Gatzoulis

The first American public school where the Greek language is taught systematically has become reality! The "Athenian Academy," operating in Florida, has completed a year of successful academic work. It is the omogeneia's reward for so many efforts for the perpetuation of our culture. It also embodies our hopes for preserving the Greek language worldwide.

In October of 1998, a new law was established that permits the founding of public schools by the American government, where in addition to the English language, an additional language should be taught with the same seriousness and effort as the native language is being taught. The American public calls these schools "charter schools". Such a school provides the students with additional awareness of another language and culture that in standard public schools can not be offered. The first "charter school" was established in Minnesota; today there are about 140 "charter schools" throughout the United States.

The "Athenian Academy" is the only American public school where the Greek language is taught systematically and the staff consists only of Greek college educated teachers. The daily schedule of the school includes six courses. Three courses are taught in English and the other three are taught in Greek. Mr. George Poumakis, president of "Athenian School," said that "the school received from the government $70.000.00 on its first year of operation, $70.000.00 on the second year of operation and an additional $5.000.00 dollars per student annually from the State of Florida. "Our original wish", added Mr. Poumakis "was to establish a Greek-American school to provide our children the opportunity to study the Greek language, our traditions and culture. While we were doing this however, we chose the opportunity that a "charter school" provides, to attract in the magic of Greek culture and civilization, children of various nationalities.

The "Athenian Academy" during its first year of operation attracted 23 students of which seven are of Greek descent, while the rest are of British, French, American and Afro-American descent. Mrs. Maria Georgopoulou, a teacher in the "Athenian Academy," mentioned that "in our school we are creating tomorrow's philhellenes." Mrs. Georgopoulou, with six years of experience, teaching the Greek language in USA, is a graduate of the Aristoteleion University of Thessaloniki, Greece. This teacher thinks that "charter schools" are the future of global education and also the answer to the preservation of the Greek language in the USA. "This new system", she added, "releases our youngsters from the laborious task of attending an American and a Greek-afternoon school separately and in addition relieves the parents of any financial burden of sustaining an afternoon school.

The "Athenian Academy" is a public "charter school" just like the rest of them that exist in the US today and has adopted what is called "immersion system" of teaching students a second language and culture. During the teaching sessions of Greek the Greek language is used exclusively, and any usage of the English language has been avoided", said Mrs. Georgopoulou. "The students are being introduced right from the beginning Greek mythology, Greek music and Greek traditions. In addition they are taught how to make mosaic icons", added the teacher.

The student body and their parents are very supportive of the school during its first year of operation. Recently the school was the site of an art exhibit concerning Alexander the Great of Macedonia. This display "took" the children on a trip from the origins of Alexander to his arrival in Egypt. After the completion of five years in the Academy, the school offers to students a trip to Greece so they can get familiar with what they were taught in school.

Mr. Poumakis has made the accomplishments of the Academy known to several politicians in the States and in Greece as well and he has received much positive criticism and many nice comments from a variety of local newspapers. "What we need in our efforts," Mr. Poumakis said, "is emotional support rather than monetary support to continue this difficult task. Just like other nationalities we are trying to preserve our language, culture and heritage with the only means: through the Greek language. It is our duty to teach our children our language."