Pupils learning Greek in America

DUNEDIN, Florida – Considering she left her native Greece just two years ago, Maria Pasparaki speaks pretty good English. Her group of rambunctious kindergarten-goers would never know it, though, because she rarely speaks it in the classroom. In the lyrical Greek language, she teaches them the names of barnyard animals, leads the «Hokey Pokey,» quiets them down, and issues permission to go to the restroom. Through repetition and body language they learn the words, and by necessity they’ll learn the language. That’s the idea behind the Athenian Academy, a Greek immersion school that was the first of its kind in the United States when it opened three years ago in this Gulf Coast community. «It is the quintessential way of teaching. It is the most effective way of teaching,» said the 29-year-old Pasparaki, who learned English as a youngster growing up in Crete and wrote her master’s thesis on language immersion. «You have to link the word, which is a foreign word to them, to a thought,» she said. «We do not translate. Translation is spoon-feeding.» The Athenian Academy has grown from 27 students the first year to 105 in kindergarten through fourth grade, with plans to add the fifth grade next year. In classes of 18 or so, students spend half the day learning English, reading and social studies from English-speaking teachers. The other half they’re taught math, science, modern Greek and physical education from instructors talking to them in conversational Greek. «In this type of setting, it’s like dropping a child in the middle of downtown Athens,» principal Tina Wilson said, adding that bilingual immersion students tend to think more creatively and become better problem-solvers. In what seems like a mind-boggling, sink-or-swim educational setting, most kids thrive. Last year, the academy’s third-graders even performed better in math than their district peers on Florida’s standardized tests. A Greek school seems to make sense here, given that 20 minutes north of the school is Tarpon Springs, a tourist community of 21,000 settled by Greek sponge divers and their families around the turn of the 20th century. Today it has more residents of Greek ancestry per capita than any other place in the country. Turns out, though, that it’s the children of non-Greek families in the area that are boosting enrollment. This year, only about 20 percent of the students are from Greek backgrounds. «We feed from that community, but amazingly enough, the first people who bought into this idea were the non-Greek background people,» Wilson said. «The most active people we have in our parent-teacher association are people of non-Hellenic descent. Now it’s catching up.» So why learn Greek then? Wilson, a Greek American who is certified to teach the language, is always ready for that one. She notes that about 40 percent of the words in the English language are derived from Greek, including many terms in school biology, anatomy and physiology lessons. George Poumakis, a Greek immigrant and retired Pinellas County businessman who helped start the school, said, «Americans are finally realizing that to learn a foreign language is a plus, and to learn Greek is a vehicle, it’s a tool.» The Athenian Academy is a state-financed charter school, which means it is, in essence, a public school that any child can attend without having to wait for a slot to open up. Although it’s under the umbrella of the Pinellas County school district, its own board of directors is free to set the curriculum and make the rules. It’s becoming a popular concept in Florida. Since 1996, the number of charter schools in the state has grown from five to 222, with enrollment topping 50,000. Across the country, more than a half a million students attend 2,000 charter schools. Teaching of the Greek language and culture in America has long been the realm of specialty private schools and traditional after-school programs connected to the Greek Orthodox Church. Teaching Greek in an immersion curriculum was unique to the Athenian Academy until a second Greek charter school opened in Miami last year. Lori Dugan, whose sons, Matthew, 8, and William, 6, are students at the school, said she and her husband are not Greek but were adamant that their children should learn a second language – any second language – from the beginning. The Athenian Academy opened nearby and seemed to be what they had envisioned. Matthew has been there since kindergarten. «The first year he was like, ‘This guy keeps speaking to me and I don’t know what he’s saying’,» his mother laughed. «But it’s amazing how they assimilate and, by osmosis or something, they understand. I think this spawns creativity.» Now she sometimes overhears the boys speaking Greek words to each other. «My first year was pretty hard for me because I didn’t know how to speak the language,» said Matthew, now a third-grader. He said he knows a lot of words and now understands most of what the teachers are saying. «I’m getting kind of used to it,» he said. «I do like the myths and legends.» Basil Mossaidis, executive director of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, the country’s largest Greek-American organization, said anyone learning Greek will help keep the culture and language alive. «It’s not the language so much, I think, as the discipline of learning two languages that’s important,» Mossaidis said. «It’s just whipped cream on top of the pie for us that it just happens to be Greek.»