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Armenian School Tries to Find Way Through Growing Pains

June 06, 1991|DOUG SMITH

Fortunately, the school year is ending, or Glendale would have to deal with a dilemma that could only lead to bitterness and mistrust on a wide scale.

The problem is that an important private school has been seriously flouting the law for some time and this spring it got caught.

The Chamlian Armenian School on Lowell Street in La Crescenta operates under a 1984 zoning permit that limits its enrollment to 425 and its class structure to kindergarten through eighth grade.

It is a thriving institution, and some time ago exceeded the enrollment limit. As the eighth-grade classes grew larger, it eventually formed a ninth grade of graduates whose parents wanted them to stay in an Armenian school.

Although the school was fairly open about its activities, it got "caught" when people of the neighborhood began to call and write City Hall, complaining of noise, traffic and teen-agers.

Once put on notice of a violation, the city could not ignore the matter. In March, the code enforcement branch sent inspector Byron Foote to investigate. He found the school's enrollment to be 578 students and confirmed that there was a ninth grade of about 25 students.

The city wrote a letter giving the Chamlian School 45 days to correct the violation. When the time expired, Foote returned to find that violations still existed.

At that point, the city set up a ratification hearing before Zoning Administrator Kathleen Marcus on June 26.

The remedies available to Marcus range from ordering the school to drop as many students as necessary to get within the limit (including all ninth-graders) to the extreme of revoking the school's permit, meaning it would have to close.

As a school year was in progress when all this came to light, even the lesser action would have seemed intolerably brutal, especially considering the overcrowding of the public schools.

Thus the dilemma.

That the school is Armenian is not central to the problem. But it greatly raises the stakes by surrounding the issue in a sensitive ethnic context.

Armenians in America cherish a language and a culture that appear to them to be in mortal jeopardy. Neither is taught to any important extent in public schools. That leaves the burden on Armenians to teach their own children what they must know about a fragile nation whose survival, in some part, depends on each of them.

It is easy to see how, in a community that is one-third Armenian, the principal Armenian school could grow too fast.

The leaders of the Chamlian School do not contest that they have exceeded their bounds. They simply throw up their hands and ask, "What else could we do?"

In fact, they hardly blundered into conflict with the law. They were drawn there by the city's own method.

The background, as told by Vahik Satoorian, spokesman for the board of St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale, is this:

The school, which was formed by the church many years ago, quickly outpaced its church facilities. As there was no suitable property in the flatlands, the church bought the old Lowell Elementary School, closed by the Glendale school district because of declining enrollment.

About two years ago, church leaders foresaw that a new surge of Soviet Armenian immigration would bring many more students. So, they built new classrooms and applied to the city for permit revisions to allow 600 students and secondary grades.

They thought they were looking well into the future.

On the other hand, as Lowell Elementary School had never served more than 400 students, and had barely 200 when closed in 1979, the application is for a considerable intensification of use.

The city asked the church to conduct an environmental impact report. That took time, but more significantly, required the church to hire a public relations firm to set up a dialogue with the community. A lot of the community didn't like what it heard.

Now the school's application has two marks against it: neighborhood opposition and the city's crossness with those who break the rules.

Satoorian believes leniency is in order.

"The point was when we started this process, it was very hard for us to kick some students out of school and ask their parents to just go to some other schools," he said. "We did not feel that it was human to terminate some of the students."

Although only 600 families are involved, Glendale's wider Armenian community is watching, for the school represents them all.

As luck would have it, the timing worked out so that the revocation hearing comes up just one week after the semester ends.

No students will have to be terminated this year.

The school, meanwhile, has the summer to negotiate with the neighborhood and find a way through its growing pains. Satoorian said the church board may look for another property to buy as a high school.

It's unlikely that could be done by fall, so more crises apparently lie ahead, with no hope that luck will be so generous again.

Or maybe it wasn't luck at all.

Suppose someone in government put two and two together and saw a way of avoiding trouble. That would be fortunate indeed.

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