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Making the Grade : Ministers On a Mission to Rebuild Education System in Armenia


GLENDALE — Under communism, schools in Armenia were dreary places where teachers lectured, students took silent notes and every subject was filtered through a Marxist lens.

The demise of communism left Armenian educators scrambling for a new teaching model. This week, their search led them halfway around the globe: to Glendale High School.

On Tuesday, two education ministers from the fledgling republic toured the modern, sprawling high school, meeting with students and teachers to sop up strategies that could be used back home.

For Areg Grigorian, Armenia's education minister, and Vardges Gnouni, higher education and science minister, sitting in on classes ranging from physics to computer-assisted English provided an eye-opening experience.

The two squeezed into wooden desks, peered at unfamiliar laser-disc technology and posed some sensitive questions to Principal Jim Gibson.

"Who is your boss? Do you have a trustee board or manager?" Grigorian asked Gibson as the entourage, including several Armenian-American school officials and translators, strolled past the school's football field and marveled at the solar panels that warm the swimming pool.

Gibson quickly sketched out the many-layered administrative structure in Glendale Unified, which culminates with the superintendent and elected school board members. Grigorian paused, thinking of the way things worked in Armenia under Soviet rule, then asked a follow-up question.

"Are these bodies supposed to help you, or do they disturb you? Are they a pain in the neck?" asked Grigorian, 40, who heads up education for his mountainous nation of 2.1 million.

Grigorian and Gnouni, 55, both are engineers by profession. Nothing in their backgrounds prepared them for their current posts. But they were appointed by the Armenian Parliament, which wanted people without ties to the old regime to revamp the country's creaky education system, especially the teaching of history, political science and geography.

"We have to print new maps, new textbooks, but it can't be done overnight," said David Zenian of the Armenian Information Service in Washington, who was on the trip to act as translator.

"Right now we are tearing out the pages of our history books that are filled with communist ideology," Zenian continued. "But when we do that, we have only four pages left from a 100-page book. The (Marxist) political orientation slipped through everything."

Arranged by the Los Angeles chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, a worldwide nonprofit cultural group, the visit provided an opportunity for the ministers to quiz Armenian-American teen-agers as well as recent immigrants from the former Soviet republic about their educational system.

Armenian students--some from Iran, others from Armenia--clustered around the two ministers, presenting them with gold school pins and folders as they peppered them with questions about their ancestral nation.

"How is our homeland?" asked Gayane Banayan in her native tongue, as the ministers dropped in on her English-as-a-second-language class. At 16, she has

been in the United States for only two years, but is already getting A's, she told the visitors proudly.

When they replied that there are shortages of food and other commodities but that the nation is willing to sacrifice to retain independence, Banayan sighed.

"Even though I'm here, my mind is every day back home," she explained. "I'll be OK here, but it's important that I know things are OK over there."

The ministers, who toured Hollywood High School Tuesday morning, arrived at Glendale High after lunch. They were also scheduled to visit the Glendale superintendent's office and pop in on a school board meeting to see the democratic process in action.

Glendale High was selected for a visit because of its high percentage of Armenian students--more than one-third of the nearly 2,300 students at the school are of Armenian ancestry, officials said. Armenians also compose 30,000 to 40,000 of Glendale's 195,000 population. The 250,000 Armenians in Southern California form the largest such community outside Armenia.

Glendale Unified officials say they have been under scrutiny by the Armenian government since last year, when several parliament members visited the district and wrote a report suggesting that Armenia could structure its school program after Glendale's model.

But that is just one of many proposals circulating through the new republic, said Alice Petrossian, Glendale Unified's director of special projects and intercultural education.

The visitors said they were especially interested in organizational structure, such as the size of the annual high school budget, which Gibson said was $6.5 million. The visitors asked how Armenian and other bilingual students were adapting, and how humanities courses were taught.

In Armenia, "We have to learn history ourselves, digest it and then prepare the books," Grigorian said, explaining that they were taught incomplete truths as well as lies for 70 years under the Soviet version of history.

The ministers said they were not as concerned with their nation's math and science programs, which they called internationally competitive.

On Tuesday, they marveled at the differences in teaching style and classroom equipment between America and Armenia. For instance, computers are not used as widely in Armenia. Students all face the front of the room and learn as a group, in contrast to American methods of small-group learning, in which teacher's aides work with some students while others work individually on computers.

"There are many different ways to learn, and one is not superior to the other," Gnouni said. He pointed out that a solid education doesn't require fancy technology and lots of money.

"The most important thing is a desire to learn," he said.

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