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Even with deep Armenian roots, Watertown High barely saves classes

Siran Tamakian (left) teaches Armenian to freshmen and sophomores at the high school, and Anahid Yacoubian taught advanced classes until last spring. Siran Tamakian (left) teaches Armenian to freshmen and sophomores at the high school, and Anahid Yacoubian taught advanced classes until last spring. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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WATERTOWN - With the third highest number of Armenian immigrants in the United States, Watertown faces a formidable challenge - how to preserve what may be the country’s last surviving Armenian-language program at a public high school.

Prospects for the program, on the eve of its 40th anniversary, looked dim after the school could not find a replacement for its founder, Anahid Yacoubian, who retired from full-time work in 2007 but taught the advanced-level class to juniors and seniors until the end of school this spring.

Watertown’s school administrators considered dropping the program for lack of teachers, but after a frantic search found an instructor just two weeks before the start of classes on Sept. 8. Superintendent Ann Koufman-Frederick said officials were working out one-year contract last week.

It appears the program at Watertown High is saved for this year but its future beyond that is uncertain.

“I would like Watertown High to continue offering Armenian. We are looking for a way to preserve the program, if possible, and are looking for a way to make that happen,’’ said Koufman-Frederick, who is starting her first year as the district’s superintendent.

The uncertainty was a painful reckoning for a town known worldwide for its vibrant Armenian-American community, but where about 9 percent of the population claimed Armenian heritage on the 2000 Census.

In Watertown, Armenian is not like other traditional high school language offerings. It represents a history and a legacy deeply imbedded in the town’s makeup, one revered even more because the culture was nearly destroyed during a genocide by the Ottoman Empire that killed 1.5 million Armenians, and imprisoned and displaced millions more, between 1915 and 1918.

For nearly four decades, the language program at the high school was operated and taught almost entirely by Yacoubian, a native Armenian who came to Watertown High in 1970. She was the school’s Armenian heart and soul - organizing annual cultural festivals, bake sales, and scholarships for college-bound students.

She still teaches adult Armenian language classes locally, and despite her retirement remains a frequent sight in Watertown High’s Room 333, where maps of Armenia and the former Soviet Union line the walls, and the classroom computer is equipped with a hard-to-find Armenian font.

The idea that the program could fade away horrified her, Yacoubian said last week.

“The community has always been so supportive of us, and that is what has helped us get that far,’’ she said. “It is a struggle for Armenians to keep their culture, but if we do this we have so much to share with the rest of the world.’’

Armenian language classes in Arlington and Belmont public schools disappeared years ago. Most Armenian cultural and language classes in the area are now held privately - mostly in Watertown, at either St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church, or the Armenian Library and Museum of America. One of the nation’s largest Armenian summer camps, Camp Haiastan, run by the national Armenian Youth Federation, is less than 25 miles away in Franklin.

From a practical standpoint, keeping the program alive is difficult, Yacoubian acknowledged. The language is so obscure that there is no official state certification for its instructors. Many parents today prefer that their children learn a more mainstream tongue. Some students have schedule conflicts because Armenian and some honors classes are taught at the same time.

“I’m very concerned about the future, but I am optimistic they have a whole year to look for someone now,’’ she said. Without the upper-level class, few, if any, students are likely to enroll in the lower level one, she said, instead choosing another foreign language in which to become proficient.

For survivors of the genocide who fled to the Middle East, Europe and the United States, and their descendents, keeping that culture alive is considered the most sacred of obligations.

Although it happened nearly a century ago, the genocide is by no means ancient history. It continues to be a combustible international and political issue. In 2007, Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman was blasted with international criticism after calling the Armenian massacres by the Turkish military “tantamount’’ to genocide, in the context of the Jewish Holocaust.

Earlier this year, the Armenian community pressured online search giant Google to ban ads from a Turkish genocide-denial group. And a congressional resolution that would officially recognize the Armenian genocide, after pending for many years, was quietly shelved yet again, advocates say, because of delicate US-Turkish diplomatic relations.

“Knowing our language is knowing our history,’’ said teacher Sirhan Tamakian, who arrived at Watertown High five years ago and is able to teach only the freshman/sophomore Armenian class in addition to her English-as-a-second-language course load. “If we don’t know our history, we can’t teach it to others or defend it.’’

But the number of students interested in studying Armenian is dwindling, due to changing immigration patterns and assimilation. Today, nonnative students moving into Watertown are more likely to be from Pakistan or Brazil, in contrast to the immigrants of a generation ago arriving from Armenian-speaking households in Lebanon and the former Soviet Union, school officials said.

The school system has its own limitations, including shrinking budgets, teacher shortages and dwindling enrollments, Koufman-Frederick said. Between 6 and 15 students were lined up to enroll in each Armenian class this fall, compared with more than 20 pupils in each of the high school’s several Spanish classes.

But local Armenian-Americans say the language curriculum is deeply meaningful to the community, and should not be abandoned.

Ani Eskici, a 1986 Watertown High School graduate, took Armenian classes from Yacoubian, and today her 15-year-old son, Kevin, is a second-generation student.

Eskici’s great-grandparents perished in the genocide, and she was raised in Turkey by parents who were forbidden to speak Armenian because of governmental regulation. Today, as a bank teller at Watertown Savings Bank, Eskici uses her Armenian skills daily to assist elderly Armenian-speaking customers.

She hopes Kevin can use his language education to not only visit his homeland and relatives, but to work oversees in business or diplomacy.

“The program has been so important to us and I think it is so important for the community. I was so disappointed to hear it could get cut. There are a lot of people who value it greatly,’’ Eskici said.

Koufman-Frederick said the district wants to support the program, but admitted the future is anything but clear.

“We’re trying to be as smart as possible with what we offer,’’ said Koufman-Frederick, who noted that one of her goals as the system’s incoming chief is to appoint a task force to overhaul and expand foreign language programming, especially in the elementary schools.

Perhaps a partnership with local Armenian cultural organizations could be fostered to help support Watertown High’s offerings, she said.

Houry Boyamian, principal of St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary, which has students in preschool through fifth grade, said the loss of Armenian at the high school would be devastating.

“It is very important that our students can continue learning at an advanced level in school,’’ she said. St. Stephen’s already operates supplementary Armenian classes for its young members on Saturdays and Sundays, in addition to its day school and Armenian-language church services.

Watertown should not take the language program away, Boyamian said. “I think it should continue.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.