Strike at Melkonian over accusations of poor standards

Strike at Melkonian over accusations of poor standards
By Jean Christou

Cyprus Mail, Cyprus
May 28 2004

Teachers say they’re being used as scapegoats

STAFF AND students at the Melkonian Educational Institute (MEI) in
Nicosia staged a six-hour strike yesterday to protest against the
planned closure of the school in June next year.

Teachers said they would also refuse to give year-end grades after
the school’s governing body insinuated that education standards were
not up to scratch at the 78-year old Armenian school.

The loss-making MEI, which is sitting on an estimated £40 million
worth of real estate in the capital’s commercial district has been
slated to close next year by the New York-based Armenian General
Benevolent Union (AGBU).

Carrying banners that read: ‘Save Our School’, ‘AGBU American Gangsters
and Bandits Unlimited’ and ‘Watergate, Irangate, Melkoniangate’, both
teachers and pupils demonstrated all morning outside the entrance to
the school.

When the strike ended the teachers held a news conference to explain
their position with regard to the claims by the AGBU that standards
were not up to scratch. “This is one of the key issues in the dispute
that we have,” said geography teacher Keith Lawson. “What they said
is unfair and we dispute that.”

Lawson said that despite teachers’ efforts to engage in a dialogue
with the AGBU on the future of the school, they had received no
response. Neither had any inspectors been to evaluate standards at
the school, he said questioning how the AGBU had managed to come up
with its conclusions.

“This is deeply offensive to us as professionals,” said Lawson.
“Results bear testimony to rising rather than falling standards. We
are just the scapegoats for an ulterior motive – which is financial –
and we want a retraction. We are not prepared to be maligned any more
in public over standards.”

Physics teacher Demetris Aristides, who has been at MEI for 29 years,
making him the longest serving teacher at the school, said the people
of Cyprus have to know that the “murder of an educational institute”
is taking place on the island.

Aristides said the school’s closure is not only devastating for
Armenian and other pupils from Cyprus but a catastrophe for Armenian
children from the Diaspora, and especially from countries like Bulgaria
and Albania. “It’s a crime against education and against the Armenian
language,” he said adding that the support the MEI has received in
Cyprus has been “fantastic”.

Lawson said parents have now been left in a quandary over what to do
about the school year 2004/2005. Teachers said that during the last
few days members of the administration staff, entrusted by the AGBU,
have been quietly ringing students’ parents to discourage them from
sending their children to the MEI next year. “There is chaos over
what is going to happen in the coming school year and we are not
being told anything,” said Lawson.

He said all the teachers have been told by the AGBU is that the school
would close and a letter of platitudes praising them for working hard
but that the school would still be shut.

The AGBU, which oversees 22 Armenian schools worldwide, said last
November that the school was not for sale but then changed tack and
announced the closure.

The teachers said last year the school’s population was reduced from
260 to 210 after the AGBU unilaterally decided to reduce scholarships
to underprivileged children from the Armenian Diaspora.

Staff say there is no doubt that the AGBU is trying to use the teaching
staff as a scapegoat for their decision to close the school to sell
the land on which it stands and that they are using devious methods
to reduce the student population of the school in order to turn it
into a non-viable school and ultimately to close it. The AGBU is
working on a preconceived plan, they said.