Heghine Movsesyan visiting Massachusetts 911 center (courtesy Heghine Movesyan)

Education Champion Heghine Movsesyan Helps Vanadzor Students

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WATERTOWN — People always seem to seek uplifting and inspiring stories in the holiday season. Consequently, the story of Heghine Movsesyan is quite appropriate and rewarding. Overcoming a variety of challenges in life, Heghine has created a free afterschool school program for children in her native city of Vanadzor, the capital of Lori Province of Armenia, and recently was in the United States on a two-week trip to gather more information for her work.

Movsesyan discovered while young that she had a talent for languages. Her mother paid for private lessons by selling the family’s heirlooms. In 2006, she graduated the No. 8 Anoosh Mathevosian School in Vanadzor, which itself is a manifestation of the good deeds of the school’s namesake philanthropist in the United States, and entered Vanadzor H. Toumanyan State Pedagogical University. She graduated with honors, focusing on the English language and literature and then earned a master’s degree in pedagogy in the fields of foreign language and literature in 2012.

Heghine Movsesyan with Steven Greenberg (photo: Aram Arkun)

Movsesyan now can speak many languages, including Armenian, Russian, English, German and French, and can read some Latin, Arabic, Italian and Urdu. She said, “The more languages we know, the more capable we are in a changing world. I would like to speak to each person in his own language.”

She applied for a job in the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Republic of Armenia, and after taking the necessary examination and taking part in interviews, became one of only five people chosen out of 240 applicants. Her language skills in particular were a great asset. She began work in August 2014 at the Emergency Preparedness Services in Vanadzor. This is the equivalent of 911 in the United States. She responds to emergency calls, does translation and interpretation, and registers disasters.

Movsesyan knew that in Vanadzor, the public schools were not as good as they were in the Soviet period. Tutoring was necessary so that students could advance and get higher education. The same teachers from the public schools would charge money for afterschool lessons, but the poor could not afford this. She felt bad and wanted to create a free tutoring program.

She said, “First of all, I wanted to teach English, because it is an international language. In Armenian, you need to take an exam in English if you want to enter nearly any university. We wanted to start with English, but it turned into a school.” She invited several dozen students to her home, an apartment on the seventh floor of a Soviet-era building, and implemented the program Reach Out and Touch the Stars. The students began receiving top marks of 10 out of 10 in English in school, while in Russian and Armenian they only were getting 7s and 6s. Peace Corps Volunteers helped teach in her program.

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Movsesyan related that the parents were shocked and began asking for other subjects to be taught, and therefore Armenian classes were added. Peace Corps volunteer Steven Greenberg, in Vanadzor doing youth and community development, met her when she was starting the school in 2014. He suggested that she should also teach critical thinking and executive function skills, as he noticed this lacking in the Armenian educational system. He said, “I had become aware that even though I was dealing with many, many smart people, when a problem would arise, they did not have a rubric to deal with them.” He and other Peace Corps volunteers brought Movsesyan appropriate English-language source materials.

Heghine Movsesyan (photo: Aram Arkun)

Teaching these skills was as simple as giving students money for paying for something, like a taxi, and asking them how much change they should bring back. Usually children were not given such challenges in Armenia. Movsesyan applied this approach to everything, forming teams and people in charge of various parts of the class.

Greenberg said that they raised around $1,000, the amount necessary annually to provide the costs of transportation of the students to and from the program, pencils and paper, snacks and other incidental expenses. Anecdotal evidence of the school’s success spread, so that both the topics taught and the numbers of students increased.

Even Movsesyan’s boss at work, a colonel in emergency services, requested that his children come to her school and two rooms were offered for free in the 911 center of Vanadzor for the school. Today there are 100 students, and these are no longer just students from poor families, as the elite of the city also send their children. There are four paid teachers and the rest are volunteers.

The school’s official name is the Heghine Sheikha School. Sheikha is the feminine form of sheikh, and, Heghine said, refers to the ancient notion that the prince must do philanthropic work of his own will. If you do not share, what you have otherwise will be taken away from you.

Movsesyan tutors and manages the school for free, while the 911 center, recognizing her pedagogical and organizational abilities, has reduced some of her responsibilities like answering emergency calls, and instead asked her to focus more on educational projects for the children of Armenia. She works one 24-hour shift and then rests for three days. She has some opportunity even during the 24 hours to work on the school since the school is in her work building now. Movsesyan goes to other schools in the area to give training talks on emergency situations.

Students of the Heghine Sheikha School (courtesy Heghine Movesyan)

Her own school has classes from 1 to 7 p.m., four days a week, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. However, the children can call to ask questions on the days off, and Movsesyan said, “They treat teachers like their parents.”

Movsesyan teaches English, both written and oral, and grammar, as well as crisis management, at her school. Other teachers give lessons on Armenian language and literature, arts, human rights, first aid, and issues of civil defense and safety in emergency situations. Movsesyan said that the emphasis on emergency situations was necessary because unfortunately they were frequent in Armenia.

She said, “We have classes even for 7-year-old children on earthquakes. Parents ask why do you make such a difficult curriculum, but I say that if an earthquake happens, it will not say that you are a 7-year-old child, go away.” There was an earthquake in May 2018 scoring six on the Richter Scale. Heghine said, “The 7-year-old child not only protected herself but knew what to do and gave advice to her grandparents.”

Movsesyan spoke about the goals of her school, declaring: “We know that high-quality education is nothing but a perquisite to development. Our goal is to promote education in Armenia for leadership development and life skills, cultivating creative thinking in our students. We try to do the best for them because children are diamonds and we should keep them in a safe place. Education is a weapon in the cycle of life and nowadays, life is challenging.”  Most importantly, she said, “We want our students to be the ideal that they want to be.”

Heghine said that the school has two children with disabilities at present and they are treated no differently than the other students. She said, “We believe in the power of every single child or person with disability or handicap, so our school doors are open to everyone.”

The curriculum is always being expanded, but chess maintains an important place in it. Some of her students took part in the Armenian National Olympics, and one, Vahe Hovhannisyan, took first place. Movsesyan said that he is one of the top students who wants to continue his education abroad and come back to make his own contribution in Vanadzor.

Movsesyan seems to have the qualities of a good diplomat as well as a good teacher and organizer. She keeps in touch with the leaders of Vanadzor city and Lori Province without being involved in political issues. She received a medal of recognition from the previous president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, but everyone understands that this was not due to politics but a function of the office of the presidency.

When Greenberg’s cousin, Gerald Appelstein, learned of the school, he donated a transformational sum of money. A new planning and support team called Armenica was created, with Movsesyan, Greenberg, Appelstein and the latter’s partner, Estela Margarita Arco-Blaustein. Armenica stands for Armenia plus America, to continue to provide high-quality education in Vanadzor. The school at present is registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO), Heghine Sheikha Children’s Advocacy NGO, with Movsesyan as president and her sister Jane as executive director.

Greenberg and Appelstein coordinated Heghine’s two-week November visit to Boston and New Jersey/New York, which is her first trip to the United States. Greenberg had not seen her since he left Armenia two years ago.

Heghine said, “I came to the US to be trained, to learn more about the US educational system and to expand new horizons for our children.” She visited educational specialists at the Waldorf School in Lexington and the Meridian Academy in Jamaica Plain, which have child-centered approaches toward education. She spoke with the person who runs the Middlesex College World Language program, to see what they do with students. After visiting Harvard University, Heghine decided to have as a goal that one of her alumni will eventually attend it.

The visit also included emergency services work, so she became the first specialist from Armenia to go to the “Turret,” the operations division of the Boston police containing its 911 communications center. She went to the Brookline Incident Command Center, where the police showed her how their emergency system works. Heghine later compared it with the system back home, stating that “in Armenia, we do have some computers but not as much as it here, because of lack of finances. We sometimes still have to use paper and pen.”

Aside from providing Heghine firsthand information on American educational and emergency service techniques, and culture, the US trip had one more happy result: Gerald Appelstein announced that he would fund the school’s expenses for two more years to allow it time to become self-sustaining. For updates on the school, see https://www.facebook.com/Heghine-Sheikha-Childrens-Advocacy-Ngo-263212510492839/

 

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