Small academy a melting pot; students aim for big ideals

by Michael Durand


One of the most recognizable architectural treasures in the Richmond District is the

Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary Boulevard with its five glittering onion domes

covered in 24-carat gold leaf. While many local residents know about the iconic

landmark, few know about the school tucked away underneath the house of worship:

St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy.


With 53 students, classroom sizes are intimate. Serving students from kindergarten

through 12th grade, teachers usually have only four children per class.

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Erin Pick (second from left) teaches ballroom dance to students at the St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, co-educational, non-profit college-preparatory school founded in 1994 for grades K-12. Photos: Philip Liborio Gangi

“We follow a classical model of education,” said Mary Najjarian, serving in her

fifth year as principal at St. John. “In addition to English, science, history and math, our

students also take languages starting with Russian or Greek in elementary school, French

in middle and high school, then adding Latin and ancient Greek in high school,”

Najjarian said.


About 90 percent of the students speak a language other than English at home,

with about half speaking Russian. Many students enter kindergarten not speaking

English at all, so they are taught English through an intensive immersion program.


“We have seen students who came into our school speaking no English becoming

not just competent but fluent and poetic,” Najjarian said.


Students from K-12 also take physical education, music and art classes.


The school was named for St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a bishop in

Shanghai who came to the United States and brought an orphanage from China.

St. John oversaw the building of the cathedral, which was completed in 1965.


Before officially becoming an accredited school in 1994, St. John was a homeschool

cooperative started by Father Sergey Kotar and his wife, Maria. Families came together

to provide students with a classical education and an orthodox way of life based on

traditional Christian values.


“Community is very important to us,” Najjarian said. “As a small school, we

have a unique opportunity to really know each other. We have created an environment

where students have a chance to be responsible for each other and to help each other

out. We have a buddy system between kindergarten and middle school. Their older

buddies help them to navigate things that are a little bit harder when you’re in

kindergarten, which gives middle school students an opportunity to think a little bit less

about themselves and more about what other people need.


“We also have a very robust community service program. Currently, grades 6-12

are involved with a grocery delivery program for elderly people with low incomes.

Once a week, even during the summer, the food bank delivers pallets of food, then our

students organize everything and fill bags with food to be delivered,” Najjarian said.

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St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy students
attend afternoon prayers at the Holy Virgin Cathedral.

Another popular feature at the school is its experiential learning program for kids to get

hands-on training. It is a chance for urban kids to get physically engaged in the outside

world. Each year there is a new theme. This year the theme is ceramics. The students

learn about the history of ceramics then get to throw pots and create their own art.


Samar Musleh has been working at the school for five years as the administrative

assistant/office manager/guidance counselor. Musleh’s son started in kindergarten

and is currently in ninth grade.


“My husband tells people who are interested in attending the school: ‘It’s a

hidden treasure that you’re lucky to find,’” Musleh said. “As a parent, I am very happy

with the school academically. Part of what keeps me content is that I love the atmosphere

of a family. It’s a community. Everyone helps each other. Everyone eats together.

The olders take care of the youngers and the youngers play with the olders. It’s a

place where you want your kids to go. They feel safe,” Musleh said.


The school’s goal is to add a few more students.


“For those interested in finding out more about the school,” Najjarian said,

“the best thing you can do is visit. Our environment is hard to capture in words.

There’s something about seeing it in action and feeling it to know if it’s the right

place for you.”


For more information, go to the website at

or visit its Facebook page.

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