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.
“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,”
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.
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 http://www.stjohnsacademysf.org/home
or visit its Facebook page.