The opportunity to furnish a classroom is exciting. The opportunity to develop and direct the furnishing of an entire new primary school is extraordinary, especially when that school must seamlessly integrate into a beloved, 113-year-old educational institutional.
Tasos Barmpas, who is living that experience, agrees. He is the director of preschool and primary education at the American Farm School (AFS) in Greece. He joined AFS in 2012 to help develop its new primary school division. In 2013, he was appointed the first principal of the school, which opened that fall with one class of first grade students. By 2017-18, AFS will have two classes for grades 1 – 4, one section for fifth grade, and has plans to open a middle school in 2019.
To grasp the magnitude of this endeavor, one must first understand the historical and educational significance of the ever-growing AFS.
It is an independent, non-profit educational institute on the eastern edge of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. Its thriving 280-acre campus includes pre-K, kindergarten, a primary school, high school, vocational high school, Perrotis College, and adult education programs.
The learn-by-doing school is known globally as a premier center for contemporary education and research in agriculture, food systems, environmental studies, and other life sciences. It is an oasis of educational buildings, an edible garden, and a large campus farm that serves as a living laboratory for hands-on education and applied research.
For the curious, AFS got its name from American missionaries who founded the school in 1904 as way to provide war-orphaned boys training in crops, livestock production and industrial skills. The school’s holistic mission has remained intact, “Educate the whole individual: the head, the hands, the soul” (for all genders).
The Search for Furniture
Strategically and philosophically, adding primary education back in 2013 fit the AFS mission perfectly. AFS President Dr. Panos Kanellis felt that to help new generations of young people in Greece develop a harmonious relationship with earth and one another, AFS must reach the youngest learners (preK classes began in 2011).
But it wasn’t that simple. Everything in the new primary school (i.e., furniture, technological infrastructure and other educational programs) had to support and connect with AFS’s existing education levels and unique learning methodologies, Barmpas explained.
“We knew we would apply cooperative learning and differentiated instruction eventually to all elementary classes, in addition to teaching students 21st Century skills,” he said. “It was clear that our furniture should support those goals.” In earnest, he began researching classroom furniture manufacturers. He was given a printed catalog with U.S. furniture companies, and Smith System’s products immediately caught his eye. But he wasn’t ready to commit.
“We tried very hard to find furniture of the same quality, design and educational philosophy in Europe. Everything seemed to come second to Smith System.” Barmpas was also looking for flexibility in how teachers and students could use the desks, seating and storage. “Education is transforming all the time, so the furniture has to adapt to different educational needs.”
He dove into Smith’s production lines, learning everything he could from its website and videos.
Crafting the Orders
With input from teaching staff, Barmpas selected desks, chairs, storage units, shelving and lecterns by grade and classroom. He then illustrated to President Kanellis how the selections would cover various needs over time.
Barmpas placed his first order with Smith System in 2013 and will soon place his fourth, again through South Carolina-based Sher Global Distribution.
“All furniture in the elementary school comes from Smith System. Everything. We also ordered student desks and chairs for our high school.” Barmpas has coordinated all Smith orders, which have included a wide variety of furnishings: Flavors chairs, Plato chairs and stools, Chat chairs, UXL chairs; Planner student desks with under-mount book boxes, and Silhouette desks; Cascade storage units with removable totes; shelves and book carts, and lecterns for staff.
Today, Smith’s furniture appears in many colors throughout the school and across grade levels.
“One of the students’ favorite learning spaces is the Media and Resource Center, where they can choose among a variety of tools, as well as desks and chairs, depending on their project.” The Center can accommodate larger and smaller groups, individual study, and theater plays.
Putting the Furniture to Work
Barmpas is pleased to report that the Smith furniture is working very well. In particular, teachers like the lightweight chairs and desks, which are easy to reconfigure in pairs, triads and quads for collaborative learning. The desks with trays offer great mobility and storage, and the Cascade storage units are highly versatile.
The furniture – and accessories – also accommodates modern learning technologies. For example, iPad apps are often used in the classrooms. Students can quickly and silently stand up, retrieve their iPad from their personal tray in the storage cabinet, and return to their seat. Students can also easily carry their under-mount desk trays with them as they move to learning areas away from their desks, even outdoors.
Overcoming Long-Distance Concerns
While the transatlantic partnership with Smith System has been flawless, Barmpas initially had some trepidation. All of which were understandable. Would there be problems working with a supplier so far away? What about shipping costs and turnaround time? What if AFS needed after-market service?
“Each of those were a serious concern, before we placed our first order. But Smith had the quality we wanted and handled several revisions well, so we moved ahead,” Barmpas explained. “We’ve had no issues. So far, not even one chair has had a problem.”
Richard Sher, president of Sher Global Distribution, has assisted Barmpas with the Smith orders and delivery, working to sort through equipment, match parts, record colors, and oversee other options.
“We went through many revisions on each order, so I had to make sure the master list was current and accurate. Smith System was very helpful in the process, and quickly revised the parts list, costs and freight information.” Sher then calculated the transportation costs and handled delivery, documentation, and other details for AFS.
He attributes the successful partnership to Barmpas’ thorough understanding of Smith’s products and what he needed, and everyone’s extreme attention to detail.
“When serving a customer outside of the U.S., there really is no room for error. It’s not feasible to return and replace furniture that was wrongly quoted or ordered. It has to be right the first time, and I do everything I can to make sure that happens,” said Sher, who has been in the furniture distribution industry for over 35 years.
Smith and AFS have also been proactive in anticipating any possible hiccups. Barmpas adds, “We always order additional totes or casters, and Smith provides us with extra parts.”
What About International Shipping and Delivery?
According to Sher, planning and experience are essential to meeting the right drop time.
“We have to plan the logistics of the order very carefully, because we have a fairly small window for delivery. If it arrives too early, not enough staff is available to install the furniture. It arrives too late, there aren’t enough seats [or desks, etc.] to successfully open the school year.”
Smith also took steps to make furniture distribution and set-up easier for employees of the AFS Technical Works Department. The company separated primary and secondary school orders into different containers and marked boxes accordingly.
As AFS moves forward with its new middle school, Barmpas has no reservations about placing future orders with state-side Smith System.
“All of us at AFS share the same appreciation for the company. It’s a great pleasure working with Smith System, and Richard Sher as our dealer.”
Smith System thanks Tasos Barmpas and Richard Sher for their generous input in making this article possible. To learn more about the American Farm School, visit afs.edu.gr.
“American Farm School Grows Greek Entrepreneurs.” The National Herald. TNH staff. March 30, 2016.
“The American Farm School of Thessaloniki.” NEO Magazine. June, 2011.
American Farm School annual report and website: afs.edu.gr.