Learning Latin in the ‘Hood

Published June 21, 2013

Boys’ Latin Charter School sits in west Philadelphia, but despite the high-crime locale, it doesn’t employ metal detectors and security guards. It relies, instead, on strong educator-student relationships and expectations, and a parent-backed commitment to student success. And all of its students learn Latin.

Most students enter the high school poorly educated, but school staff builds up the students, said Elaine Wells, one of the school’s parent leaders. Seventy-eight percent of the school’s 460 students qualify for free or reduced-price federal lunch, a proxy for low income.

During his enrollment, Wells’ son was diagnosed with a sleep disorder. Boys’ Latin faculty and staff immediately responded.

“They allowed him to take the strenuous classes early in the morning when he was most awake,” Wells said. “As the day went on and he felt himself dragging, he was given one-on-one time with the teachers.”

Teachers and administrators are available to students around the clock via personal email addresses and phone numbers, said Latin teacher and department chair Sarah Flounders.

“I have friends who are teachers at other schools who think it’s crazy, the amount that I communicate with my students,” Flounders said. “I love that we are so open. It helps them know that there are more people on their side.”

In a city with some of the worst dropout and student achievement rates in the nation, 99 percent of Boys Latin students were accepted to colleges in 2012.

Challenging Students
The 2013 valedictorian, Miles Burton, credits his teachers with his development as a scholar and person.

“They challenge us,” Burton said. “If they understand that you are a level ahead, they’ll give you more difficult work.”

Burton entered Pomona College in fall 2013, having graduated with academic scholarships, AP credits, and a 4.29 GPA on a four-point scale. Teachers have promised him they’re available for him while he’s in college, too.

Because it is a public charter school, Boys Latin is free to students and must accept any male student who applies, or if more want to attend than seats are available, must hold a lottery.

Parent Involvement
The school also aims to engage students’ families, said Noah Tennant, its principal. Before students enroll, parents must visit the school and agree to repeat that twice a month during the school year.

“We talk about expectations, what a school day looks like, difficulty, what they need to be doing,… if college is part of their vision,” he said.

The school hosts numerous workshops and required seminars for students and parents to discuss resumes, finances, and getting into college.

No Test Prep Focus
The challenging, personal setting is a dream environment, Flounders said.

“Our excellent teachers value that they are trusted and given some latitude to take risks … and implement their curriculum in a way that is meaningful to their students,” Tennant said.

The school’s teacher evaluation, which its teachers helped create, focuses on student engagement and critical thinking.

“These are more important than standardized test scores,” Tennant said. “We thought if we were only working toward test preparation, [it was] the lowest common denominator.”

An intrinsically challenging education produces the best results for young people, and studying Latin improves verbal, writing, and even science test scores, Tennant said. In 2012, 53 percent of Boys’ Latin students ranked proficient in reading and 43 percent in math on state tests. For surrounding Philadelphia high schools, those numbers are 43 and 36 percent, respectively.

Developing a Scholarly Culture
Students partake in summer reading and college-bound programs, and they travel for Latin competitions. Students have competed at Penn State, Holy Cross, and Yale University.

“Latin has provided our guys with a really unique opportunity [of] social learning and vision establishment through these tournaments,” Tennant said. “Our guys are on these college campuses with like-minded students, and they start to envision themselves as academics and scholars.”

College enrollment is more important to staff than college acceptance, he said. Boys’ Latin students currently have an 81 percent college matriculation rate.

“There’s not another school in the commonwealth that has eight out of ten black males completing college,” Tennant said. “We’re proud of that number, but not satisfied with it, either.” 

Image courtesy of Boys’ Latin.