Metro schools see renewed interest in Latin

Et tu, Atlanta?

Schools in the metro area and Georgia are seeing a renewed student interest in Latin, joining a resurgence in schools across the country of the language once considered “dead” and outmoded. Students are turning to Latin to beef up SAT scores and learn more about the ancient language with deep connections to English and early civilization.

Fulton County's school board members recently approved petitions for two charter schools with a focus on Latin — a first for the district. At least one charter school in the Atlanta public school system – the Latin Academy — already offers an emphasis in Latin within the curriculum. There's also Atlanta Classical Academy, another new charter that emphasizes a classical liberal arts education, including learning Latin.

“We would argue vehemently that Latin is very much alive,” said Chris Clemons, founder of the Latin Academy and the two Latin charter schools in Fulton. “Sixty percent of the words in the English language are derived from Latin … So Latin lives through our modern languages.”

Clemons’ Latin Grammar School is a kindergarten through fifth-grade elementary school, and the Latin College Preparatory School a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school. Both would open by the 2015-2016 school year and are projected to serve about 360 students each.

The schools will have the use of a Fulton County school building – the soon-to-be-vacant Oak Knoll Elementary School in East Point – but will relocate to their own facilities after four years.

The Fulton schools will be modeled on Clemons’ Latin Academy, which serves around 260 middle school students. Founded in 2012, the Latin Academy offers all the core subjects required of public school middle schoolers, with Latin as the compulsory language.

“We offer Latin because we think it’s an excellent preparation (for college) and really gives our kids a leg up when they’re taking standardized tests,” Clemons said. “Students who have had a least a year of Latin do better on the SAT than students who haven’t had Latin … It provides our students really important access to elements of mainstream culture that are important.”

Latasha Robinson, who has two daughters attending the Latin Academy, said the girls have improved academically and enjoy studying Latin. She believes learning Latin is preparing them well for college.

“In schools you’ve got to learn Spanish, you’ve got to learn French,” she said. “You never hear about Latin. So I thought that was something creative … getting in their mind, ‘you are college-bound ready, you can achieve your goals’ and teaching them how to reach their goals.”

Once a requirement at many public and private schools, Latin fell away from being taught during the anti-establishment, cultural upheaval of the 1960s but began to see a resurgence in the 1980s and 90s and the past decade, according to language scholars.

Paul Sandrock, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said 205,000 students are enrolled in Latin classes across the country, based on 2007-08 school year data, the most recent available. Georgia saw an increase in the number of students taking Latin – primarily in high schools and middle schools — for the same time period, with 11,026 enrolled.

Schools are seeing a renewed interest in Latin because it helps prepare students for the SAT and college but also because it’s a reflection of early civilization, which is interesting to students, he said.

“It’s not always, ‘Oh I want to learn a lot of vocabulary,’ ” Sandrock said. “Obviously that’s important, and it does give one an insight into a lot of the roots of English words and the structure of language.

“People are intrigued about our own civilization and obviously a lot of the roots of our civilization come from the classical world. As people understand ‘Where did democracy come from, how did it evolve? How did it change? What happened to that particular empire?’ those are lessons that have an impact today.”

Ken Zeff, chief strategy and innovation officer with Fulton County schools, said the district is trying to offer more school choice to parents interested in alternatives to traditional public school settings — such as the Latin charter schools. He says a few middle schools and high schools teach Latin classes in Fulton but don’t build their curriculums around it, like the two charter schools. There are currently eight start-up charters in Fulton County Schools, he said.

Zeff said more school choice is especially needed in south Fulton County, where there are a number of lower-performing schools.

“We have a population we need help serving,” Zeff said. “They’re currently underserved in the south of our county, and we would love some innovative models to create more choice for kids.”

“The idea of using it (Latin) as the guiding philosophy of your curriculum is something unique,” he added. “It’s innovative. The whole idea of the charter concept is — if this works, and we see they’re getting gains with kids that maybe we didn’t normally think could be exposed to Latin — then we should look for opportunities to bring that into our schools.”

Clemons, a former teacher who taught eighth-grade history at a private school in Philadelphia with an active classics department, said he wanted to establish schools with a Latin and classics focus because he saw how well it prepared students for college – and how much they enjoyed it. He intentionally has sought to establish his Latin schools in impoverished areas with lower-performing schools, to give disadvantaged kids a chance to experience the classics too.

“We’re providing college-preparatory education options with Latin as a key part of our curriculum to populations that typically that’s not offered to,” Clemons said. “I’m passionate about demographics not determining the destiny of our kids and providing a high quality college-preparatory education to every student. This is the model through which we’re achieving it.”