An ambitious new Southwest Philadelphia charter school uses an ancient language as a formula for learning.
Photographs by Michael Persico
caption: caption: School building: Teacher Sara Flounders and CEO David Hardy hope Latin will help their students achieve.
Web headline: Latin Lovers
Web subheadline: An ambitious new Southwest Philadelphia charter school uses an ancient language as a formula for learning. -->
An ambitious Southwest Philadelphia charter school uses an ancient language as a new formula for learning.
There are minefields on the path to maturity for every young person in this city. But for many young male Philadelphians, the danger runs deeper.
Young men in Philadelphia public schools are more likely than most to live with one parent, have a parent in jail, reside in drug-addled neighborhoods or experience violence. Students in too many Philadelphia public schools can't be guaranteed basic safety, let alone a decent education.
Enter the Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, a new college prep school at 55th and Cedar in Southwest Philadelphia with an ambitious plan to avert the tragedy that defines the city's public school system. Boys' Latin's first batch of students--144 ninth-graders--occupy a 10-room temporary structure as they wait for contractors to finish renovations on the building next door.
Last year there were 11 murders within five blocks of where Boys' Latin sits. "I worry about the students," says teacher Paula Sahm, who lives in the Art Museum area of Philadelphia. "I'll sit and watch the news, and if I even hear Southwest Philly, I get chills."
Next to the trailer setup is the shell of a former school, once attached to Transfiguration Church, which was destroyed by fire in 2006. Boards cover most of the windows, and pickup trucks occupy most of the adjacent lot. But by next year the school building plans to house 300 Boys' Latin students, with plans to grow enrollment to 600 by 2010.
Inside the temporary structures teachers drill Latin, biology, math, music, and English composition and literature into the minds of the kids who make up the school's inaugural class. It's a full-blown college prep program, one entirely different from the curriculum offered by the schools most of these students attended before. The range of student ability is dramatic. While some of the students previously attended private school, others can barely read.
David Hardy, 57, Philadelphia Boys' Latin's CEO, says he chose Latin as the foundation for his new school because students who study it consistently score higher on SATs and do better in other subjects because it holds them to high standards that public schools can't hold them to.
Studying the Latin language, according to the school's statement, also helps students learn other languages faster--especially romance languages--while aiding in the acquisition of non-romance languages. Additionally, Latin's differing structures and sentence order "help develop observant, analytical and logical students," according to the school's website and promotional pamphlets.
That it may seem more difficult for his students is of no concern to Hardy. "If you can create an environment where learning can take place," he says, "you can teach anything."
Hardy says Boys' Latin recruits students through advertising, school visits and word of mouth. Interested parents attend information sessions held by Hardy and his staff. Prospective students are then scheduled for an interview in which they're told what will be expected of them--essentially reading them the riot act about the amount of work and time they'll have to put in on homework and other school activities, as well as the strict discipline and behavior codes of the school. If they're still interested after that, they're enrolled on a first-come, first-served basis, he says.
Philadelphia Boys' Latin is a far cry from 78 Avenue Louis Pasteur, home to the Boston Latin School, the original American Latin School founded almost 400 years ago and that enrolls about 2,400 students in grades seven through 12. That Latin school, a magnet public school, draws from the smartest sixth- and eighth-graders in the city and the surrounding area.
|School building: Teacher Sara Flounders and CEO David Hardy hope Latin will help their students achieve.|
A far cry because many of these Philadelphia students struggle to spell and grasp basic concepts--not in Latin, but in English. Boston Latin enrolls mostly affluent students, predominantly white and Asian, and these days increasingly female.
The students seem to increasingly come from richer and richer sections of the city. Few hail from neighborhoods anywhere near as dangerous as those where many of the Boys' Latin students reside. Still, it appears some of the same intensity Boston Latin is famous for may be brewing here.
Sara Flounders' classroom could be the set of a high school-set TV show.