An ambitious new Southwest Philadelphia charter school uses an ancient language as a formula for learning.
Nattily turned out as ever in a tweed business suit and dimpled tie, Hardy leans back in his chair and thinks about expelling students. "It's real bad," he murmurs. "Real bad."
He says the student's only option now is to try to navigate public school. "We can't have people stealing here," he says. "This is our community."
Had the student admitted to the theft, or had this been his first offense, Hardy might've overlooked the infraction. But he denied the charge and had already been suspended for a previous theft.
As Hardy discusses the expulsion, a fight breaks out a few rooms away.
Hardy runs to the scene and helps intercept the brawlers--one diminutive with wavy black hair, the other squat and barrel-chested with a trace of a mustache bristling over his dark skin.
Turns out a trivial dustup over tossed paper balls prompted the fisticuffs. "What are you doing throwing paper balls?" Hardy asks one. "I expect you to be more of a leader."
Hardy listens to a weak and tearful rebuttal from one of the students. "Everybody else says you threw the first punch," Hardy says to him. When he gets a long ramble in response, he tells the boy, "You're going to be suspended. You escalated something silly."
Hardy summons the child's teachers, and asks him how he's doing with his work. The boy says he's doing well in art, but Hardy counters by bringing in his biology teacher.
"You're not preparing like you used to," the teachers reports. "You had one of the best grades in my class on the first report card. What changed?"
The student sits quietly, his head hanging, protesting with plaintive tears.
Finally the biology teacher stands, grimaces and marches from the room. As he leaves, he drops his hand onto the boy's head in half rebuke, half encouragement.
It's March, and the students of Boys' Latin are assembling for the second time all year. Because the trailers are too small and the school's future building still isn't ready, the students celebrate their first convocation in the chapel of Mercy Hospital, just a block away.
Sculptures scattered around the room tell the story of Jesus' march to the cross, and two immense lattice frames hang beneath the 30-foot skylight, offset by a miniscule dove hanging just below.
Hardy starts the convocation by ordering the students to stand. The students come to their feet, and recite the Boys' Latin School pledge: "Education is my birthright. Education is the birthright of all children. Education is the pathway to freedom, the freedom to achieve my personal dreams."
The words roll off the students' tongues: "I commit myself this day to my family and my community. I make these commitments freely and publicly."
The results of the Latin exam are back. Two students have won medals, and 25 have come within a hair's breadth. "It was a 40-question test, and we didn't do a lot of Latin culture. When you look at it that way, I think they did very well," Hardy says.
The important thing, he says, is that students are learning to read--in English, Latin and soon other languages. They're learning to think and to dress well. Of the initial 144, the inaugural class of Boys' Latin has lost just 12 students since September. And where once there was only raw energy, a focus and drive in the students has emerged. There's something happening here in Southwest Philadelphia.
St. John Barned-Smith last wrote about a war veteran eager to return to Iraq. Comments on this story can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
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