At a Bronx School, Latin is the Root of all Learning

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 29 18:50:43 UTC 2006

>>From the NyTimes,  November 29, 2006

At a Bronx School, Latin Is the Root of All Learning

At the Bronx Latin School, one of New Yorks multiplying number of small
themed public middle and high schools, Latin is what Alfred Hitchcock used
to call the MacGuffin: a plot device that grabs our attention while the
story has a larger purpose. The schools larger purpose is simple: to get
students, most of them struggling with literacy, as the founding
principal, Leticia Pineiro, said, to read and also do math at grade level
or better. The three-year-old school is gambling that teaching Latin will
initiate poor and working-class students into the mysteries of how any
language especially English works by illuminating the long-neglected art
of grammar and enriching their English vocabulary with Latin roots.

In Peter Dodington's seventh-grade class the other day, the talk was about
Latin verbs. With portat he, she or it carries Mr. Dodington, 61, elicited
from his students English derivatives like portable and teleport.  That
led to a discussion of the Greek root, tele, for far off, which yielded a
new understanding of how words like telephone (sound that travels far) and
telegraph (writing that travels far) are shaped. The class then switched
to translating the fable about a shepherd saved from having to fight a
lion because he had pulled a thorn from its paw.  The story was right out
of the textbook Cambridge Latin Course, used by elite private schools, and
the students seemed to enjoy translating phrases like cur lacrimas, leo?
and cur me non consumis? Why are you crying lion? Why don't you eat me? In
the era of Harry Potter and recondite medieval mysteries, the students
seemed enchanted by Latin's esoteric, exclusive aura.

Nobody knows what you're talking about, said a proudly grinning Christian
Graham, 14. A visit to Bronx Latin suggests that its approach may be
working.  Moreover, on this years state English test, 50.9 percent of
seventh graders read at grade level or better while only 31.8 percent of
seventh graders in the surrounding South Bronx region performed that well.
But the visit also did not allay some of the doubts experts raise about
small schools, almost 200 of which have been created by the Bloomberg
administration in the last three years, often with foundation money. For
example, there remains the distinct possibility that higher reading scores
at Bronx Latin might be the result of self-selection: families or guidance
counselors urging Bronx Latin on children may have higher ambitions for

Though she never studied Latin, Ms. Pineiro, 40, a graduate of the private
Dalton School in Manhattan and Wesleyan University, deeply believes in her
schools focus. She is an intensely dedicated leader on whom little is
lost, the kind who will stoop to pick up a student's dropped tissue and
correct a novice teacher, who lets students watch a film without requiring
note-taking. She is delighted to be returning to the Bronx community where
she grew up. This is my passion, this is my baby, she said of the school.
But people who have studied such schools wonder if idiosyncratic carpers
might say gimmicky missions like teaching Latin can sustain themselves
once their founders move on.

What happens when that initial spark is gone, when you have
second-generation leadership? asked David C. Bloomfield, the head of the
Citywide Council on High Schools, an advisory parent group. Mr. Bloomfield
said he supported the concept of small schools, but he has filed a
discrimination complaint with the federal Education Department saying that
the city has denied spots in small schools to special education students
and those who are not proficient in English. Ms. Pineiro, though, believes
that the school can thrive without her. The key to Bronx Latin's success,
she said, is the after-school hours that teachers spend learning its
methods, like structured collaboration among colleagues who share
students, and the insistence on informing parents when children stumble.
She promises that, when the time comes, she will train a successor in the
school's methods. But will another leader be as demanding?

And there are other questions. In a school the size of Bronx Latin, which
offers grades from 6th to 8th and will add one grade a year through 12th,
students may not have access to advanced classes preferred for college
entrance or to extracurricular activities. What happens when students move
as so many children from poor or troubled families do and attend schools
that do not offer Latin? What happens when teachers like Andrew Goldin,
who joined Teach for America on two-year contract, move on to other
careers? Latin teachers willing to chance public schools are a precious
commodity. WITH just 156 students in the school, classes are almost like
seminars;  Mr. Dodingtons class had 15 students. But there is already
jostling over space with three programs that share the building. Studies
have shown that mainstream schools are being squeezed for space because of
the small schools placed in their buildings.

Mr. Bloomfield, who also directs training for principals at Brooklyn
College, and other critics, like the education historian Diane Ravitch,
said too many small schools have been formed with inexperienced, even if
enthusiastic, staffs. Although attendance is higher and violence down,
there is little reliable information on whether they are actually
improving learning. Bronx Latin is something of a daring adventure. Latin
is usually the province of private academies like Horace Mann, where
students from middle-class homes are already champion readers, When I
think about Latin, said Mr. Goldin, 23, I certainly think of an
environment where kids are reading at grade level and have a grade-level
vocabulary, have study habits, get their homework done. Thats not the
experience the majority of our students have had by sixth grade.

Mr. Goldin and Mr. Dodington, however, are eager to prove the conventional
wisdom wrong. I always thought it would be an interesting goal to teach
Latin to everybody, said Mr. Dodington, whose classics career includes a
stop at the elite Collegiate School. Take a subway car of people thats
what we do. Latin works well with children who are not strong
academically, he said.  Its very organized, very transparent, he said.
Theres a rule for everything. Mr. Goldin, a graduate of the University of
Pennsylvania who in contrast to the button-down Mr. Dodington dresses
casually and has shoulder-length hair, is brilliant at running Socratic
discussions, where he asks leading questions to guide students to their
own well-grounded conclusions. He had a class analyze the meaning of
justice through an Indian fable about two kings, one who meets the good
with goodness and the wicked with wickedness, another who conquers evil by
his goodness. Practically every student had something to say.

If you give him attitude, hes going to give you more attitude than you
give him, is how one boy described one kings philosophy. Mr. Goldin
repeatedly reminded the students that they could not just state random
thoughts. Is that your opinion or is that based on the text? he asked. He
also trained the students to listen, gently pulling a pen away from a boy
fiddling with it distractedly. Whatever the questions about Bronx Latin,
membership in a rarefied group that can decode a dead language is a source
of pride that is a powerful motivator. The idea were offering Latin helps
by itself, Mr. Dodington said. Its kind of a vote of confidence in the

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