A dead language is bringing these Bronx kids to life.
Students at Classical Charter Schools are all taught Latin – and more than a quarter of the network’s kids scored at the highest tier on a recent national exam on the ancient tongue.
“When we were founded nearly 15 years ago, we set out to offer children in the South Bronx something they never had before,” said the network’s founder Lester Long.
“We wanted to offer Latin, giving them a world-class education rooted in the classics. As these exceptional national scores show, we are accomplishing that goal.”
Results from the National Latin Exam, released in May, showed that 34 out of the 120 Bronx Classical students in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade who took the test were recognized for having received a top score.
Eleven in the 6th and 7th grade got a certificate of outstanding achievement, for receiving a score of 36 to 40 out of a possible 40.
In addition to Latin, Bronx Classical kids – who number 1,000 across four schools – are also immersed in subjects that are quickly vanishing from American education, including debate, philosophy, and rhetoric.
While they initially question the devotion of time to a bygone language, network teachers said students soon become absorbed in the distant worlds of Aristotle and Plato.
Teacher Chris Perednia said kids – especially Spanish speakers – are stunned to recognize the direct connection of their native tongue to the time of gladiators and the Roman Coliseum.
“At first we introduce the stories and adventures of the gods, and that gets them interested, hearing about Zeus and Hera,” he said. “And then they start to see how their own world connects back to that time. They become invested in it.”
Students are fascinated to discover the Latin origins of much of modern day language and quickly sense a newfound power in their deepened linguistic comprehension.
Parent Hikma Umar of The Bronx said her 7th grade son would suddenly begin identifying the Latin roots of words at the dinner table after a few years at Bronx Classical.
“He just really loves language and reading,” she said. “When the rest of us are watching TV he’ll be in his room reading. He’s more interested in that.”
While many children become increasingly emoji-dependent, Long said Bronx Classical students — about 90 percent of whom get free or reduced price lunch, a common poverty marker — strive to command the floor with a perfected phrase or impenetrable argument.
The only bullying allowed must take place within the bounds of rhetoric and reason.
“There is something beautiful, something powerful in strong communication skills,” Long said. “These kids sense that and they take off on their own.
Remote learning is difficult enough in English, but Long said his schools successfully made the transition after the coronavirus crisis shuttered the network’s K-8 schools.
To cap their experience, Bronx Classical 8th graders normally board a plane to Rome to see the subjects of their specialized study up close.
This year’s graduating class was unable to make the journey due to the coronavirus but are considering a reunion trip there in the future.
“That brings it all together,” Perednia said. “There’s a pretty special moment when they finally see the thing that they’ve been reading and studying for years like the Coliseum. That has an impact that I think stays with them for a long time.”
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