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Speaking up for Latin in Newton middle schools

Posted by Sarah Thomas  March 28, 2011 03:46 PM

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A group of classicists and Latin teachers who have made Newton their home are speaking up for keeping the status quo of Latin classes in the district's middle schools.

"We can see that the school department is under the gun and has to make cuts," said Kenneth Rothwell, a classics professor at UMass Boston. "But people don't realize how effective Latin can be in helping students make gains in other areas."

The program is on the chopping block after superintendent David Fleishman released a budget that would plug a projected $4.4 million gap by cutting arts and music programs in the elementary schools, drama and Latin in the middle schools, and a number of high school electives, along with raising fees for afterschool activities and sports.

Tonight will be the first public forum on the budget, where residents will have an opportunity to make comments. The forum will take place at 7:30 p.m. at Day Middle School.

Parents concerned about the cuts to art and music, as well as the spike in athletic fees, have already spoken at school committee meetings. But tonight's forum will be the first time classics professors like Rothwell and Richard Thomas of Harvard University will take their causus belli before school and town officials, as well as the public.

"We have this incredible new school in this district, and I know I moved here in 1987 because I wanted my children to attend Newton schools," Thomas said. "Latin is a subject that helps with all linguistics, and removing it from middle schools is not how to go about running a school system that prides itself on being the best in the country."

Originally from New Zealand, Thomas began studying Latin at age nine and quickly fell in love with the language. Eventually he moved to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in classics, and has spent many years teaching at both Harvard University and the Harvard Extension School, where one of his pupils was the late Newton North High School classics teacher Bob Mitchell.

"When Bob died about 18 months ago from melanoma, his memorial service was just packed with students whose lives he made a difference in," Thomas said. "While any teacher can have an impact on a student's life, Latin teachers can be the eccentrics that inspire in their students a lifelong love of classic literature and culture."

While Rothwell agrees that Latin study is a sine qua non of a good education, he believes the most persuasive argument for saving Latin is in the numbers.

"The gains made on verbal SAT scores for students that study Latin are amazing," Rothwell said, pointing out data from the Educational Testing Service that shows that students who take Latin average a 170 point higher verbal SAT score than the national average. "I don't know if there is data to say how MCAS scores improve, but I'm sure it has an impact."

Rothwell said that another study of inner-city students showed that 8 months of Latin instruction led to gains in English literacy scores that were comparable to 38 months of instruction in Spanish or French.

"The way I see it is, if you have two cars, one of which gets 25 miles to the gallon and one of which gets 40 miles to the gallon, you don't get rid of the one that gets 40 miles to the gallon when the price of gas goes up," Rothwell said.

The hardest part, Rothwell said, is determining what the quid pro quo of funding Latin classes should be.

"My wife is an art teacher, so if the only way to get Latin back would be at the expense of the arts, I'd be heartbroken," Rothwell said. "If it is cut, some of us have been talking about afterschool programs or what could be done to give kids some instruction."

Rothwell said he and Thomas expect to be joined by other colleagues, such as Brandeis classics professor Lenny Muellner, Dana Hall school Latin teacher Jacqui Bloomberg, and others.

"I took Latin in school when I was a boy in Australia, and it made such a positive impact," said Geoff Epstein, a member of the school committee. "I voted against the budget in the straw vote because of the cuts in the arts and Latin."

The final vote on the Newton school budget will be April 6.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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