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Educators describe renewal of Latin instruction in city schools

City students at selective public and elite private schools have long had the option to study Latin. Now several schools with less affluent students are breathing new life into the long-dead language by requiring all students to study it.

At a panel discussion on Friday organized by the New York Classical Club, educators from across the city spoke optimistically about the revival of Latin at their public schools.

“A lot of schools are pushing to go back to what works, to what they know produces intellectuals and thinkers. Latin is a return to norms that once were,” said Kathleen Durkin, one of two Latin teachers at Maspeth High School, which opened in Queens this year.

Educators on the panel said one attraction of Latin instruction is the idea that it could help fuel academic achievement in other subjects.

“I chose it because of the timelessness of it. When in doubt, go to Latin. You can’t go wrong with it,” said Lester Long, executive director of the South Bronx Classical Charter School, where students start taking Latin in third grade. “We want students to use Latin to understand what they read in English. That’s our big driver.”

Durkin said, “People feel overwhelmingly — although there isn’t a ton of research to support it — that Latin is beneficial and students score highly on standardized tests.”

But it’s not always about the test scores for some students. Solveig Gold, a junior at the private Nightingale-Bamford School, said she learned Latin as a fun way of improving her theater skills. “I love to act and sing. Performing is my thing,” the 17-year-old said. She initially learned to recite Latin by listening to a CD and last month won a college-level Latin recitation contest held at Columbia University.

Maspeth and South Bronx Classical are two of several schools to open in recent years that make the study of Latin part of their backbone. The Brooklyn Latin School, for example, opened in 2006 as the newest specialized high school, admitting students using the same exam as Stuyvesant High School and requiring all students to take four years of Latin courses.

At Brooklyn Latin, nearly two-thirds of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That number is even higher at some of the other schools that require students to study Latin.

South Bronx Classical, for example, serves the poorest congressional district in the country. At Williamsburg Charter High School, the city’s largest school where all students take Latin, 72 percent of the student body comes from low-income families.

“The kids love the school. The school is a secure environment. The biggest problems for parents are gangs and violence. We are a haven above all,” said Ron Janoff, Williamsburg Charter’s curriculum director.

“The Upper East Side doesn’t need more people teaching. They have everything in the world. Our serious deficiency is letting the bottom part of our education system go to pieces,” Janoff added. “They need it more than anything.”

Williamsburg Charter’s founder and CEO was indicted last month on charges of tax fraud and misappropriating school funds, and the city is trying to shut the school down. (Another hearing in the legal saga is set for Tuesday.) But Janoff said the ongoing fight for survival had not hampered the school’s Latin language instruction.

“As long as Williamsburg survives, there’ll be at least 600 to 700 students a year studying Latin,” Dr. Janoff said. “It would be a very big loss to the classics community if Williamsburg was shut down.”

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