Black and Latino young men from poor communities show statistically low high school graduation and attendance rates. One group of young men, however, is proving that that academic underperformance doesn’t have to be the norm. These boys come from a poor black neighborhood, but they’ve been taught a special skills most American students lack: learning the Latin language. They’re students at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School where they’re required to study a language many would describe as “dead” but is introducing lively new possibilities into their young lives.
In Philadelphia, only 27 percent of black and Latino males attended college after high school and of that group, only 13 percent graduated from college in 2015, according to Boys’ Latin Co-founder and CEO David Hardy. Three out of four of his neophyte Latin scholars are now attending college, with 23 percent graduating in 2015 and 56 percent in 2016.
In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn points out that these boys are breaking away from all sorts of national averages:
[In April] the school received the results on the introductory level National Latin Exam, a test taken last year by students around the world. Among the highlights: Two Boys’ Latin students had perfect scores; 60% of its seventh-graders were recognized for achievement, 20% for outstanding achievement; and the number of Boys’ Latin students who tested above the national average doubled from the year before.
In a recent telephone interview, Hardy went into some of the history and philosophy of the school. Boys Latin was chartered in the West side of Philadelphia in 2006 and officially opened its doors to students in 2007 as a school of choice. It was co-created by Hardy and Janine Yass. Eighty percent of the students live in the neighborhood where the school is located and the rest come from all over the metropolitan Philadelphia area, including some willing to endure hour long commutes. Hardy’s son attended a boy’s only private school in the Philadelphia suburbs and thrived in that environment. That got him thinking about how valuable this experience could be for poor kids in the inner-city who don’t have other options.
The school’s rigorous academic regimen doesn’t end with a requirement to study Latin. The boys are also held to a very strict code of conduct and follow a dress code that mandates uniforms. These character building measures echo the school’s motto: Faber Est Quisque Fortunae Suae (Every man is the architect of his own fortune)
The school requires the study of Latin as the key to teaching the boys how to be students. The hard work of studying a complex foreign language carries into their other studies. Studying Latin, Hardy realized, shows that you’re a serious student and you’re willing to do the hard work. Hardy is clearly proud of the students’ accomplishments. “It’s an inner city school with poor black boys,” he says, and brags that they’re doing better than some private schools on standardized testing.
Naming the school was easy. “When you walk in,” Hardy jokes, “You see boys and we’re doing Latin!”. He was dismayed by the number of schools with meaningless names like “The Blank School of Science and Technology,” but whose curricula had nothing to do with science or technology. When he started a school, Hardy didn’t want it to fall into that trap.
When reflecting on why Latin became the foundation for the school, Hardy admits he randomly stumbled upon the language and its power. He said he happened to be channel surfing one night and ended up watching a documentary about Cotton Mather on PBS. The Puritan preacher and prolific writer, is probably most famous for his writings and support for the revolutionary smallpox vaccination, but that’s not what stuck with Hardy. The documentary mentioned that Mather attended Boston Latin School. Founded in 1635 (and still operating today), this public “exam school” has produced dozens of successful men and women. Hardy began to wonder if the secret to the alumni’s success was their Latin skills. He decided to put his theory to the test.
Despite a heavy academic diet, the school also provides plenty of fun extracurricular activities. Like everything else at this school, this is very intentional. Boys’ Latin offers a wide variety of opportunities including drama, mock trials, fine arts, sports, and other activities that encourage kids to engage with fellow students and their teachers. The administration wants the students to look forward to coming to school every day despite the hard work. What’s more, activities such as sports and drama help teach important skills like teamwork and time management.
Boys’ Latin does a lot of career exploration and internships, but the school does not offer job placement services. The goal is to prepare boys for college rather than jobs immediately after high school. The boys are given the opportunity to explore their talents and passions, but the school’s goal is to get the boys into higher education.
Another important part of the Boys’ Latin experience, is the school’s heavily prioritization of strong relationships with parents and adults in the boys’ lives. There is a rule that every boy has to sign up with three adults – any combination of parents, family members and unrelated mentors. Although the administration puts a lot of work to ensure these students achieve academic success, Hardy realizes that there’s more to getting through college and the working world than simply academic success. They also need soft skills (communication, for example) and often grow these skills with the help of adult guidance. Academic struggles are just one piece of the puzzle of failing out of college. Hardy doesn’t just want adults encouraging the boys to study, but just as importantly, he wants these parents and mentors to show up at games and plays and support the boys in their extra-curricular success as well. Despite this strict rule, Hardy is compassionate towards single parents and those without a built-in support network. If a single mother comes with a promising student and has the humility to admit she doesn’t know two other adults whom she wants in her son’s life, that child isn’t automatically disqualified from attending Boys Latin. The school would provide a board member or another faculty member to take on the student as a mentee and accept the responsibility as one of the three adults.
I asked Hardy if he is interested in piloting another Latin school in Philadelphia. Although he’s busy working with the school right now, he’s retiring next year and he doesn’t plan to start another school. He doesn’t think the city needs another Latin school, but rather wants to see the school continue to perfect its mission and one day be a model for Latin schools across the country.
Hardy also mentioned Megyn Kelly will be profiling Boys’ Latin on her new show on NBC, “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” which could air as early as the debut episode on Sunday June 4. The show starts at 7PM Eastern. Check your local listings.
All photos: Courtesy of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia