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As Latin teachers retire, students opt for other languages

| Monday, May 3, 2010

Megan Heckman was reading Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography recently when she came across an unfamiliar word: "avuncular."

Heckman, 17, was unfazed. She simply decoded the word using its Latin root.

"I would assume it means like an uncle, because avunculus means uncle," she explained.

The Penn-Trafford junior was taking her second semester of Latin, a language that she and her classmates believe will improve their vocabulary and help them do well on the SATs.

"One of my friends gave me his SAT prep book, and some of the vocab does look a lot similar to what we're learning," said sophomore Lauren Granata, 16.

While students are quick to note the practical benefits of learning Latin, the language is disappearing from Westmoreland County. Four out of 18 public high schools offered Latin this year. Within two years, only one school will.

Penn-Trafford's Latin teacher resigned after the fall semester to take a position at a cyber charter school. Greater Latrobe's Latin teacher retired last year, and school administrators chose not to replace her. Now students at the two high schools are learning Latin through a virtual course, but both districts plan to end that as early as next year.

Mt. Pleasant will phase Latin out within two years. Only Hempfield, the county's largest public high school, and Greensburg Central Catholic have no plans to drop Latin.

Teacher shortage

Westmoreland schools appear to be at odds with wider trends. The number of students taking the National Latin Exam rose dramatically early this decade, and it has been stable, at about 135,000, for the past several years.

The problem is not that students aren't interested, said Scott Stickney, second vice president and treasurer of the Pennsylvania Classical Association and a Latin teacher at Hampton High School.

Hampton, where 180 students are enrolled in five levels of Latin, is one of a dozen suburban high schools in Allegheny County that still offer the language. Most of those report healthy enrollment, though Stickney said some may be in danger of decline as teachers retire.

"Our problem is a shortage of teachers," Stickney said. "We're retiring more teachers than we can replace every year."

In Pennsylvania, according to the state's Department of Education, there were 201 Latin teachers in 2009, compared to 989 French teachers and 2,649 Spanish teachers.

The Latin teachers were most likely to work in wealthy suburban school districts and least likely to work in rural areas.

There are no Latin programs in Fayette or Armstrong counties. In Washington County, only Canon-McMillan has a Latin teacher. Three Beaver County districts have Latin teachers, as do two in Butler County.

The discrepancy troubles Mark Matusiak, who has taught Latin at Fox Chapel Area High School for 15 years.

"Latin is a kind of academic luxury," Matusiak said. "It's actually something that I, as a teacher, really do worry about. It's great to be in a position where I know I can go to the top-end school districts and get paid well. But why shouldn't I go to a school district where they don't have all these opportunities?"

Chinese on the rise

While rural schools may be giving up Latin, a few have recently added Mandarin Chinese, which has gained popularity because of the increasing economic and political importance of China.

Only four students are still enrolled in a virtual Latin class at Greater Latrobe Senior High School, but more than 40 are taking Chinese at the high school and the middle school with a St. Vincent College visiting professor, said Principal Georgia Teppert.

"I think because of globalization and the way the economy is, it's important to have this opportunity," Teppert said.

Right now, it's harder to find Chinese teachers than it is to find Latin teachers; there are only 50 teachers of Chinese in Pennsylvania. But Teppert said she hopes to continue Chinese courses, possibly through an online program.

Though Latin may appear old-fashioned next to Mandarin Chinese, it has its advocates.

"I'm a real fighter for Latin," said Joyce Jupena, who has taught Latin and French at Greensburg Central Catholic High School for 27 years. "Latin is the mother language. I don't know why it was ever deemed less important than modern languages."

To back up her point, Jupena cited the higher SAT scores earned by Latin students.

According to the College Board, which administers the college entrance exams, students who took Latin in high school do better on the verbal portion of the test than students of any other language. Their mean score was 176 points higher than the average.

It is unclear whether Latin helped the students do better, or whether smarter students are simply drawn to Latin, but some surveys have shown that college admissions officers look favorably on applicants who have learned Latin.

Emy Pellathy has taught Latin and French at Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School for 20 years, but the administration recently decided to stop offering it, and now Pellathy teaches Latin to only a handful of upper-level students.

"It's been taught continuously since school was school was school," Pellathy said. "The belief was that Latin trained the mind."

While next year will be the last for Latin at Mt. Pleasant, Pellathy remains optimistic about the language's future.

"I think Latin will come back," she said. "The die-hard classicists will bring it back. We've lasted this long."

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