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When Traditional Becomes Innovative

As a child, I attended a school named after Rosa Parks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we wore pretty much whatever we wanted and called...

\nAs a child, I attended a school named after Rosa Parks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we wore pretty much whatever we wanted and called our teachers by their first names.

And while other students studied the Civil War and played G.I. Joe, we were taught to think critically about the injustices perpetrated against Native Americans and took turns pretending we were Che Guevara.

Over the last decade, as a professional educator, I have prided myself on being progressive and innovative-pushing the boundaries of what schooling can look like, trying to think as far outside the box as possible. I have worked for schools that don't have classes or teachers, where learning happens through independent projects and students are assessed through performances and portfolios.

So you can imagine my immediate reaction to the idea of an all boys' school that teaches Latin and enforces a strict dress code. Last week, I visited such a school.

Much of what I found at the Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School was exactly as I suspected it to be: young men in blazers and ties, dress shirts and slacks, whose desks are arranged in neat, perfect rows. In other words, the image of the sort of elite educational environments that aristocratic that families have sent their sons to for generations.

But two things were noticeably different about this school than the image I held in my head-all of the students seemed happier and more engaged than I expected them to be. And apart from three students, all were black.

Across the nation, our schools are failing to serve young black males. Last year in Philadelphia, the high-school graduation rate was only 48 percent for young African-American men. About the same percentage were chronically absent.

While I am not a young black man living in Philadelphia, if you had removed the girls from my high school and also required that I take Latin, my attendance would have suffered, to say the very least. But for the young men at Boys' Latin, it has been exactly the opposite.

"In middle school, I'd just do me," said Yhosua Gomez during my visit. He went on to explain that everything from his involvement on the soccer team to the laptop provided to him when he entered 10th grade gave him the sense that not only was success expected, but that it would require a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication.

Perhaps that's why the school boasts a 95 percent daily average attendance-or maybe it's the Latin.

At first I was confounded by the idea that students, who we are preparing for the 21st century would be studying a language that has not been commonly spoken in hundreds of years. But the two boys I asked about it told me that they enjoy studying Latin because it gives them insight into a powerful secret code. It doesn't hurt that it also helps with SAT preparation.

The motivation to get high test scores is particularly strong at Boys' Latin, where students are unabashedly passionate about academic achievement. Usually when I visit high schools, I see young men competing to see who can act the most disinterested and therefore cool.

The young men at Boys' Latin seemed comfortable with their enthusiasm about their schoolwork. Eric Young, an eleventh grader told me that it's because "there are no girls we gotta look cool for." Worried about whether the environment might be stunting these young mens' social development, I asked him whether this meant that he and his friends didn't get the opportunity to meet many young women. Young smiled and reassured me: "Oh, don't worry, the girls be waiting out by the bus stop for us."

When asked about his decision to make the school all boys, the school's founder and CEO, David Hardy explains, "Here boys feel comfortable trying hard and taking risks, even if they don't succeed at everything. Here, a boy can be on the football team and in the choir and there's no stigma-that's not true in co-ed schools." Hardy reports that the number of fights at Boys Latin is "not even on the radar" compared to other high schools in the neighborhood.

"We don't think Boys' Latin is the right fit for every single black adolescent," explains Isaac Ewell, the Director of the Small Schools Project at the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Ewell's project provided seed funding for Boys' Latin. "We see it as a part of the constellation of options that all young people should have."

I agree with Ewell. As a progressive educator, I believe that students should be able to express themselves, follow their passions and study material relevant to their culture and community. But, as a guy who prides himself on generally thinking outside the box about how schools are designed and what is taught, my experience at Boys' Latin taught me that it can be just as powerful to be open-minded to ideas that may be perceived as traditional.

While most often we think of innovation as simply the act of doing something new, we must also consider the power of providing young people access to options that others might otherwise take for granted.

Samuel Steinberg Seidel is a teacher, school coach, nonprofit consultant and author of the forthcoming book, "Hip Hop Genius." He regularly writes about hip-hop, education, and innovation for The Husslington Post.\n


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