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The loss of a language
Parkway Administration removes middle school Latin programs
March 2, 2023
What causes a language to die? Is it when people stop speaking it? Reading it? Writing it?
Historians have long regarded Latin as a dead language because it no longer has native speakers. However, they note the passing of the language between 600 and 750 CE, following the fall of the Roman Empire. At the empire’s height in 117 CE, Roman citizens primarily used Latin to communicate and negotiate with provinces. The empire and the language spanned from the modern-day United Kingdom and Portugal to Turkey and Iraq.
However, contrary to popular belief, although the Roman Empire collapsed, the language did not die. It evolved.
Latin has acted as a foundation for many romance languages. Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian are all rooted in the seemingly “dead” language. The English language has its roots in Latin and derives many words from it. Furthermore, Latin has remained influential in religious denominations like Catholicism which has scriptures written in the language and continues to speak it during mass.
The language fell into disfavor in the 1960s, as classrooms strayed from requiring students to take Latin, and the Catholic Church widened its’ following with English Mass. Yet, under the back-to-basics movement — a campaign combatting declining test scores in the ‘70s — Latin made a revival in the 1980s, flourishing until recent decades.
Within the past ten years, Latin has experienced its second downfall in the modern age. Schools with low enrollment numbers elect to cut their Latin programs, shrinking the already diminished group who knows the language.
Parkway administration recently followed this trend and stopped offering Latin as a middle school course, lowering enrollment numbers and, within five years, eliminating AP Latin 5 through the typical class progression. Latin students and teachers with emotional connections to the language and its history are disappointed with the administration’s choice. As a result, they are taking strides to promote enrollment numbers at the high school level.
The reasoning behind the decision
Along with causing stress for students, course registration can pressure school officials; Parkway Administration must annually reevaluate classes offered to students based on their past enrollment numbers.
Early December of the 2022-23 school year, the administration elected to stop offering Latin A and B at the middle school level and removed German A, B and I from registration options. However, rising freshmen interested in the course can still take Latin 1.
“We’ve been monitoring the enrollment in world languages for a long time, and we continue every year to evaluate which classes we are going to offer. In the last five years, we’ve seen a decline by 33% in the number of students earning credit in Latin and a decline in German of 63%,” Parkway’s Assistant Superintendent of Teaching, Learning and Accountability Kevin Beckner said. “When you’re watching these numbers consistently decline year after year, it reaches the point where you have to say this isn’t sustainable.”
Some problems caused by small class sizes are already apparent. Due to low enrollment numbers, AP Latin 4 and 5 were combined into one course. Furthermore, Parkway Central’s Latin teacher Matt Pikaard travels to teach middle and high school students. Although the school will no longer offer Latin A and introductory German classes, it will allow current students to finish their tracks in their languages.
“One thing we are committed to is supporting any student who’s already in that language in going as far in that language as they want. We are committed to never allowing a situation where a student at level two wants to go to level three and cannot. We never want to say to that student, ‘You can’t.’ We will find a way for that [class] to happen,” Beckner said. “It might not be an in-person class, [and] we may have to combine a four and five-level class or offer them virtually through an outside provider like a community college. We never want a student stuck in a position where they can’t get the credit they anticipated getting. We can never guarantee anything, but we value being flexible enough to meet the needs of students who aspire to accomplish something.”
To Latin teacher Tom Herpel, the decision came as a surprise. He was aware of the conversations regarding German but viewed the Latin program as strong and doubted it would be up for debate.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke. Honestly, Latin has been a mainstay at Parkway for so long that to hear that the middle school programs would no longer be an option was incredibly shocking. I went through a range of emotions: confusion, anger, [and feeling] disrespected for what Latin teachers do daily,” Herpel said. “I tried to reason out why this decision would happen and understand that the data collected over three to five years showed a downward trend, but one of the biggest problems I had with [the decision] is how I found out. [Other Latin teachers and I] weren’t told by our superiors that the decision was even on the docket. Knowing that would have allowed us to rectify the situation, prepare or problem-solve. I feel completely blindsided.”
The decision to remove Latin A and B will affect West Middle and Central Middle Schools: the only Parkway middle schools offering the course. Parkway South, Southwest and Northeast Middle school eliminated their programs earlier due to low enrollment.
“[This decision] eliminates some substantial challenges we faced over the last several years. If we think about staffing these small programs, it often means traveling teachers between school buildings and blending virtual and in-person learning some days,” Beckner said. “Anytime you wind down a program, there are going to be people who are disappointed. That is understandable. We certainly respect those people and want to honor that this is important for them. Often, they are emotionally connected and have given semesters of their life to studying a language, so we certainly are sensitive to that.”
Student shock and support
Six years, 12 semesters, unwavering dedication. AP Latin 5 students begin their journeys in the Latin curriculum in seventh grade and follow through to their senior year of high school. Unfortunately, the decision to remove Latin from the middle schools has disappointed many who have taken the course during their enrollment, primarily current AP Latin 5 Students.
“Having Latin A and B in middle school is a very important introductory element. In A and B, it took me a while to get into the mindset of how to approach Latin. These skills helped me later in Latin 2, 3 and 4,” AP Latin 5 student and senior San Kumar said. “Before you can even start to learn the vocabulary or the grammar, learning how to approach a language is the most important step to learning and understanding the language. [By] removing these into introductory elements, we’re essentially throwing people into the fire. Nothing against Latin 1 students at the high school level, but it will be a lot more difficult for students without [an introduction in the middle school].”
In addition to feeling that removing Latin A and B limits middle schoolers’ interest in the language, students such as AP Latin students and senior Kaplan Evans think that the decision prevents high-level students from fully comprehending the content.
“[Removing Latin] takes away an opportunity for middle schoolers. When I was in middle school, German didn’t sound interesting, Spanish didn’t sound interesting, and French didn’t sound interesting: while the cultures are fascinating, that’s not my cup of tea. I liked the idea of a curriculum that focused on not only the language but the history and literature of the culture,” Evans said.
Evans’ freshman and sophomore year schedules prevented her from taking Latin in the classroom. Instead, she completed an independent study, impeding her from a collaborative in-person atmosphere that promotes student retention, high-level thinking skills and further understanding of diverse interpretations of topics.
“[Removing Latin] removes the opportunity to work collaboratively [in high-level classes]. An unfortunate side effect of my freshman and sophomore year class schedule was that I wasn’t able to sit in a Latin 2 or 3 class. I had to teach myself. While there are good online programs for that, you need a teacher – someone in the room — to explain what the passages are saying,” Evans said.“That is the hardest thing I have ever done: teach myself Latin 2. Not even AP Latin 5 compares to teaching myself second-year Latin. There are still kids who want to study Latin, and I don’t think they should be relegated to having to teach themselves.”
AP Latin 5 student and senior Owen Arneson finds that his experience in the program has allowed him to develop important skills. For example, he notes that learning the roots of the English language has expanded his vocabulary and improved his comprehension.
“Latin is seriously one of my favorite classes I have ever taken. It has enriched so many different parts of my education. My understanding of English after taking Latin has gotten so much better. My ACT scores and SRI tests have shot up dramatically,” Arneson said. “The class feels like a community. I’ve been taking a class with these people for five years and it has always been a constant in my life. You never know what is going to happen the next day in class because it could be a challenging but fun translation or a new and interesting activity just introduced to the curriculum. It’s one of those classes where you can tell everyone is engaged.”
Hurt yet inspired by the removal at the middle school, Kumar and other students connected to incoming freshmen have resolved to introduce them to the program – hoping to raise future high school enrollment numbers through Link Crew events and curriculum nights.
“One of the important things I did when I realized Latin was being cut from the middle school was deciding I wanted to help. We did a [Link Crew] tour with the eighth-graders. During this tour, I had a goal to try and convince some of them to pursue Latin 1, so we could keep a strong foundation at the high school. I got the opportunity to bring my tour group into Herpel’s room where they could see the mural painted on the ceiling with the Roman gods and goddesses and his suit of gladiator armor,” Kumar said.
Kumar views the study of Latin as an important tool when evaluating current events. Through author studies, comparison of past and current events, and themes in literature, he finds studying the language provides valuable insight into the present day.
Let’s be very clear when we say Latin is a dead language. But not really. Latin lives on through the evolution of many different languages; whether you’re learning English, French, or Spanish, Latin is the foundation of all these languages. When we take that foundation away, not only are we taking the possible historical roots of cultures that students learn about, but we’re also taking away learning literary elements in Latin. To understand how we can develop society for the future and not repeat the mistakes of the past, we have to learn our pasts.”
— San Kumar
Stay tuned for developing story.
An educator’s perspective
Latin teacher Tom Herpel vowed never to become a language teacher. After taking five years of Spanish, he felt that everything was assigned a point value and believed he could not stray from the curriculum to explore the language further. However, one thing changed his perspective on foreign languages: a college mythology class.
Herpel’s mythology class discussed myths of ancient Greece and Rome, many of the artifacts he analyzed, such as ancient inscriptions, were written in Latin. Following this class, Herpel enrolled in Latin, all while furthering his education through Roman history classes and study abroad programs in Rome.
“I remember the exact moment when everything became real. Until that point, Latin was almost a language of legends — like the Trojan war, Atlantis and even stories of Roman emperors. I thought they were all just stories,” Herpel said. “Over fall break, three other guys and I went to Greece. We were in Athens and walked into the National Archaeological Museum. The first case held Schliemann’s Mask of Agamemnon. Underneath were two gold swords dated 1200 BCE. For whatever reason, I looked at these swords and thought, ‘somebody fought with that. This is a real thing. These stories are real. These people are real.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks. Through this language, I have shared those historical and cultural stories with others. It has been a joy because I get to relive these stories over and over again.”
Even though Latin has been removed from middle schools, high school Latin teachers will still have employment. However, Parkway Administration’s decision to remove Latin A and B surprised not only Herpel. Parkway Central’s Latin teacher Matt Pikaard also found the decision unexpected and was disheartened by the limited communication between Latin teachers and the administration.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m completely up and arms against Parkway. I understand this is a complicated decision. I wished, and what all [Latin] teachers wished, was that with these decisions, we have some sort of communication before,” Pikaard said. “I feel if someone reached out to me in the last few years and told me about the possibility of this happening, I could process it and come up with ways to right the ship. The lack of communication really hurt [me and other Latin teachers] because we’ve been teaching in this district for over 10 years. We’re very invested in this district and hoped [that] there could’ve been more communication from the main office.”
Regardless of the discontinuation of middle school enrollment, Herpel believes that Latin will remain strong since it primarily appeals to many different interests in the student body.
“Latin can be a comfort to every student, no matter where they’re coming from or their interest. The language is incredibly versatile: it speaks to the student interested in history; the one who loves storytelling in mythology and historical events; the ones who are interested in learning another language; those who love looking at things through a journalistic view with author’s viewpoint and bias; those who enjoy English and expanding their vocabulary; those interested in fields rooted in Latin like medicine or law; those who enjoy mathematical rules and patterns,” Herpel said. “Latin has something to offer for everyone, and to get rid of a class with that kind of scope and allows students to take risks would be a detriment to the student population.”
Reasons for taking Latin differ among all students. The incredibly versatile language appeals to students interested in studying anything from liberal arts to STEM fields. (Madi Michajliczenko)
Although disappointed by the decision, Herpel recognizes Parkway’s intent to reallocate funds to courses with larger class sizes. Yet, he still has concerns regarding future decisions affecting languages.
“I understand the thought process behind the decision [to cut Latin from the middle school], but on the flip side, I know languages have come and gone. It starts with little things like shrinking a budget or removing a level because you haven’t met a student threshold. So you feel your world shrinking and the ground beneath your feet disintegrating, and you have to look to your superiors for support. [Principal John] McCabe has done a fantastic job supporting me as a teacher and a professional; having that support is very significant when it comes to my feelings of longevity in the program,” Herpel said. “Ultimately, middle school program or not, if you don’t have the students, it won’t work. But, my positive thinking tells me as long as we have the kind of students in the program we do now — ones who fight for what they believe in — [and] as long as I’m still standing on my two feet, fighting for what I believe, I think this program is going to be successful as long as we can.”
Latin students have taken the task of raising registration numbers into their own hands by encouraging rising freshmen to enroll and explaining the program’s benefits to current high schoolers. Herpel greatly appreciates these measures and values his connection to his students.
“I’ve been blessed to have such great relationships with my students. They’re so invested in the language, the environment and me as a teacher. The idea that that experience might not be an option in the future should numbers continue to dwindle has been very meaningful to me,” Herpel said. “A lot of the time, teachers do not get any sort of inkling of whether or not students are grateful for the work that we do, whether it has an impact, whether it inspires or motivates — most of the time, we are in the dark. To get this kind of support from my students means the absolute world to me and truly makes me believe this is something to fight for. [Latin is] something we want to continue having. We don’t want it to disappear.”