The following is an open letter written to the East administration by senior Nat Nitsch.
Dear administration of Shawnee Mission East,
Our educational system is broken. You know it, I know it, and every single person that has ever encountered the US public school system knows it. Even here, funding is an underlying issue for every single program. And I know it pains you that you can’t fix the funding. If it were up to you, every high school would have enough money to be able to offer Latin and Calculus 3 and any high level course you care to name.
And, because this whole thing seems like a funding issue, I’ll say this: I understand that the numbers don’t work out, even though the enrollment in Latin only dropped by less than six from last year to this year. I understand that offering Latin as an online class seems like a good financial alternative to the outstanding Latin program we have had at East. I am not blaming you for having to cut something, but I am blaming you for choosing Latin. Maybe it’s because you’ve never experienced quite what it’s like in Latin here: to be able to unfold a word down to its roots and know what it means, to read words written two thousand millennia ago and understand them, to have the pleasure of working with a teacher that cares about their students as much as Dr. Worley does.
Here’s how the system is broken: classes that allow students to meet state graduation requirements but not to go beyond them are often considered more important than classes that allow students to pursue scholarship and academic success. Students aren’t any less smart or hard-working than they were five or ten years ago – most students have far more learning capacity than they know, but often, the options for them to use that capacity aren’t there anymore and they stick to the bare minimum. Shouldn’t we be encouraging our students to aim as high as they can, rather than allowing them to settle with mediocrity? I know your answer to that is yes, and I know you can’t fix the system – but even though the roots of the cutting of Latin are in this nebulous system, that’s not where the blame lies.
The thing that bothers me the most about this whole situation is this: there is no other class at East that has to advocate for its continued existence. For whatever reason, the burden has always been on us to advertise, to convince, to beg our friends to take Latin. I have spoken to middle school classes, I have made posters, I have talked one-on-one with eighth graders at orientation night, I have extolled the virtues of Latin to anyone that will listen and a lot of people that don’t. I have done my best to keep this program running, but this isn’t my fault – and it isn’t the fault of Dr. Worley or the dozens of other dedicated students that have poured hours into the program’s survival, either. We haven’t had the support and advocacy we have needed at the administrative level for years, specifically regarding the Latin III/IV class.
Latin III, Latin III IB, Latin IV AP, and Latin IV IB are a combined class, and these four courses have very little overlap in curriculum. Imagine, if you will, having Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II classes in the same hour. Chaos, right? Technically it’s the same subject area, sure, but those classes have different curricula, even if they build off one another. We’ve been living with that chaos for years now. Administration originally combined Latin III and IV into one class because of low enrollment, but if students have an untenable learning environment to look forward to, they are not inclined to choose Latin – instead, they’ll choose a more supported program, like Spanish or French. And as fewer students choose Latin and the program shrinks, other students see that the program is shrinking and think that it must be because it’s too difficult or not interesting enough and choose a different class. Repeat until the program shrinks too much and gets cut: it’s a death spiral.
And that’s not to mention the issue of visibility. Incoming students looking for a language know that East has good Spanish and French programs, since most schools worth their salt do, and 90% of them are satisfied with looking no further than that. They haven’t been made aware that there are more options. Maybe it’s not an explicit part of your job description that you need to spread awareness of the classes the school offers, but it should be, especially if you’ve noticed a decline in that program’s enrollment and are considering cutting it. Latin may have seemed like a weakening program, but keep in mind that we existed under unsustainable conditions, which were created by an administration. The two other Latin programs in the district, at South and Northwest, are strong and even growing: there is not a problem with Latin, there is a problem with how Latin has been treated at East, and that problem could have been solved.
It’s clearly been a rough time for us for the past few years, and Dr. Worley has accomplished a Herculean task in managing to keep us performing above the national and local standard. Our IB and AP test scores have consistently been above the national average, and we have the highest per-capita scores at state Latin convention of all of the area schools, regularly beating out larger and better-supported programs. We boast many of the school’s outstanding students, and Latin Club has allowed dozens of shy kids to come out of their shell and pursue leadership. We’ve managed to be an exceptional program, producing exceptional scholars, with unexceptional support – imagine what we could have done with a viable learning environment.
And I know you have seen the statistics about how much Latin helps students outside of the Latin classroom, because we have shown them to you. It has been proven time and time again that, on average, Latin students do significantly better on tests like the ACT and SAT; they exhibit higher English fluency, have more advanced writing skills, and can comprehend English literature more thoroughly. Latin trains your brain to think analytically, which is a boon in STEM classes, and Latin vocabulary is absolutely necessary for medical, legal, scientific, and academic careers. As if that wasn’t enough, many colleges have stated that Latin is something they appreciate on a transcript. I read the Harbinger cover article from a few issues back, and the amount of money that people spend on college prep (be it tutors, personal counselors, or standardized test training) is frankly obscene; Latin eliminates the need for that kind of prep, and can be a gateway to good schools for students who cannot afford other options. There are countless hidden benefits of Latin that you will lose when this program goes away.
I believe that the 47 kids enrolled in Latin next year collectively care more about their program than any students in any other program at East, because we have to. Having the constant fear of getting cut hanging over your head forces you to bond with your classmates. We’ve always had to stand in solidarity with each other– because we’re small, because Latin is a “useless” language, because the peculiarities and pleasures of Latin are not something that can be found anywhere else. Latin class is more of a family than any other program at East I’ve had the pleasure of encountering, and it breaks my heart to know that students will be kept from that kind of connection.
And I know that even the best high school administrations care very little about what the students have to say. After all, we’re a problem for four years at most; in my case, I’ll be out of your hair in two months, off to study Classics in a place where it won’t get cut. And in four years, no one at East will remember Latin at all. I hope you, at least, remember me and the rest of the Latin students. I hope you remember how much we cared, and how hard we tried.