If you thought Latin was so last millennium: Ut si! (As if!)
Pop culture and a link to standardized test score improvements have resurrected the tongue of Roman emperors and philosophers in Delaware high schools and across the country. Thanks to fictional wizard Harry Potter, a handful of toga-wearing movie stars and adolescents' love of retro, all things classical are also cool.
Latin classes became passé in the late 1960s and vanished from most public school schedules by the 1980s, foreign language educators said. Schools were eliminating subjects no longer deemed relevant to modern life, and Latin was lumped into the group. As Latin teachers retired, they weren't replaced, and Spanish and French programs grew.
Now, with the growing nationwide emphasis on improving standardized test scores, Latin is making a comeback.
Several studies, some dating to the late 1970s, have shown students who take Latin tend to have higher verbal scores, according to the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages.
In 2003, students who took Latin to fulfill their foreign language requirements had a mean score of 559 on the verbal component of the SATs. French students scored 524 and Spanish students 501.The mean national verbal SAT score was 507.
Junior Chelsea Crum at the Charter School of Wilmington said she's performing better in chemistry since she started studying Latin. She remembers the abbreviations for elements on the periodic table better because most have Latin stems.
"They learn the skill of breaking down words to their basic components," her teacher Barry Messinger said. He said about 50 percent to 60 percent of the English language derives from Latin. He has noticed his students become aware of the historical and etymological contexts of language. That helps further develop critical thinking skills.
The results can be dramatic, some educators said.
"Students occasionally come in and say they've raised their verbal scores. I have one this year who went up 100 points after two years of Latin - she was thrilled," said Allison Richards, a Latin teacher at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden and president of the Delaware Classical Association. "There's also an advantage in higher-order thinking skills that any foreign language will develop. But Latin helps in particular because Latin is a very logical language."
The correlation between Latin study and high test scores doesn't necessarily indicate a cause-and-effect relationship, said Kristin Carnahan, a spokeswoman for the College Board, which administers the test and keeps statistics on scores.
"We're simply observing higher scores. Can we say it's because they took Latin? We can't say that," Carnahan said. "They're probably already taking a rigorous schedule."
Still, it seems students are taking a shot at testing the link as more enroll or request the subject. Lately, private schools that long have offered Latin are seeing a resurgence in class enrollment. And public schools are hearing requests for its revival.
Latin classes started six years ago at the Charter School of Wilmington. Since then, they've expanded from an introductory level to four levels, including advanced placement.
Arnaldo Finamore, head of the foreign language department at McKean High School, said his school and Dickinson High School are searching for Latin teachers. A.I. du Pont High School has offered Latin off and on, contingent upon student interest. In the past two years, interest has increased.
Richards of Caesar Rodney also said she sees signs of a resurgence of interest. She said at least a dozen students chose to attend Caesar Rodney under the school choice program so they could take Latin. She wishes there were other Latin teachers the district could hire, but they are rare.
Messinger and Richards said many students who aspire to be doctors or lawyers turn to Latin because they know the language is used extensively in the terminology of medicine and law.
Aside from its scholastic appeal, Latin seems exotic and fun to many students, teachers said.
Students like the cultural aspects of the class. Messinger's students have formed a club so they can meet after school and play Roman war-strategy board games. And there's always the chance to wear a toga - a favorite with youth.
And since the teenage years are all about the quest for identity, individualists take Latin simply because of what it isn't - Spanish or French.
"I wanted to be different," said Caitlyn Johnstone, a freshman at Charter School of Wilmington.
Latin to her and her classmates is cool. Pop culture, of late, is telling them they're right. Storybook hero Harry Potter pronounces most of his spells in Latin. Hollywood hunks Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell are charming teens with classical-era drama in the Oscar-winning "Gladiator" and upcoming films "Troy" and "Alexander The Great."
Charter School of Wilmington senior Jack Song said after he started studying Latin, his SAT verbal scores went from 600 to 720 on his second try. He said the roots of words in vocabulary portions of the test suddenly popped out at him. "I could make more educated guesses," he said.
Most of Richards' pre-med hopefuls find out how hard Latin is after they enroll - but they stay because they become intrigued with the cultural subtexts.
"What I basically teach is a literature course," she said. Students learn the language as they read classical texts of comedy, tragedy and romance. They learn the basic themes of Western culture's literature and art.
Shuhan Wang, education associate for world languages and international education at the state Department of Education, wonders whether the connection between Latin and test scores might be overstated.
She's pleased the "Harry Potter syndrome," as she called the Latin resurgence, has made parents and educators aware that studying languages helps students perform better in other subjects.
But she feels the elements of cultural exploration and current events can be added by studying living languages rarely taught, such as Arabic or Chinese.
"Our notion of literacy is very, very narrow - just reading and writing in one language," she said. "People who have studied another language are more open-minded. They see there's different ways of seeing the world."