Last year, as Ki-Woong Jin was thumbing through the list of foreign language courses offered at Fort Lee High School, he knew he'd struck Midas gold.
The high school offered modern Greek.
"I'll likely be taking Greek for four years," said the sophomore, who hopes to pursue a career in medicine or theology. "I don't think the first year is enough to make me understand reading a passage in Greek, but a year or two more would help me understand completely."
Jin speaks Korean at home and studied Spanish in the lower grades in the Fort Lee school system but was eager to study such an uncommon language in high school.
"It's good for my college application," Jin said.
Unlike Latin -- which in the past decade has experienced resurgence in public schools -- modern Greek is taught primarily through private instruction. Fort Lee High School has offered Greek for more than 30 years but is one of a minute number of public schools that offer it in the state, say state education officials.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that just under 60,000 Greeks live in New Jersey. Children of Greek descent either attend Greek-language schools under the wing of a church or are aware of where to enroll for lessons. There are Greek Orthodox Christian churches in Tenafly, Wyckoff, Clifton, Fairview and Paramus, all with Greek language programs.
Elena Nicolaou, 12, studied Greek for about seven years at an afternoon school at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff. It has played an integral part in her public education at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Fair Lawn.
"It's helped me in both science and math," Elena said. "If you've studied the language you already walk in knowing the meaning of words like hexagon, octagon. And on a test, if you blank out on a word, you have a chance if it has Greek roots."
Elena's mother, Lisa, isn't Greek, but she married a Cypriot who doesn't miss a trip back to his homeland. Lisa Nicolaou speaks Spanish and Italian, and studied Greek at The New School in Manhattan. She is embedded in the Greek culture and religion.
"When you study a language like Greek and really know it, it's part of your foundation," Nicolaou said. "You have to be brave and use it. ... Everything my children learned -- from the music to the religion -- does enrich them."
Francesco Perrulli, founder of the 19-year-old Princeton Latin Academy, said Latin and ancient Greek are part of his school's K-8 curriculum.
Perrulli stresses the importance of offering the language to students at an early age.
"Sixty percent of your English words come from Latin and Greek," Perrulli said. "What's beautiful is the root languages are still in the books and also in the liturgy of both [Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox] religions. All the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the whole New Testament was written in Greek -- all of it -- Mark, Matthew, Luke, John -- and all the Letters of Paul. It's all in Greek, right to the Revelation."
More than 40 students are enrolled in basic to advanced Greek this year at Fort Lee High School, said Anna Megaris, who has taught modern Greek at the school for a dozen years, and who is also fluent in ancient Greek.
"If Fort Lee is not the only district that offers Greek, it's certainly one of the only districts that comes to mind," said Rich Vespucci of the state Education Department.
Half the students who have signed up for the basic modern Greek course do not have a Hellenic background, Megaris said.
"When you see students at the high school level who are not Greek studying the language, you can be sure they're putting in the time to study," Megaris said.
"Both Latin and Greek are classical languages," Megaris said. "The difference is the Greek is a spoken language; Latin is not."
Its ancient and historic roots keep the language thriving in everyday life, Megaris said.
"Thank goodness it's a program that is still alive at the high school," Megaris said. "By the fourth year, students will be reading Homer, poetry and other literature in [modern] Greek. Students studying medicine are aware that 70 percent of medical terms are from the Greek, so knowing it is quite an asset."
Jin said his parents wondered why he enrolled in Greek when he had other options such as French, Spanish or Italian.
"When I told my parents that Greek would help if I became a ministry leader, they accepted it," Jin said.
Jin is an "A" student in class and has devised a flash card method to learn terms. First-year words typically include "onoma" or name -- as in the literary term onomatopoeia. Other words such as holocaust and holograph can be broken down into the Greek terms "holo" or whole, "kaustos," or burning, and "graphos" or write. Microphone and megaphone break into "micro," or small and "mega" or large, and "phono," the Greek root for voice.
"The most difficult thing is keeping up with students who are actually from a Greek family," Jin said. "Two of my friends in class are not Greek and we all decided to take it together."
Megaris is also the principal of the Greek afternoon language school at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Theologian in Tenafly, where enrollment is about 200 students this fall in the two-day-a-week, Grades pre-K-8 program.
"We also have adult classes, which are well attended by interfaith couples," Megaris said.
Tammy Spiropoulos, the coordinator of the Grades K-8 Greek language program at St. Nicholas in Wyckoff, said enrollment has grown slightly or remained steady at the church since 2002.
Of the 116 children enrolled in the 2005-06 school year, about 70 are from interfaith marriages.
"The other 46 children came from parents who are both of Greek origin," Spiropoulos said.
The Rev. James Moulketis, pastor of St. Nicholas, said many of the 800 families in his congregation participate in Greek cultural activities such as the September four-day festival, which ends late today on church grounds.
Learn Hellenic history and the language and you can even master Greek dance, some youth members say. The language complements the culture.
"When I took the SATs, Greek certainly helped because some of the prefixes were of Greek origin," said Evi Katsantonis, 17, a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, whose parents are Greek.
Helen Foukas, the Greek language teacher for 24 years at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Clifton, said parents of Greek and interfaith marriages are diligent about sending children to classes.
"So many parents work, but the children are in Greek language school not only so they may be together, but to share the culture so it may flourish," she said.