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St. Mary's School phases out Latin

What was once a tradition in Catholic education will soon be no more at Medford's St. Mary's School.(Note: This paragraph originally included an incorrect number. This version of the story has been corrected.)

The private Catholic secondary school is phasing out Latin, which provides the major foundation for English and the Romance languages.

Difficulty in finding Latin instructors and shrinking enrollment prompted the decision, said St. Mary's Principal Frank Phillips. Students in spring of 2013 will be the last to study the language at St. Mary's.

"I wish I could perpetuate Latin and find a magical teacher who could revive it," said Phillips, who speaks Latin himself. "I've tried since 2005, and I can't."

This year, just 18 pupils are enrolled in St. Mary's two remaining Latin classes. The school has committed to allowing the students who have already started studying Latin to complete a total of four years before graduation, but that means no first- or second-year students will be admitted next year.

"It's definitely disappointing because I know quite a few eighth-grade kids who wanted to take Latin next year, and now they can't," said ninth-grader Adam Lohman. "We have a lot of other languages at our school, which are all really helpful, but that said, we're losing a language that made the basis for our own."

St. Mary's has shifted its focus to more practical languages, including Mandarin and Spanish, Phillips said.

"I love Latin," Phillips said. "There are a variety of reasons I could tout its benefits, but when you think about the way the world is going and commerce, the (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) says Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic and English are the only five languages worth studying."

Until St. Mary's Latin program expires in 2013, Phillips will continue to serve as the school's Latin instructor with help from a part-time teacher.

The language is helpful in teaching students grammar and English vocabulary, as about 60 percent of the English language comes from Latin, said Nina Gallwey, Siskiyou School's Latin teacher.

St. Mary's ninth-grader Conor Keating said learning Latin has helped him learn English vocabulary without ever looking at a dictionary.

"I was reading through my church history book and the saw the word 'plenitude' and saw that came from the Latin word, 'plena,' which means 'full,' " Keating said. "It helps with spelling, like when I was trying to remember how many C's and S's were in 'necessary.' That comes from the Latin word, 'necesse.' "

Once considered essential to a traditional education, Latin continued to be offered until a few decades ago as an elective in many public high schools and private schools. Now, classes are found mostly in private schools and through homeschool programs.

"It's an uncommon language in schools," said Susanne Smith, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Education. "We see it more at private schools, not so much at public schools."

Only four public schools in the state still offer Latin: Marshfield High School in the Coos Bay School District, West Albany High School in the Greater Albany School District, Grant High School in the Portland Public School District and the Academy for Character Education in the South Lane School District, according to ODE.

Other than St. Mary's, Our Lady of Guadalupe, a tiny private school, was the only local high school that offered Latin. But the school closed this year because only five pupils enrolled, said Headmaster Paul Hammer.

Latin is offered as part of the curriculum in the sixth grade at the Siskiyou School, a grades 1-8, private, Waldorf school in Ashland.

It's unclear how many schools across the nation still offer Latin, according to the National Latin Exam at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. However, participation in the NLE has increased every year since 1978.

About 6,000 took the NLE worldwide in 1978. That number grew to about 150,000 in 2010.

Rick LaFleur, a professor in the Classics Department at the University of Georgia, estimated about a half-million students take Latin in U.S. schools and universities.

The Junior Classical League, an arm of the American Classical League based at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has more than 45,000 student members from middle schools and high schools around the country, but none are from Oregon, said Geri Dutra, ACL's administrative secretary.

Only eight teachers in Oregon belong to the ACL, she said.

There's also a Latin renaissance among the homeschool community, said Jane Hall, co-chair of the NLE.

Although there are no firm statistics reflecting how many schools offer Latin in the United States, Hall says the study of Latin has remained relatively steady.

"Schools add and subtract (Latin) programs depending on whether they can find teachers," Hall said. "There's always a need for Latin teachers. There are not as many as there used to be going into the field because they can make more money doing research, et cetera."

The number of students who took Advanced Placement exams in Latin has increased from 1,691 in 2004 to 6,500 in 2010, according to the College Board.

The language isn't required for anything anymore, Phillips said. Latin clubs and societies are the only groups that speak it. In the Vatican, documents continue to be written in Latin, but it's no longer the main language for conversation, Phillips said. Catholic priests are not required to learn it.

"Latin is like a boutique language," Phillips said. "No one really needs to learn it."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

Students in spring 2013 will be the last to study Latin at St. Mary's. Difficulty in finding Latin instructors and shrinking enrollment have prompted the decision, said St. Mary's and Latin teacher Principal Frank Phillips. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell