Call it the “Percy Jackson” effect. Latin in Loudoun’s public middle and high schools is alive and thriving.
With an engaging curriculum, a focus on culture and mythology, and a cadre of nearly 30 enthusiastic (and sometimes quirky) teachers around the county, the program is drawing students from all walks of life and academic backgrounds. Many teachers chalk up the newfound interest, in part, to popular book series like “Percy Jackson” and “Harry Potter.”
“Kids don’t just take Latin. They take it because something has sparked their interest. And then my job is to keep their interest piqued,” said Laura Newell, Latin teacher at Stone Bridge High School. “It’s my job to help them realize that it’s completely undead. That it’s alive and very much a part of their everyday life if they start to learn where to look for it.”
For decades in Loudoun, Latin was at a disadvantage in the friendly competition for students within the county’s world languages program. For years, only French and Spanish were offered in middle schools, giving students a jumpstart in those languages.
But changes to the foreign language program in 2007 gave students a chance to start a foreign language in seventh grade, instead of eighth, and brought Latin to all of the county’s middle schools, allowing students to pursue a six-year Latin program and more fully prepare for the Advanced Placement exam.
The Latin Omnibus
Michael Krepich, a 36-year Latin teacher in Loudoun, is known as the pater familias of the county’s Latin program. He started teaching at Loudoun Valley High
School in Purcellville in 1980, and his wife, Lynn, has been a beloved Latin teacher at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg since 1981.
“Across the board we are tending to attract what my wife likes to call the Roman Forum. We get students of all stripes—from the kids at the top to students who struggle in school, but who are willing to work hard to learn a foreign language,” Michael Krepich said. “We’ve learned that we need to keep a wide variety of kids interested in our program, not only to build, but to maintain and grow. … We want everybody on the Latin omnibus. Latin is for everyone.”
Krepich said some Latin students are already thinking about careers in medicine or law and are focused on boosting SAT scores, but others are driven by a passion for history and mythology.
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Freedom High School’s Damian Tremblay, who runs the biggest Latin program in the county, agrees. Freedom, and its feeder J. Michael Lunsford Middle School, in South Riding are served by one part-time and three full-time Latin teachers: the school’s proximity to the Rt. 28 technology corridor, highly educated parents and high achieving students make Latin a popular choice.
“A lot of my students are interested in looking at technical university programs or scientific university programs and so they’re enrolled in Latin but they have very sophisticated backgrounds in other areas as well,” Tremblay said. “Another group of students come into Latin having read ‘Harry Potter’ and having read the Rick Riordan ‘Percy Jackson’ novels. On some level there’s a fascination with vocabulary. On another level, students are interested in castles and pyramids and temples and armies of the ancient world.”
Michelle Lindo, Latin teacher at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, said the Cambridge Latin Course reading-based curriculum used by the county is a big part of the draw. The program starts students with basic stories about a family in Pompeii just before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and follows the adventures of a son who survives the eruption all the way through the students’ fourth year. The vocabulary and grammar get increasingly complex, while the stories engage students with humor and drama.
“It’s one big huge soap opera,” Lindo said with a laugh. “Kids that don’t go on [to higher level classes] are like ‘Can you tell me what happens in the next book?’”
For students who start early and opt to go all the way, Latin 5 is literature-focused, and Latin 6 follows the advanced placement syllabus, with a focus on Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.”
But there is room for students to go beyond grammar and literature. In Steven Boscovitch’s classroom at Mercer Middle School in Aldie, the focus is on getting students to speak and listen to Latin, as well as learning grammar. Boscovitch—a former IT professional who turned his passion for ancient history into a career teaching Latin—engages students with storytelling in the classical language.
“Recently, there’s been a movement within the Latin community nationally to bring spoken Latin into the class like our modern language teachers do with their languages, doing a lot more speaking, interacting in the language and taking a communicative approach rather than just the grammar and translation,” Boscovitch said.
Every teacher has a different style, Krepich said, and that’s one thing that makes Loudoun’s program so strong. With 28 teachers (and one or two more to be added next year), Krepich said he often finds at conferences that Loudoun is the envy of the public school Latin teaching scene.
“I believe we have the strongest Latin program in the United States,” Krepich said.
‘Not Your Grandmother’s Latin Class’
In Andrea Weiskopf’s Latin 1 class at River Bend Middle School in Sterling last week, students were out of their seats and engaged in a friendly but fierce grammar competition, followed by an activity working in teams to identify the Latin roots of English vocabulary and conjugate the Latin verb “ire” (to go).
“This is not your grandmother’s Latin class,” Weiskopf said. “Latin class is full of grammar, yes, but it is also full of mythology, Roman culture, and lots of bad jokes and puns.”
Weiskopf, who divides her time between River Bend and Seneca Ridge Middle School, is known for her dynamic style and for using technology and online games and quizzes to engage in friendly competition. But it’s not all fun and games—Weiskopf encourages her students to take national tests like National Latin Exam, the National Mythology Exam, and contests offered by the Classical Association of Virginia.
Her seventh grade students say there were a number of factors that appealed to them when signing up last year, from Weiskopf’s personal style to learning about Roman culture to expanding their English vocabulary.
“I think it helps with a lot of other subjects with the derivatives and everything else. … In English, we’re doing a lot of vocabulary words and a lot of Latin roots have shown up in them,” student Emma Greenman said.
“People will say Latin is a dead language, and I adamantly say no, it’s not,” said Emma’s classmate Janika Perezous, to which Emma added, “It’s just Roman around.”