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September 12, 2019

High school Latin programs (along with Classics programs at the college or university level) are in perpetual peril, and keeping any program alive contributes to the ongoing effort to keep our field afloat and relevant, while also continuing to provide students with all of the benefits that we know that Latin offers. Monmouth College’s Classics Department spearheaded a successful, broad-based effort to resist the proposed elimination of the thriving Latin program at Monmouth-Roseville (IL) High School (MRHS) in Spring 2019.

This reflection is meant as a case study for understanding and then addressing the issue of threatened Latin programs across the country. I will lay out the factors and steps that led to the initial decision to drop the program, those that we discovered were critical in the eventual success of the resistance effort, and roles that a college or university Classics programs can play to retain their comrade programs, which cultivate many eventual Classics students and majors.

Figure 1: Monmouth-Roseville High School in Monmouth, IL. Photo Credit: Robert Holschuh Simmons.

Background on the situation at Monmouth-Roseville

Latin has long had a strong presence in this area. The language has been continuously offered at what used to be just Monmouth High School since at least the 1960s, and likely many decades before that. Monmouth and Roseville High Schools merged in 2005, and the combined high school has about 550 students from Monmouth (~9,900 residents) and Roseville (~1,100), two towns that developed to support the thousands of acres of fertile farmland around them. It is the smallest public school to offer Latin in the state of Illinois, and likely one of the smallest in the nation, but its longtime teacher (Brian Tibbets) was widely respected, and enrollments were generally good. Though Latin was targeted for elimination at Monmouth High School twice previously in the last four decades, it weathered those challenges due to a combined effort of the community and Monmouth College. Between the longstanding prominence of Latin at the local high school (Monmouth, and now Monmouth-Roseville) and of Classics at Monmouth College, both in this small town, there may be more people per capita in Monmouth, IL, who have studied Latin than in any other city in the nation. If Mr. Tibbets had not left (for a family opportunity), Latin would not have been in jeopardy here.

Figure 2: Brian Tibbets, who taught Latin at MRHS from 2004-2018, is pictured on the far left with MRHS students whom he brought on a trip to Italy in 2006. Photo credit: Brian Tibbets.

Based on what we learned here, what are essentials to keeping Latin programs afloat in times of transition?

  1. There needs to be a pipeline of prospective Latin teachers; without available teachers, programs will close.

The district’s main reason for its choice to end the program was that a suitable candidate to continue it did not emerge for months after the position was first posted. The initial search could have been done better—the position was advertised only regionally in the state, and it was listed as requiring the teacher to handle not just Latin, but also Spanish or French, a combination that only a small number of certified teachers across the nation could manage. But even after the district recommitted to keeping Latin, after it became more flexible in the subject(s) that it allowed a prospective teacher to cover in addition to Latin, after it posted the position with the American Classical League (ACL), and after the Illinois Classical Conference (ICC) advertised it across the state, the position’s applicants were still very few. It is possible that needing to teach another subject in addition to Latin could have kept some candidates from applying; others may not have wanted to live in a small town; etc. But the district does not typically struggle to fill other positions, because there are simply more qualified, willing teachers out there for other subjects. The Latin teacher shortage is real. And while the paucity of qualified teachers gives incredible options and job security to those who are in the field, Latin programs will, and do, fold if there is not a good fit for positions that open up.

As an aside, let me appeal to Classics Ph.D.s despairing of the college/university job market, and Classics majors devising their answers to “What are you going to DO with a Classics major?”, to consider teaching at the K-12 level. For one, there are abundant opportunities out there (see the ACL Placement Service to keep up with them). For another, the community of Latin teachers is incredible. Attend an ACL annual institute or a gathering of Latin teachers in any state, and you will find a haven of tremendous warmth, inclusion, intelligence, and creativity. You can have a richly satisfying, important career, with support from a vibrant community.

Figure 3: Attendees of the ACL Annual Institute in New York
City in June 2019 celebrate the organization’s centennial
outside of the Today show. Photo credit: American
Classical League Facebook.
  1. Sometimes creative options need to be sought to keep Latin programs going.

While the district’s posting was for a certified teacher (quite reasonably), it made the best hire by strategizing a way fill two positions of need by hiring someone who was uncertified. The teacher eventually hired to maintain the Latin program was Maddie Baker, one of Monmouth College’s excellent Classics majors, who graduated in spring 2019. Prior to this position opening up, she had not planned to be a teacher and had taken no Education classes. But when Brian Tibbets left the position mid-year, she and I talked about the opportunity that this presented for her, and she committed to observing and contributing to the Latin 1 and 2 classes (which were being formally substitute-taught by a certified teacher) throughout the spring and to making her experience into an independent study for credit at Monmouth. She learned a lot while observing, she took over all of the classes for at least some of the spring, she caught the teaching bug, and she got feedback from my colleagues Adrienne Hagen and Alana Newman and me as she learned on the job. The students loved her, and she became the clear best candidate for the Latin job. But not only was she not certified, she also did not have another major or minor that would have led to an obvious second teaching area. The solution to that problem was to have her teach half-time in English Language Learners, another area in which demand for teachers is greater than their supply. Having studied two languages other than English made her eligible for fast-track certification in that discipline.

Figure 4: Maddie Baker, the current MRHS Latin teacher,
with one of her Monmouth Classics professors, Bob Holschuh
Simmons, at the Monmouth College Classics fall picnic,
August 2019. Photo credit: River Laing personal photo.
  1. People need to LOVE Latin to rally behind its retention, and that love needs to be palpable to the people making the decision to retain the language.

Once a decision has been made to drop Latin, changing minds of school board members will typically not come just from anecdotes about the cultural literacy that comes with the language or statistics about improved college entrance exam scores. Every subject has claims about why it is valuable and numbers to back up those claims. There needs to be an overwhelming expression of passion for Latin, though data in addition does not hurt.

We mobilized efforts to give us the best chance of demonstrating the requisite desire by, first, casting a wide net. As soon as my emeritus colleague Tom Sienkewicz alerted me that the Board of Education had voted to drop Latin at its February meeting, I sent out an e-mail to everyone who came to mind that I thought might be willing to play a role in resisting the decision, asked them to spread the word, and invited them to send expressions of support for Latin to the school’s principal and the district’s superintendent and Board of Education members. I posted the same appeals on the Monmouth Classics Department’s Facebook page, and the news went viral.

But those supporters of Latin needed material to share, and the best material is that which is fresh in people’s minds. For the prior 14 ½ years, Mr. Tibbets gave a lot of students (and their parents) reasons to love Latin and the culture that he built around it. If a less inspiring teacher had been in that position, I can’t imagine the resistance would have been nearly as strong.

The results of our outreach were about as positive as I could have hoped. I myself was cc’d on about twenty e-mail messages to the superintendent, principal, and Board of Education that went on at length and in depth about the value that they found in Latin, for a range of reasons from the stimulation that helped propel them to a career writing for National Geographic, to Latin’s accessibility to their children with learning disabilities. And dozens more people told me that they had written or called.

The epitome of the powerful impact that Latin had made came at a local Board of Education meeting in mid-March. I had put out a call via e-mail, Facebook, and personal outreach for attendees and spoken advocates at the meeting, and an article about the plan to drop Latin in the local newspaper, which I had invited, announced the opportunity for people to attend and speak at it. For a small town, the turnout was very good--twenty people there just for Latin, twelve of whom spoke--and it achieved its objective. Attendees spoke in detail on, among other things, the daily impact that Latin at Monmouth-Roseville had on their adult professional and personal lives and on the sense of belonging the Latin Club gave to their children. After the Latin advocates had spoken their piece and were given leave to depart the meeting if they would like, one of the board members summed up the obvious: “Those people REALLY love Latin.”

  1. The main impetus for the program’s retention needs to be local.

Accounts that I heard after that meeting were that it was what turned the tide in the decision-makers’ attitudes toward retaining Latin. And it was not just the passion for the language and program on display, but also its local impact. Several of the speakers were from well-known, generations-deep local families. One spoke of the pride she had taken in her high school when college peers of hers from major metropolitan areas expressed envy at the opportunity that she had had that they had not. Employees of Monmouth College reminded the Board that, as the second-biggest employer in town, it regularly brings in new employees (and residents), and that the Latin program at MRHS is a chief reason that such employees often choose to live and pay taxes in Monmouth, rather than in either of two nearby districts.

Contributions from other places did not hurt the cause, though. Shortly after I sent out my initial e-mail emergency alert, SCS, ACL, CAMWS, and ICC representatives from points all over the state and country wrote or called the school, the district, and the Board to plug the value of Latin and offer assistance to make the program continue to work. My assumption is that those efforts made the relevant officials realize that a lot of people, all over the place, take Latin very seriously, and that canceling the program was more than just a local matter.

Why should college and university programs get involved in the retention of K-12 Latin programs?

When we save high school Latin, we are saving college/university Classics. While, locally, I emphasized my resistance to this closure based on a couple of non-professional reasons (I believe in the value of Latin in our community, and I want my children to be able to take it), I also had a big professional one. Many Monmouth-Roseville students who have taken Latin come to Monmouth College, they often take more Latin here, they regularly earn our Latin Scholarships, and a significant percentage of them major in Classics. While I have not been able to find nationwide statistics about correlations between students taking Latin in high school and taking Latin or other Classics courses in college, or even majoring, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are such connections. Most of our majors and minors are people who discover Classics after they get here, but a healthy percentage of them are people who have had high school Latin, want to continue it, and fall in love with the rest of the Classics curriculum as well. Moreover, in my experiences teaching both in the Southeast (at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and in the Midwest (at Monmouth), the prevalence of K-12 Latin programs all over the Southeast made Latin and Classics at the college level a reality to a greater percentage of incoming UNCG students than of incoming Monmouth students (from outside of our local community), who are less likely to have had exposure to Latin in high school.

Figure 5: Monmouth College Classics Department members at the fall department picnic, August 2019. One current Monmouth Classics majors and one minor are MRHS graduates, and both of them won Latin Scholarships. Photo credit: Michelle Damian personal photo.

One way or another, our fates are linked. Latin (and Greek) enrollments are down notably since the 2008 recession, at the K-12 and college/university levels. Every program lost makes Classics and the languages we teach less of a reality for many people, compounding enrollment losses in the programs that remain.

College and university faculty are well-positioned to coordinate resistance to K-12 closures because of the way our jobs are structured. While I absolutely did not think I had the time, last spring, to fight for MRHS Latin’s existence, the reality was that I had a lot more flexible time during working hours than people at the K-12 level or almost any other occupation. I could take time during my day to correspond and talk widely with others involved in the resistance. And a significant part of most of our jobs is developing broad professional networks, in many cases through traveling to a range of conferences at the expense of our schools, privileges not as commonly available at the K-12 level. So we are in position to mobilize people when it is useful.

What can college and university programs do to aid K-12 programs even when they are NOT in jeopardy, to be ready to step in when they ARE?

College and university faculty members can notice and acknowledge the K-12 programs in their environments, can make friendly connections with teachers, and can offer support when it would be useful. Here are some of the things that Monmouth College has done that made it far easier to play a role in the resistance to MRHS Latin’s planned closure than it might otherwise have been.

First, we treat the local teacher as a colleague. We invite her or him to department parties and events. We do joint events, such as a Roman military demonstration at the Illinois Junior Classical League (IJCL) South meeting. And we established a partnership whereby MRHS hosts IJCL-South every other year and holds part of the conference at Monmouth’s Classics Day.

Figure 6: Monmouth-Roseville students offering a “Make your own Latin button” station at Monmouth College’s Classics Day I, April 2015. Photo credit: Emma Vanderpool.

We extend the kind of friendship we have with Monmouth-Roseville to other teachers in the state as well. It has long been departmental practice to attend annual ICC meetings, which are primarily attended by K-12 teachers, and regularly to attend one or both yearly IJCL meetings, often leading interactive demonstrations for high school students at them. Consequently, when I put out the distress call on behalf of MRHS Latin, the many K-12 teachers who leaped into action to help did so not just because they valued their field and knew what a tremendous program the former teacher had built, but also because they knew that they had a personal friend who was coordinating the resistance, and who understood and respected the work they were doing.

Monmouth-Roseville High School’s Latin program goes on, but save for an unusual combination of factors in place at the school and in the town, it easily could not have. We at Monmouth will continue to be vigilant in support of our local program and in preparation for the next challenge. I hope that others will be as well.

Figure 7: Monmouth College and K-12 students, under the direction of Bob Holschuh Simmons, form a Roman testudo at the IJCL-North meeting in Itasca, IL, in February 2019. Photo credit: Amy Pistone.

Header Image: Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: "Clio" (history) and "Melpomene" (tragedy). Mosaic, 3rdC CE, from Sousse, Tunisia, now on display in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia (Image via Wikimedia in the Public Domain).


Robert Holschuh Simmons is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of Classics at Monmouth College, where he teaches Greek and Latin language and a range of literature and civilization courses, including Sports in Greece and Rome and Tyrants, Assassins, and Demagogues: Seizing Power in Ancient Greece. Classics Day Festivals that he and many collaborators have put on at UNC-Greensboro and Monmouth have thrice won CAMWS outreach awards. His most recent publications are “‘Men, Friends’: The Sociological Mechanics of Xenophontic Leaders Winning Subordinates as Friends” and “Making Classics (Even More) Cool: Building a Thriving Classics Day at a University.”