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Belchertown schools nix middle school Latin class, longtime teacher resigns

  • Belchertown High School



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2018

BELCHERTOWN — Some Belchertown students and alumni are mourning a major blow to the district’s Latin language program after the resignation of a longtime educator and the cutting of an eighth-grade course because of low enrollment and scheduling conflicts.

“Eliminating a low interest course such as the 8th grade Latin allows for better balanced class sizes right now,” Superintendent Karol Coffin said in an email. “At the time, this historically low enrollment in Latin was a contributing factor to eliminating Latin at Jabish Brook (Middle School) in order to help balance the schedule.”

About a dozen rising eighth-graders signed up for Latin for the upcoming school year, she said. The middle school program has served as a feeder to a four-year program at Belchertown High School, which will remain. An exploratory course in Latin, along with French and Spanish, will still be offered at the seventh-grade level.

Meanwhile, on the last day of school in June, two foreign language teachers announced their resignations, including the high school’s longtime Latin teacher and president of the Belchertown Teachers Association, Thomas “TJ” Howell.

“We are saddened by the loss of our Latin feeder program as well as two of finest educators our school system has to offer,” said Jason Mosall, now the acting teachers’ union president. “Latin offers us a linguistic springboard to the sciences, as well as clear advantage for our students in the study of languages.”

Spanish teacher Cara Lapenas also announced her resignation. Some parents and members of the teachers association feel their departure, and the cutting of the Latin program, had to do with the teachers’ union activism.

“Moving into the school year, their loss will also (be) felt as we go into contract negotiations,” Mosall said. “They were both very active in the union.”

Howell declined to comment when reached by email this week. Lapenas could not be reached for comment.

Coffin denies the decision about the Latin program had to do with union activism on the part of the teachers.

“I don’t believe in retaliating for anything, that serves no purpose,” Coffin said. “Regardless of who was teaching Latin or who wasn’t teaching Latin, the decision would have been the same.”

Parents, students speak

At a June 26 School Committee meeting, parents and students packed the room to share why they disagreed with the cuts to the Latin program. A rising junior at Belchertown High School, Hailley Boutin attended the meeting because she has taken Latin for three years and finds the language fascinating and practical.

“Ms. Coffin said many times throughout the meeting that we had to be visionaries and see the big picture, but I really don’t think she was seeing the actual big picture,” Boutin said. “The end result is that this decision really killed the entire Latin program and has taken away so many opportunities for students.”

When surveyed, rising eighth-graders indicated that Latin was not a high-priority language for most, with only a dozen eligible students signing up for the course. Those students and their parents were notified of the change during the last week of school, after courses had been selected, forcing them to instead choose either Spanish or French.

“Latin already isn’t the most popular by a wide margin, and taking away any exposure to it at all will negatively affect the whole program,” said Meaghan Boucher, a 2013 graduate of Belchertown High School and five-year Latin student. “Less students will sign up, meaning smaller and smaller class sizes, eventually ending the whole program.”

In addition to enrollment concerns, Coffin said strain on the teacher tasked with teaching the middle school Latin course, on top of teaching French classes, factored into the decision to cut the class.

Middle school parent Jason Murphy said the Latin teacher at the high school offered to teach at the junior high in order to keep the program viable, but that the “superintendent was punishing him for his union leadership. Most teachers and parents believe this.”

Coffin reiterated that this isn’t true. “Retaliation ... further divides people, and we don’t need that,” she said. “We need to come together.”

The superintendent said she made the decision to cut Latin at the middle school jointly with Jabish Brook principals after a meeting with high school foreign language teachers, a middle school foreign language teacher and the director of teaching and learning. However, Mosall said the teachers felt left out of the decision-making process.

“The teachers who would be affected by the decision were notified; however, the public and School Committee were notified much later,” said Mosall, the acting union president.

Coffin admits she wishes students and parents had been told sooner, too.

“Having some sort of public hearing is essential and I really wish we would have been able to have that kind of conversation back in April or May,” said Michael Knapp, chairman of the Belchertown School Committee.

Studying Latin can be practical for students looking to enter fields of science, medicine, law, history, theology and other romance languages. Many Belchertown Latin class alumni share fond memories of Howell, who organized an annual trip for students to Turkey and Greece.

“I would argue that Latin is more useful as it is such an ancient language,” said Boucher, the 2013 graduate. “Most romance languages spoken have a heavy base in Latin, so knowing Latin would open up ease of learning numerous other related languages.”

“The class was more than learning a language — it was an entire experience,” said Class of 2007 graduate Ashley Waugh. “Latin is really the root of the English language, and to this day (10 years later) I remember quite a bit of it because I am able to connect it to the language I speak today.”

The state framework for foreign language curriculum recommends students study a foreign language beginning in elementary school through their senior year of high school.

“We should be finding a way to push language to the lower grades,” Knapp said.

Coffin said Latin could return to the middle school for the 2019-2020 school year, and discussions about the evolving middle school schedule are ongoing.

“There are a lot of things we haven’t considered yet that we really need to look at it in the bigger picture,” Coffin said. “We need to open up ourselves to what those changes might be.”

Coffin said the schedule change could one day make room for additions to the school’s foreign language offerings, like Mandarin or sign language.

“What is the purpose of a language program?” said Tom Laughner, a Belchertown resident. “If it’s to prepare our students for an increasingly global economy, perhaps there are other languages that are better suited for our kids.”

“An interesting side to language study is the integration with the study of culture and history,” said Knapp. “Communication with other people is one outcome, but understanding a culture and history are other outcomes.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.