Roman invasion of Brooklyn

17th March 2006 at 00:00
The school which educated Benjamin Franklin is to be cloned under a scheme to help disadvantaged pupils in New York. Stephen Phillips reports.


A unique educational experiment is taking shape in New York where officials are creating an inner-city clone of American's oldest, most famous state school, to cater for disadvantaged children.

The Boston Latin school opened more than 370 years ago, making it older than the US itself. It educated two of the country's "founding fathers", Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, plus luminaries such as composer Leonard Bernstein.

Founded in 1635 by British colonists and modelled on British schools of the day, it has held fast to an ultra-rigorous classical curriculum and old-fashioned grammar-school approach. Pupils, for example, must take Latin for at least three years.

Brooklyn Latin's setting is a far cry from that of its Boston inspiration, which looks out at Harvard university medical school in the centre of the city. The new school will be housed above an existing 350-student primary school in a tatty building, opposite a council estate.

Brooklyn Latin, to open this September as the first of seven new "academically-selective" secondaries in New York, will be a virtual ringer for the hallowed Boston school, right down to the original's eccentricities.

On top of the Latin requirement, the 800-pupil school will emulate traditions of the Boston Latin, such as the "declarations," in which children give oral recitations of written work to the rest of school five times a year.

It is even expected to adopt Boston Latin's distinctive language, in which teachers are "masters" and the head is the "headmaster", rather than the US equivalent "principal", and official colour of regal purple.

The school - admission to which will be open to pupils from across New York based on sitting an entrance exam - is the idea of Replications Inc, a New York-based non-profit school design organisation. The company, which specialises in copying high-performing schools, was commissioned by the city's education department last year to produce a new school for high-flying children.

John Elwell, the firm's president, said: "I thought: why not do something really interesting and go after one of the best schools in America?"

Details count in trying to "capture the culture" of Boston Latin at the new school, he said.

Last week, the headmaster began a three-month "residency" at Boston Latin, during which he will shadow staff, sit in on lessons and soak up the atmosphere, "getting a sense of what's important and what's not," Mr Elwell said.

But Mr Elwell said he was confident the school's highly-traditional approach would engage pupils. "Those who'll be attracted to it will be hard-working and highly-motivated."

The idea of replicating successful schools is part of a trend in the US to franchise out different educational approaches, mainly focused on inner-city communities where social problems put a greater onus on schools to engage children.

Other initiatives include charter school networks such as the Knowledge is Power Program! (KIPP) and the Big Picture Company's Met schools.

Warren Simmons, executive director of Brown university's Annenberg institute for school reform, said: "US education authorities are increasingly thinking of themselves as organisations managing portfolios of schools, some of which will be run by outside partners."

"The pedagogies can be quite different. KIPP uses a highly-regimented approach, while the Met is more student-led, for example.

"Education authorities are realising that, given the cultural diversity of communities, they have to adapt schools to particular values and interests," he added.

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