BUSHWICK — Walk in from Bushwick Avenue to the Brooklyn Latin School and you might feel under-dressed — boys in purple ties and girls in khaki skirts walk the hallways, and the faculty dons formal attire.
"We want students to feel aware and proud that they represent Brooklyn Latin," explained headmaster Jason Griffiths, who founded the school in 2006 as one of New York City's specialized high schools that require an entrance exam. "We're not typical for schools in NYC, we're more traditional."
Griffiths, who took Latin for four years at his Jesuit high school in small-town Pennsylvania, now leads the Brooklyn school.
Brooklyn Latin is a replica version of Boston Latin, which is the country's oldest public school, founded in 1635.
Q: Why do you have students take Latin all four years of high school?
It’s a way of thinking, developing analytic skills in students like law school does. Also it’s the basis of our society, in terms of our government and culture, and it’s an opportunity for kids to look at a culture that is both very similar to and different than ours.
Q: What are your tenets?
Our goal is to provide a private school education in a public school setting and for public school students. So our curriculum is very challenging. Our freshmen, for example, take physics, math, English, history, Spanish, Latin and art history. We’re also an International Baccalaureate school — every class our students take as a junior and senior is a college-level.
Q: Who are your students?
We have students from all five boroughs; 40 percent are from Brooklyn, and 40 percent from Queens. Eighty-six percent of our student body is non-white and nearly 70 percent receive free and reduced lunch. We have a large number of immigrants that come to our school and our traditional culture is one that speaks to immigrant families.
Q: Do you think your model could be implemented in all public schools?
I don’t think so. The model we're offering is what some families want. We’re very clear about who we are and what we believe in, but it's not for everyone. One of the great things about New York is there's such a rich diversity of students and beliefs.
Q: Who is the right student for your school?
For us it's someone who wants to engage in intellectual work and gains happiness from that, from putting forth a lot of effort. Many families don't believe in their kids' wearing a uniform, so this school isn't for them. We require three hours of homework a night, and there are things we do that are creative, but we are not a creative school. So if a student is really into the arts, this school is not for them.
Q: Were you a good student growing up?
I was — always diligent, disciplined, and worked really hard. When I got home from school the first thing I did was my homework. I have my mother to thank for that. But I laugh now because our seniors in May can be really tough. I was a good student until April or May, and for a while I stopped. I feel like I’m paying for that now with our seniors.
Q: Did you have a favorite subject?
I loved Latin and history. My freshman teacher was really tough and I really responded well. He was that teacher that everyone was afraid of because he was so tough.
Q: Would you open another Latin school?
No. We have too much work to do to become a better school and I think we could spend the next 30 years doing that.
Q: How do you feel about being co-located (with P.S. 147 elementary)?
Its just a reality here in New York City. Everyone wishes they had their own building. When our students walk into the first floor and there are a bunch of elementary students, it's harder for them to have pride in their school. We don’t have a gymnasium, a proper auditorium, art studio and we’re competing for college spots against students that go to other specialized schools with those facilities. So we're in constant discussions about a way to find our own space.
Q: Why does your school use the term "headmaster" to describe the principal?
We got the term from Boston Latin's term for their leader. It's a term, a little more traditional, and frames the principal more as an intellectual or curriculum leader.