“I believe the author added the last two lines in Latin to add irony to the poem.”
“The lines were added to challenge the idea of dying for your country.”
“It is important to consider that Wilfred Owen did not survive WW1.”
These were some of the observations that eighth-grade students made during a course on “Propaganda vs. the Realities of War” at Hellenic Classical Charter School in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood on a cold Thursday morning in February. Divided into small groups, the students discussed Wilfred Owen’s graphic depiction of war in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” and how it contrasted with military-recruiting posters from various governments throughout history. The conversation ranged from the author’s stylistic choices to the governments’ legitimate need for recruits for the common defense and the pros and cons of drafting policies.
Hellenic is a K-8 charter school serving 750 students at two campuses, one in Brooklyn and the other on Staten Island. The local Greek community founded the school in 2005 to offer a classical curriculum. “We created the school to spread Hellenism, highlight the importance of the classics including the study of the Greek and Latin languages, and to educate children about Greek culture and ideas: democracy, science, the arts,” said school board chair Charles Capetanakis. Almost 60 percent of the school’s diverse student body is low-income.
Hellenic offers a powerful example for New York City schools chancellor David Banks, who took office pledging to revamp reading instruction in the public schools. From the beginning, the school has emphasized proven approaches like phonics instruction and building up the background knowledge that kids need to be proficient readers. As a result, 61 percent of its students passed New York State’s English Language Arts and Literacy Standards test in 2022, compared with 47 percent of students statewide.
The kind of course these eighth-graders were participating in—known in the school as a paideia—is central to Hellenic’s curriculum and is offered to all classes twice a month starting in kindergarten. In the first class of the paideia on propaganda and war, the eighth-graders read the Owen poem and discussed it. Several students already had detailed notes on the text and observations that they wanted to share with their classmates. In the second class, they analyzed and discussed the package of recruiting posters, which included examples from Ireland, the U.S., and England.
Christina Tettonis, superintendent of both campuses, worked at New York City’s Department of Education for almost two decades before joining Hellenic. “I was excited about the vision of the school,” she said. “Here the students become writers, readers, mathematicians.” Charter schools are often criticized for high staff turnover, but the principals at both Hellenic campuses have been with the school since its founding in 2005.
Tettonis demurred when I asked whether she could have created a school like Hellenic inside the Department of Education. It’s hard to imagine such a school coming into being within the constraints of the city’s contract with the teachers’ union and the department’s bureaucratic web of regulations. Hellenic started as a partnership with the Greek government to bring Greek teachers to the U.S. to teach the language. The school eventually decided that it was preferable to find Greek teachers in America who could better understand the school’s pedagogy. This type of experimentation would not have been possible within the district’s normal regulations.
As Governor Kathy Hochul proposes to lift, if only slightly, the charter cap in New York City—and as the usual forces argue against it—it’s important to consider the types of schools being blocked. Gotham desperately needs more schools like Hellenic, where young people receive a rigorous, classical education and learn to debate ideas respectfully while developing a love for learning. New York’s elected officials should be knocking on Tettonis’s door, asking how they can support Hellenic’s expansion so that more kids can have access to the joyful education this school offers.