BOSTON — LEGEND has it that Harvard University was founded so that graduates of the Boston Latin School would have a college to attend. Michael Contompasis, headmaster since 1974 and a 1957 graduate, doesn't argue the point. He recognizes that the Latin School is steeped in tradition and history, but he doesn't emphasize the past.
``Traditions in and of themselves are not important,'' he says. ``What's important is how you adapt that tradition ... to whatever it is you need to do in order to meet the ever-changing needs of society.''
Founded in 1635, Boston Latin School is the oldest public preparatory school in the United States. For the past three centuries the six-year school has provided a strong, liberal-arts education. Although it is part of the public school system, students must take an examination to qualify for enrollment.
``It's been a way for kids with great ability but no resources to connect with education,'' says Bob Lydiard, a 1948 graduate and a school administrator in West Newbury, Mass.
A frieze around the school's assembly hall displays the names of past students who became famous: Benjamin Franklin, Cotton Mather, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the abolitionists Henry Ward Beecher and Wendell Phillips, and Leonard Bernstein.
Other less well-known but successful graduates have come back to pay their debts to the school. Marshall S. Cogan, a 1955 graduate and successful New York business executive, gave $1 million in September. The funds will be used to build a new language laboratory and to provide college scholarships to needy graduates. Boston Latin ``gave me a shot at the world,'' says Mr. Cogan.
``Why continue teaching Latin?'' has been the question for years. Mr. Contompasis answers: ``Why not?'' The Latin School still requires five years of Latin and four years of French, German, Spanish, or Italian.
While maintaining the school's lofty standards, Contompasis has taken the school through some diverse challenges. In 1972, girls were admitted for the first time; today they account for more than half of the 2,300 students enrolled. After a court-ordered desegregation of Boston's schools in 1975, the percentage of white students at the Latin School went from 92 percent to less than 50 percent today.
As headmaster, Contompasis has also brought a new tone of leadership to the school - a view that he says is enlightened by his own experience there. ``The role of the entire Latin School community is to supply support when it's needed. That does not mean you water down standards,'' he quickly adds.
Boston Latin continues to send almost 99 percent of its students on to higher education. But Contompasis speaks of the difficulty of dealing with students who are raised by single parents and others who are single parents themselves. ``I think that this school is more important now,'' he says, ``than it's ever been in its history.''