Helping Minorities Help Themselves

LATIN - a dying language? Not in Beloit, Wis., where 26 fourth-graders are learning this living language through a program called ``Help Yourself.'' A group at Beloit College put the program together in response to the national lament about declining numbers of minority students on college campuses. By reaching into the fourth grade, we felt we would be able to help change the lives of minority students early on, provide future leadership for the Beloit community, and make the college a more comfortable place for minority students.

The Latin-based curriculum was chosen to develop analytical and critical skills, to create an independence of thought, and to help students master grammar. Focusing on the third-century international city of Alexandria, where at least 10 languages were spoken and where the great lighthouse of Pharos beckoned multiple cultures, the program gives students a focal point from which language - as well as a variety of other disciplines - can be learned.

For instance, students do math by adding or subtracting from base points in Egypt's history. Science skills are developed by asking students to think in terms of fulcrums to move beached ships, as their Alexandrian counterparts did centuries ago. Speaking and writing skills are enhanced by asking students to recite and write about geography and history. And cultural interests are furthered by attendance at events such as an African dance company and a classical ballet.

Help Yourself is divided into three parts - the Academy, Pre-Collegiate, and College Scholarship.

The Academy, for Grades 4-8, provides instruction one hour a day, three days a week after school, three hours on Saturday, and four weeks in the summer. Originally intended for 24 students, 26 (each of whom has been given a Latin name) were selected from the 44 applicants when we were unable to decide on the final three. The selection process was perhaps the most moving point of the effort. Parents - most of whom are below poverty level - begged and pleaded for admission for their child.

The Pre-Collegiate Program, designed for Grades 9-12, works in tandem with the Academy, and ensures some impact on students who are beyond the Academy age. Participants engage in a four-week summer session at Beloit College in which they review what they have learned and supplement that learning with additional skills. They also have the opportunity to take college courses in their senior year.

The Scholarship Program provides up to five full scholarships a year for those who successfully complete Help Yourself. It may be difficult to get five students a year to attend Beloit on those scholarships. Why? Because graduates of the program stand to be courted by other colleges and universities.

There are two other distinguishing features about Help Yourself. Parents must be involved in the program, and students must agree to be mentors for those who follow them.

Parental involvement is essential if the program is not to be undone at home. For that reason, we insist that parents or a parent - in the case of a single-parent family or a surrogate where that single parent has a work conflict - attend the Saturday sessions. We were unprepared for what happened in the first session. Parents came. Grandparents came. Aunts and uncles came - and they are still coming!

As for the mentoring part of Help Yourself, we feel that ``handouts'' won't work. Therefore, to continue in the program beyond the first year every participant must advise and counsel those who follow them.

Latin served the Romans well. At Beloit, Latin is also serving our youngest students, the college, the city, and the nation well.

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