Washington Latin is nestled in the tidy, leafy, mostly middle class neighborhood of Fort Totten in Northeast Washington, D.C., close to the Maryland border. The school itself is a bright red brick building that has been newly renovated and boasts a state-of-the art gym. The scholars at “Latin,” as it’s often referred to in D.C., wear uniforms and its pedagogical approach is unapologetically steeped in the classical tradition—Aristotle, Socrates, Latin, Greek, and the rest.

You might be forgiven for wondering what type of school Latin is. After all, isn’t a classical approach more of a preference in mostly white, conservative areas? Or the province of religious education? “A lot of parents think we’re private,” says Kate Cromwell, the school’s director of external affairs.

But even if many D.C. parents may not know exactly what Washington Latin is, they do know one thing: they want it. Latin is far and away one of the most popular public schools in Washington, D.C. “My mom was obsessed with this school,” said Esther, a senior who speaks four languages and has a full-ride scholarship to George Washington in the fall. “She made sure I applied, and then when I got in, made sure my sister came here, too.” Publicly available data show that for the upcoming 2024–25 school year, Latin’s middle school on its 2nd Street campus received 1,753 applications for 95 spots and has a waiting list of 1,389 students. Its newly opened Cooper Campus middle school has a waiting list of 883.

What Makes Latin Special?

A public charter school (Washington Latin Public Charter Schools is the official name of the charter management organization that comprises two middle schools and a high school) that students apply for through the common public school lottery known as MySchoolDC, Latin is open to any student who lives in Washington, D.C.—any student that can get in, that is. And while a long waiting list is an enviable stamp of approval by the public, the school’s popularity has introduced a new challenge: how to maintain the school’s commitment to a diverse student body while also being an “it” school among Washington, D.C.’s middle- and upper-class white families.

The school’s commitment to diversity in the face of its popularity raises another interesting diversity-related question. Why does a school steeped in the classical tradition of Ancient Greece value diversity in the first place? The fact that many people think there is an inherent tension between diversity and the classics represents a failure to truly understand and embrace the classical tradition, thinks Diana Smith, former longtime principal and current head of classical education at Latin. “A classical model is, at its core, about arriving at truth through multiple perspectives. It requires diversity,” said Smith.

Smith’s point underlies a key distinction between Washington Latin’s approach and that taken by other devotees of a classical education. The school is steeped in the philosophy and tenets of a classical education, such as the approach to inquiry and moral development, but eschews orthodoxy about any particular cultural and social beliefs of the classical period. And while they draw wisdom from the “ancients,” as Smith calls them, they’re not focused only on “old white guys.” (Although Smith also is quick to point out that the classical philosophers weren’t all white, and they weren’t all men.) They describe this deliberate balance explicitly on their website:

Inherent in our school’s design is a purposeful tension between the ideals of the classical approach to education and the mindset of the modern times in which we live. We embrace this tension deliberately, recognizing the application of the classical approach to a modern audience will necessarily mean an intellectual give-and-take. We aim neither to impose outdated views on a modern audience nor to honor modern views solely for their familiarity and comfort.

Far from shying away from modern disciplines and content, the school embraces them (such as in the inspirational jazz band practice that I witnessed), but follows through on its commitment to how these disciplines are engaged with and studied. The approach is summarized in the four pillars of the school’s “Latin Way”: fall in love with enduring ideas, seek the conversation, trust courageously, and serve the common good. The codification of the pedagogical approach is what gives the school its unifying culture, influencing how teachers are trained and how students interact with one another.

Smith believes that the school’s values-driven culture is the main ingredient in the secret sauce that feeds Latin’s popularity. “There’s a yearning, across all demographic parents, for character development and virtues at school,” says Smith. “People want character education, but they don’t want to go religious, so the only place to go is secular humanism.” And at Latin, they go deep on the virtues. “Truth, beauty, and goodness” are the three “enduring ideas” they ask students to wrestle with throughout their time at the school. They talk about the exchange of ideas as a “moral act” and implore their students to serve the greater good.

In the absence of the church, synagogue, or mosque, it may be more important than ever for modern parents to find morals in the schoolhouse.

Could it be that an urban charter school that embraces the secular humanism of the Ancient Greeks has cracked a nut that has prevented other similarly situated schools from drawing interest across demographic groups? Americans, especially in urban area, have become less religious over time and are less likely to belong to a religious congregation than their parents, but they have not lost the desire for the children they raise to have a strong moral grounding; in fact, in the absence of the church, synagogue, or mosque, it may be more important than ever for modern parents to find morals in the schoolhouse. While “core values” have been wildly popular in the charter school movement for decades, their ubiquity has meant that sometimes they more resemble values found in a corporate setting—included in glossy marketing materials and as taglines in signage, but somewhat perfunctory in practice and execution. Yet walking through the halls and classrooms at Latin, you feel the classical ethos, as teachers facilitate Socratic seminars and students wrestle with deep moral concepts.

Of course, Latin’s stellar teaching corps and superior academic results don’t hurt when it comes to the school’s popularity, either. Smith believes that the teachers at Latin are so effective, in part, because they are trusted and given the autonomy to instruct how they know best. “A key curricular principle is depth, every subject is roughly divided into four or five units. We value depth over breadth,” explains Smith. The proof that Latin is doing something right with teachers is in the pudding: they retained 93 percent of their teachers last year and 10 percent of their staff are alumni of the school—numbers that are virtually unheard of in public schools in 2024. At Latin, every single administrator teaches, a true rarity in educational institutions, and this, in part, enables a tremendous array of course options for the high schoolers, especially for a high school with fewer than 500 students. Smith says they have more than 65 courses available to them. These factors have led Latin to have some of the best overall test scores in Washington, D.C. For instance, 88 percent of students at Latin’s high school tested at proficient or above on the latest PARCC ELA assessments, in contrast to an average of 54.5 percent of all students in D.C. It is important to contextualize these results however—Washington Latin serves far fewer low-income students than the average school in Washington, D.C., a characteristic that has become a focal point for the school’s administration.

The Challenges that Come with Success

And as Latin has continued to attract interest, the data show that it has increased its percentage of white students. According to data from Stanford University’s Education Opportunity Project, Latin’s middle school was 29.7 percent white in 2008, and 52 percent white in 2022, the most recently available year. White students are not (yet) the majority in their high school, but there has been a steep increase in the number of white students in Latin’s high school over the years as well. In 2009, the high school’s first year, Latin was 13.9 percent white, and in 2022, it was 35.3 percent white.

Regardless of the racial demographic changes over the past decade, there is no disputing that Washington Latin remains a very diverse school. Yet diversity is subjective. The question is always, diverse in comparison to what? The rest of D.C.? The country as a whole? In the D.C. context, Latin doesn’t serve nearly as many Black students as are in public school in the city (63.7 percent), yet the demographics of Latin’s high school are all within 5 percentage points of D.C.’s population as a whole for white, Black, Asian, and Latino residents, a remarkable mirroring of the citywide population. (See Table 1.)

Washington Latin MS (2nd Street Campus) Washington Latin HS D.C. Schools
(District + Charter)
D.C. Population as a Whole
White 52% 35.5% 13.5% 39.6%
Black 23.8% 42.4% 63.7% 44.3%
Latino 12.8% 12.7% 17.8% 11.5%
Asian 3.7% 2.7% 1.5% 4.0%
Free and Reduced Price Lunch 21.4% 37.9% 69.2% n.a.

Source: Compiled by author from Stanford University’s Education Opportunity Project and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The question of “how much diversity?” is a vexing one for schools that fashion themselves as “diverse by design”—-an allusion to the fact that unless you affirmatively design a school to be diverse, it is likely not to be, thanks to a long legacy of segregation and underlying patterns of residential segregation in our country. An uncritical desire for diversity may also lead to accusations of schools seeking diversity for diversity’s sake, or perhaps because they feel it will make them look better. To help arrive at a constructive answer, institutions must first be able to articulate why diversity matters to them. For Latin, it’s simple: “It’s not just we think it’s a good thing, and we do think it’s a good thing,” says Cromwell, “but we believe it’s necessary for our model.” It is so important, in fact, that they have codified it in the school’s strategic plan, listing as a goal, “Sustain student racial diversity and continue to mirror racial demographics of D.C.”

But just as important as numeric diversity—maybe even more important—is the commitment to serving all of the different types of children well, which is one place that Latin excels, exemplified in their “seek the conversation” component of the Latin Way. “We aim for students to embrace the idea that many perspectives and voices are the means to a richer learning experience for all,” explains Latin’s website. And this embracing of various perspectives is palpable in the classrooms and hallways, as students from all walks of life and various wards in D.C. form genuine relationships across lines of difference. But it’s not as if school leadership is satisfied. Ever the one to invoke the ancients, Smith says, “Questioning of oneself is at the core of the classical tradition. We don’t have it all figured out. We’re constantly thinking about how to move from ‘diverse’ to ‘integrated.’” What’s more, there is work to be done on ensuring Latin’s at-risk students are performing well academically. For instance, while Latin’s at-risk students in the original middle school outperform at-risk students in D.C. by 12 percentage points in English language arts, those same students perform about the same as at-risk students in the rest of D.C. in math. And similar to the pattern in schools and districts across the United States, a persistent and yawning gap remains between at-risk students and the rest of the population within the school.

“If you have a thing that is highly sought after, no matter what it is, people with privilege will always find a way to get a hold of it.”

Leaders at the school also worry about the school’s changing demographics and have taken action in recent years to make sure they remain diverse. There is a sense that given their popularity, simple inertia will continue to make the school a whiter, wealthier place. “If you have a thing that is highly sought after, no matter what it is, people with privilege will always find a way to get a hold of it,” says Cromwell, “so how do you keep it accessible?” The school played a leading role in lobbying for changes to enrollment procedures to improve access to at-risk students. The D.C. city council passed a resolution enacting what is known as the “equitable access” option in enrollment, which enables schools to set aside seats for at-risk students. Equitable access was first enacted for the 2022-23 school year.

Recently, Latin’s head of school, Peter Anderson, wrote an op-ed imploring the city to do more for what the city deems “at-risk” students (a label not preferred by the school—Latin uses STAR instead, for students designated for additional resources). Anderson believes more needs to be done in terms of outreach and communication in order to make the equitable access initiative effective. Since 2022-23, Latin has had an “equitable access” set aside for at-risk students, meaning that 20 of the 95 spots for incoming fifth grader students at Latin’s 2nd Street middle school are reserved for at-risk students. In essence, MySchoolDC, which manages enrollment for all of Washington, D.C., can hold seats open at Latin for at-risk students via a separate waiting list, as a way of ensuring that at least twenty of the available spots will go to at-risk students in the lottery (provided at least twenty applied). This approach has similarities to the multiple lottery enrollment system that has been successfully employed in innovative district schools in San Antonio and Dallas to promote diversity. And while the school has seen some success with “equitable access,” the administration acknowledges that more needs to be done, particularly if they are to achieve their goal of reflecting the diversity of Washington, D.C.

Looking Ahead

Like many schools with strong academics and a good reputation, Washington Latin has become an extremely popular choice for families in Washington, D.C. With popularity, the challenge of promoting and maintaining a student body that looks like the community the school serves, has emerged. As Washington Latin continues to show that not only is there a place for a classical education in the urban education landscape, but that the serious and dedicated approach to a virtue-laden, values-centered education resonates with parents of all stripes in modern America, it is taking special care to ensure that the one virtue that is the key to holding it all together—diversity—does not fall by the wayside.