David Hardy had dreamed of opening a charter school for boys in Philadelphia to ensure more minority males made it college.
Modeled after the famed Boston Latin School, the charter would offer a rigorous, college-prep education and require students to complete four years of Latin.
Hardy fulfilled his vision.
A decade after Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School opened in Cobbs Creek, Hardy, 65, is retiring as the school's founding CEO. He presided over his final graduation earlier this month.
"We are way beyond what I dreamed," Hardy said.
• In a city where just 13 percent of African American male graduates of public high schools receive some sort of postsecondary education, more than 80 percent of Boys' Latin grads each year enroll in college, mostly four-year schools.
• Since the first class graduated from Boys' Latin in 2011, an increasing number of alums are staying in college to earn degrees. While 23 percent of the Class of 2011 had finished college in six years, the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks students in college, projects that 61 percent of the Class of 2013 will obtain bachelor degrees by 2019 — a rate that greatly exceeds the average for district high schools.
• Forty-eight percent of the students across the country who took the National Latin Exam's introductory-level test in March were recognized for their performance, but 64 percent of Boys' Latin's seventh graders were honored, including two students who had perfect scores.
Word is spreading about Boys' Latin, which opened a middle-school campus for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in 2012 to introduce younger students to Latin and prep them for the high school. A column about the school recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and Hardy and the school will be featured this summer on NBC's Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly in a segment about Philadelphia charter schools.
To ensure that Boys' Latin would be on a solid foundation when Hardy left, he and the board spent years preparing for the transition. In 2011, Hardy recruited Noah Tennant, the former principal of Haddonfield Middle School, to become Boys' Latin's principal and deputy CEO, so he would be ready to take the lead.
Tennant, 41, said he was "smitten" the first time he visited Boys' Latin. "If you stand at the front of this school," he said, "you see these young men coming up in blazers and ties. It's a sight to behold."
"I never planned to run this school forever," Hardy said. "We wanted to build an institution here — something that would last. My job was to put us in a position where we could do that."
Hardy said Boys' Latin grew out of the Philadelphia School District's short-lived experiment with single-gender schools in 2005. FitzSimons High School in North Philadelphia was converted to a boys' school, but there were problems from the outset, including assaults on students and staff.
Hardy, who had been a charter administrator at Community Academy in North Philadelphia, was considering creating his own charter. He arranged for Paul Vallas, the district's CEO, to visit the Haverford School on the Main Line. Hardy's two sons attended the private, college-prep school for boys. He was on its board and wanted to show Vallas what a successful, academic school for boys looked like: Students were engaged in learning, and behavior was not a problem.
He recalls telling Vallas that the only way a boys' school would work in Philadelphia was if the students chose to attend it.
"It has to be a school of choice," Hardy said. "You can't force kids into it."
Vallas, he said, encouraged him to apply for a charter school.
Hardy and Janine Yass, a parent he had met at the Haverford School who was interested in school choice, established a founding coalition and submitted an application for a college-prep charter for boys modeled after Boston Latin.
The idea of a single-gender school received pushback, but the School Reform Commission ultimately approved the proposal. The school opened in 2007.
When Boys' Latin held its first graduation in 2011, Hardy and the staff were beaming because 96 percent of the class had been admitted to college. But as he was gazing at the rows of graduates, Hardy realized a 96 percent admission was no guarantee those 79 young men would actually enroll.
"You've got to go," he told them. "And you've got to finish."
When just 23 percent of that first class earned degrees, the school knew it had to work harder. The staff and counselors increased efforts to keep in touch with alumni and give them support to remain in school. But Hardy said alumni have had the greatest impact on the students who have followed them. At the annual alumni day, they tell students: " 'Keep doing this. It will work for you.' " Hardy said. "That's more powerful than anything else."
The 2017 college-completion numbers have not been tallied yet, but the National Clearinghouse projects that 61 percent of the Class of 2013 will earn degrees in six years.
To put that in perspective, Paul Harrington, a professor at Drexel University's School of Education, has researched the outcomes of Philadelphia public school students over several years. He found that not quite half of the African American male grads in 2007 began any type of postsecondary education. Only 13 percent completed postsecondary programs in seven years, including earning trade-school certificates. Just 8 percent obtained undergraduate degrees.
Members of the Class of 2013, who completed college in four years, recently collected diplomas from schools near and far, including West Chester, Kutztown, Penn, Pomona College in California, and Bates College in Maine.
Limiting enrollment to boys and requiring them to study Latin are critical parts of Boys' Latin. Hardy said a single-gender environment frees students from having to worry about what the other gender thinks. "That does mean something for a lot of kids," he said.
And even though students complain about Latin, the benefits of studying it include improved vocabulary and grammar.
"I like to say the students wear it as a badge of honor," said Sara Flounders, 38, a Latin teacher Hardy hired before the school opened who now chairs the department of seven full-time Latin teachers. "They know it sets them apart. Latin is hard."
Eric Young, 24, Class of 2011, agreed. "Four years of Latin was very difficult," said Young, who received a degree in sociology from Goucher College in Maryland in 2015. "But like Mr. Hardy says: 'Life is not easy. Things are not given to us, and we all have to work hard to achieve greatness.' "
The district's charter-school office, though, has said Boys' Latin needs to increase test scores. As a condition of a five-year renewal this spring, the SRC required the charter to submit an academic-improvement plan.
The charter office said both middle-school and high school students lagged district and other charter schools on some state exams.
Tennant said that student success in college is a more meaningful measure of Boys' Latin's performance than state tests.
"Look at college-going and graduation, and they're at unprecedented rates," he said.
Parents and staff are confident Tennant will build on the academic foundation that Hardy laid at Boys' Latin but are sorry to see the founding CEO leave.
Young, the 2011 grad, recalled that his behavior problems at a district middle school were so serious an aide accompanied him to class. He had a rough start in ninth grade at Boys' Latin. He said Hardy gave him detentions but made sure he received the help he needed. Now, Young works with the emotional-support staff and counselors assisting Boys' Latin's middle-school students.
"Honestly, if Hardy didn't start this school, I don't know where I would be," Young said. "I wouldn't have graduated from college. I probably wouldn't have graduated from high school."
Martina Davis has had three sons at the school. Travon, nearly 19, Class of 2016, attends West Chester. Jayson, 18, Class of 2017, is heading to Community College of Philadelphia. Makir, 15, completed eighth grade at the the middle school and joins the Class of 2021.
Davis said she thanked Hardy at Jayson's graduation for his vision. "Had he not had this vision," she said, "none of this would have been possible for my sons or for any of the other boys."
Hardy said he will likely join an educational-advocacy organization but added, "I'm going to be around."