Camp's classical focus previews Detroit Latin School

Nolan Ryan
The Detroit News

A summer camp for Detroit students entering fifth through eighth grades is previewing a private K-12 school that will focus on classical education when it opens a little over a year from now.

During the Detroit Latin School's Socrates in the Summer program, students explore STEAM fields, primarily through ancient sources such as the classical Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle and the Greek poet Homer.

Organizers are attempting to make learning fun for the students by combining discussions and readings with field trips, including visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Belle Isle Nature Center.

"The field trips are centered around the four sections of the summer camp," said Jerry Dausman, director of the summer program, adding that they cover science, art and architecture, classical literature and the philosophy of goodness.

Detroit Latin School instructor Wayne Lyons pulls up a net full of vegetation and some surprising inhabitants of an inland lake on Belle Isle.

The camp, which will be held annually, is meant to reflect the core principles and concepts behind the Detroit Latin School, Dausman said.

Kerry Williams, a teacher at Renaissance High School in the Detroit Public Schools, is leading classes in environmental science at the camp.

“I couldn’t pass this up because the Detroit Latin School is a fantastic opportunity for all kids to receive a classical education, if it's suited to them,” Williams said.

Cailin Scott, 11, enjoyed learning about science Tuesday at the Belle Isle Nature Center. He says the program is teaching him new things, including how to identify different fish and amphibians.

He and other students visited a pond with fishing nets to try to capture some creatures and learn more about them.

"We saw a frog, but it got away," Cailin said

T.R. Ahlstrom, chairman of the George Washington Scholars Endowment, said the camp is intentionally inclusive and diverse. The goal, he says, is to encourage students to love learning and to introduce them to the classics, regardless of their demographics. 

"By the end, they will know that there are only three things that matter: truth, beauty and goodness," he said. "We’ve made a commitment to be kid-focused. This is a really big deal for them."

The Detroit Latin School will follow Latin schools in New York City and Washington, D.C., in seeking to go above and beyond the requirements of standardized tests, Ahlstrom said.

The core mission is to balance education in the arts and sciences, something he believes is lacking in today's schools.

This butterfly is among the wonders of nature discovered by Latin School students on Belle Isle.

"We have technological giants and moral midgets," he said. "Kids need to be able to quote Shakespeare, Milton, Keats."

Angelica Russell-Johnson, the camp's summer instructor in classical literature and mythology, said ancient works are more diverse than commonly believed. She has had the students read the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid, in which the hero Aeneas visits Queen Dido of Carthage.

“(This approach to learning) changes the way you see the world. You see it through a different scope," Russell-Johnson said. "It’s about how you study more than what you study."

Jennifer Chambers contributed.