Future of Riverhead School District’s Latin program remains uncertain

Citing dwindling enrollment, Riverhead school district officials may take steps to reconfigure a popular Latin program.

Parents of incoming seventh graders who signed up to take Latin earlier this year received a phone call from the middle school this week informing them that their children must choose between Spanish or French instead.

“[A secretary] told me that they’re discontinuing the program for next year,” said Keira Heck, who has a daughter entering the middle school in the fall.

Ms. Heck said her daughter was interested in taking the course after seeing an older sibling enjoy the program.

“She checked the box without even bringing the piece of paper home,” Ms. Heck said Wednesday. “It’s just sad because it’s such a monumental program for Riverhead.”

Ms. Heck was one of several parents at a Riverhead Board of Education meeting last fall who became concerned about the future of the program after longtime high school Latin teacher Jeff ‘Doc’ Greenberger announced he would retire this year. “They assured multiple times that they were going to keep the integrity of the program intact,” Ms. Heck said.

Mr. Greenberger said in an interview Wednesday that he was surprised to learn the program may be phased out. “It was my understanding that my position would be filled,” he said.

The plan as he understood it was for his wife, Lorene Custer, to take over high school courses while seeing eighth-graders through as they fulfill the three-year Regents requirement that typically culminates with a Regents exam in 10th grade.

Ms. Heck said she spoke with executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development Lori Koerner Wednesday, who told her that less than 20 children had expressed interest in the program. “I find that really hard to believe,” Ms. Heck said, adding that the district should have done more to promote the benefits of enrolling. 

“Why are [they] trying to dismantle it?” she asked.

The announcement blindsided Ms. Heck and other parents and even alumni, who wrote social media posts and emails to district administrators and the school board to express their disapproval.

Caitlin Buthmann, the salutatorian of Riverhead’s Class of 2006, enrolled in Latin when she started school at Riverhead Middle School in eighth grade and said the possibility of the program being eliminated is “devastating.”

Ms. Buthmann currently serves as the deputy financial administrator for Riverhead Town, a position she said she would not be in today if not for the program run by Mr. Greenberger and Ms. Custer.

“They inspired you to learn more and to have this hunger for knowledge,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “Latin is everywhere, and [Mr. Greenberger] was really good at getting you to see that.” 

She said she’s emailed district officials and has encouraged fellow graduates to do the same.

“I had such an amazing experience and really feel like I benefited from it educationally and in my growth as a young adult,” Ms. Buthmann said. “To not have that available for friends of mine who have children down the road, it’s just a devastating loss to the Riverhead School District.” 

Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said Tuesday night that no final decision has been reached on the fate of the program.

“We had a number of parents and community members reach out and the decision was put on hold,” she said. “We will make a decision in the best interest of children.”

Dr. Henriquez said there have been “challenges in terms of a consistent enrollment,” but stressed that it will be discussed among the district’s administrators, teachers and Board of Education. “We heard from the community,” she said. 

Mr. Greenberger is hoping to see the program continue. “Perhaps the district will change its position and be willing to do some hiring,” Mr. Greenberger said.

While he and Ms. Custer have been the faces of the district’s Latin program for three decades, he’s confident that there are other competent teachers available.

“There have been famous Latin teachers in Riverhead well before us,” Mr. Greenberger said. “Latin is a lot bigger than the two of us.”