Italian Language School
Whether for Italians living abroad or simply parents and students enthusiastic about Italian culture, La Scuola Italiana Guglielmo Marconi, the K-through-12 bilingual Italian school on East 96th Street in Manhattan, represents an option for those looking to receive a special kind of education built around the Italian language and the national Italian curriculum.
Aimee Freedman, an English teacher at the school, spoke about the specific structure of the school, especially in regards to its dual language curriculum.
The school day is split into Italian and English halves that alternate between the morning and the afternoon. Students remain in the same classroom as their respective teachers come to them. Their Italian-speaking instructors will give them lessons in math, history, Italian language and several special classes like music, while their English-speaking instructors teach English, science and other subjects. It is not long before the students are equally comfortable in both languages, Freedman said.
“They are completely immersed” in the language, Freedman said of the students at the school. “You see it at lunch time and gym time … instead of speaking and thinking in one language they lapse between the two.”
Because funding comes from the Italian government, the school is required to adhere to certain guidelines from the Italian consulate. This involves a very different — and in many ways more rigid and intensive — approach to teaching than the American system. Math education can be much more involved; even at the elementary school level, individual math word problems can take up to 20 minutes to complete. Freedman said that students do extraordinarily well on the math section of the ERB exams, which are entrance exams for independent and selective public schools.
The differing teaching styles can create some culture shock; in Freedman’s first year of teaching, Italian instructors only familiar with the heavily textbook-oriented approach to science were aghast at the fact that the school had a fish tank with a tadpole — apparently this kind of hands-on science is not very common.
While there are certainly pros and cons to each country’s approach to education, Freedman is confident that the dualistic approach is ultimately to the students’ advantage.
“You are given the flexibility and dynamism of the American system combined with the rigor and formalism of the Italian system. With these two methods, students are ultimately able to tackle problems more competently than if they had been exposed to only one type of curriculum,” she said.
Despite the clear benefits conferred by a bilingual education, this unique feature ultimately proves to be a challenge for the enrollment of the school. While kindergarten classes can easily have over 20 students, by middle and high school this number can dwindle as low as single digits. Children of diplomats or international business people will often come to New York City from abroad only to leave a few years later. Others will take their knowledge of Italian and move on to another school to learn a different language, such as French. For some, and especially for unassimilated families disconnected from American life, as Freedman puts it, “the school becomes their everything.”
Most unique to a bilingual school such as La Scuola is the fact that entering students who only speak Italian or English would be at a tremendous disadvantage if they were to enter the school after a certain point in their schooling. As such, it is rare to find older students transferring to the school. For those students who do remain at the school through their senior year, they will find that their diplomas are honored in both the United States and the European Union. Many students leave for university in Italy after graduation.
In spite of these difficulties, Freedman is confident that there is plenty of demand for the kind of education La Scuola provides, but that is simply a matter of increasing the general public’s awareness of the school in order to keep enrollment high and further bolster its reputation. Freedman notes another difficulty as, “some think it’s just for Italians, but anyone can come here.”
While much of what La Scuola does is unique to La Scuola, a common theme of bilingual schools remains true to form. Students leave La Scuola more capable of navigating a multicultural world because of the transcultural approach to learning. Language skills become skills that can be implemented for life in the United States, Italy, or elsewhere. #