Summoning the Community: Three Attempts for One Italian Program

Many recently-arrived parents in the United States are more than willing to take their children’s education into their own hands, sometimes even leading by example when necessary. In their own search, a group of recently-arrived Italian expatriates came across the dual-language programs that other linguistic communities had been able to create across New York City. This began a long, and sometimes arduous, journey to inaugurate an Italian dual-language program in New York. These parents were Martina Ferrari, Stefania Puxeddu, Piera Bonerba, and Marcello Lucchetta. Their story illustrates many of the challenges and successes new initiatives can face. After not one, not two, but three attempts to create a program, the Italian community highlights the importance of perseverance for parents invested in their children’s education.

Italians and Italian-Americans form one of the largest and most interconnected communities of New York City. According to the American Community Survey data, 85,000 people in New York five years or older spoke Italian at home in 2014, 30,000 of whom declared that they did not speak English very well. In addition to native speakers, there are also many Italian-Americans in New York City—especially in certain sections of Brooklyn such as Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, and Carroll Gardens—who want to preserve their Italian culture. Census data from 2014 confirms that over 500,000 New York City residents reported that they were of Italian ancestry. However, despite these high numbers, the Italian Dual-Language Program group never thought that achieving a critical mass of interested parents to build the case for a dual-language program would be easy.

The Driving Force of 21st-Century Global Expatriates

The young and educated Italian nationals that made up the founding Italian Dual-Language Program group all came to the United States looking for prosperous employment opportunities and an exciting change of pace. Like many first-generation expatriates, they quickly adopted an American way of life and started having children of their own. Their work keeps them in regular contact with Italy and they speak Italian at home. This group of modern Italian immigrants return to their native land often with their children in order to keep their Italian roots alive. Christmas and summer vacations are important times to reunite with grandparents, visit cousins, and allow their children to be immersed in their native language and culture.

However, this group of parents found that even though Italian was spoken at home, as their children grew older, their mother tongue began to erode rapidly. This was due to the fact that they were surrounded by teachers and students who only spoke English in their preschools and communities. Additionally, at home, especially if one parent did not have Italian as their mother tongue, English might be spoken more frequently. The families made a significant effort to stick to Italian, as Marcello explains:
With the younger children, we make every effort to feed them Italian, such as reading books in Italian and asking them questions to check if they remembered a word. Movies and cartoons help them absorb a little bit of language. Sometimes talking about differences like, “This is pasta the way we do it in Italy.” We always make little comparisons of the way people do it here and the way that people do it in Italy.

More complicated discussions in Italian required more time and patience from these parents, as their children’s vocabularies in Italian was usually not as developed as in English. Often, their children had a tendency to reply in English to a question that was posed in Italian. Some children even developed a heavy American accent in Italian. Despite this, these dedicated Italian parents tried their hardest to maintain their linguistic heritage at home. In spite of their best efforts, they soon realized that their method would not be enough for their children to develop fluency in their native language, and decided that a dual-language program would provide the best opportunity for them to become comfortable in both languages.

The parents reached out to Ilaria Costa, the executive director of the New York Italian American Committee on Education, who in turn connected them with Lucia Pasqualini, the Italian Deputy Consul, and Carlo Davoli, the Education Attaché at the Italian Consulate. These contacts were able to spread word of the dual-language initiative to all the Italian nationals on the consular registry. Lucia also put the group in touch with Jack Spatola, whom she met during her regular visits to Brooklyn’s Italian stronghold in Bensonhurst. Jack was the principal of P.S. 172 in Brooklyn and an active member of the Italian-American community. He was also the president of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Brooklyn, a non-profit charitable community service organization created through the efforts of dozens of organizations to unite, gather resources, and provide collective services to the Italian community and the City of New York. With these connections established, the group was now ready to test the waters and recruit interested families.

Within a very short time, Lucia and Ilaria set out to organize an informational meeting at the Italian Consulate. Flyers were distributed and announcements posted on social media, blogs, and via the consulate email database. Much to everyone’s surprise, the community responded en masse; hundreds of RSVPs were received. An overflow room necessitated setting up a closed-circuit television at the consulate in order to accommodate additional guests. This impressive and enthusiastic response attracted the attention of the Italian media, who brought in cameras and reporters to cover the event. In the end, the meeting drew a crowd of over 200 people. The consulate’s two main rooms were packed, with standing room only and overflow into the hallways. It was a victorious moment for the Italian initiative.

The meeting itself was organized in four parts. It started with a general overview of the advantages of bilingualism and dual-language education, presented by Bahar Otcu, a Turkish-American professor of bilingual education at Mercy College in New York. A panel of French, Japanese, and Russian parents who succeeded in creating their own dual-language programs then followed. The parents explained how they rallied their respective communities, recruited families, and presented their proposal to the schools they had selected. The evening continued with a panel of educators, including the then-director of the Office of English Language Learners of the New York City Department of Education, Claudia Aguirre, and myself. Finally, the last panel gave the floor to the parents who had initially contacted the consulate, as well as to Jack Spatola who generously offered his assistance. This portion of the discussion focused on the group’s efforts to enlist parent involvement, as well as steps to take to convert the general enthusiasm for the initiative into one or more dual-language programs in Manhattan and Brooklyn public schools. The group also presented the blog that they had created, through which they intended to collect responses from interested families, disseminate information and updates, and coordinate school proposals. This ensured that parents could target the right school in the right area.

Assembling a significant number of interested parents is essential before approaching a school principal about a dual-language program initiative, but it is not the only necessity. Outside support from community organizations, additional sources of funding that are easily demonstrable, access to books and resources, and connections with teachers are also things to be considered when planning a new program. Without these, an initiative cannot succeed. This explains why, three years before the current Italian dual-language initiative was launched, it marked the end of a similar initiative led by an Italian-American mother, Christina Prostano.

The Trials and Tribulations of Grassroots Initiatives

Christina’s great-grandparents immigrated to America from Italy in the early 20th century, but her family’s ability to speak Italian gradually disappeared over the generations. Christina mourned that loss and hoped for her children to learn Italian, even though she herself only knew a few words. She tried to fill that void in her children’s education, starting with a Facebook page and a survey to measure interest in learning Italian that attracted about 70 families, both English- and Italian-speaking. However, Christina was unable to meet the necessary requirements to launch a dual-language program, such as finding a school that had the desire and means to start the program, obtaining the support and funding of Italian organizations, and recruiting qualified teachers. Unfortunately, her valiant efforts to start an Italian-English bilingual program came to naught, and the initiative was abandoned.

Sadly, Lucia and Ilaria’s group too faced obstacles in finding a school and maintaining the interest of the parents involved. Despite the initial enthusiasm they inspired, their initiative did not materialize. The loss of committed families as they approached the start of the school year and a lack of commitment on behalf of the public schools they considered was enough to quash the program. Their groundwork, however, helped trigger a new initiative in Bensonhurst, led by Jack Spatola and the Federation of Italian–American Organizations of Brooklyn, to open the first Italian pre-Kindergarten class in 2015. Unfortunately, this particular endeavor came too late for the children of the initial group of five parents, who were now too old to enter a dual-language Kindergarten class. When the founding group misses out on the opportunities they fought so hard to bring about, it is always a very frustrating moment for the families involved. Marcello describes this defeat:

What I really would have loved is to have my kids in public school. We’re here for a reason; there is a value in doing that. My dream was to have the dual-language Italian-English program in a public school. It was not just a matter of money, it was more a matter of knowing that there were other Italian-American kids like them and interested American families sending their kids to learn another language, which is my language. It was a dreamy view probably, a little visionary, but that was my first thought.

It was also a loss for society at large, as the program would have served more than the Italian community by offering access to a beautiful language and an extremely rich culture to many children. As for Marcello and the other parents, they still hope for their children to speak Italian even if it often means that they, as parents, must teach them how to read and write. It is not a perfect replacement for a formal bilingual education, but it is what they have to work with for the time being.

Some also looked into a nearby private school in Manhattan, La Scuola d’Italia, although the high tuition rates and long commute time—particularly for families in South Brooklyn—discouraged many. Others hired au pairs from Italy, even though it required an extra room in the house and, often, a continuous yearly change of employment. Saturday programs also offered families a possibility for language exposure, some with the help of Italian organizations or the Italian Consulate. However, as is true with after-school programs throughout the week, committing to a Saturday program on top of an already very busy schedule can sometimes be too much to ask of a young child. These hurdles—in price, time, and lifestyle factors—illustrate the difficulty in maintaining a heritage language outside of the public education system classroom.

The Role of Heritage Communities

The original group’s efforts, however, were not in vain. Their vision eventually came to fruition with the help of Jack Spatola, whose experience and school system connections led to the creation of New York’s first Italian-English dual-language program. Instead of being carried out by newly-arrived Italian nationals, the initiative was now in the hands of second- and third-generation Italians. Interestingly, this new group’s own families had been in similar situations thirty or forty years ago. They themselves had parents who spoke to them in Italian at home while they went to English-only public schools in New York. They witnessed the linguistic damage incurred within their own generation, or perhaps their parents’ generation, and were remarkably able to mobilize in order to reverse the process of language loss in their community.

By and large, the Italian immigrants of this group’s parents’ and grandparents’ generations came to the United States with little or no education. They had a very different background from our group of recent Italian expatriates, as many turned to jobs in desperation rather than seeking the “ideal” work situation. Unlike today’s generation of Italian nationals in New York who are largely bilingual, previous generations had trouble communicating in English. Moreover, the Italian that they spoke was generally not standardized, retaining dialects spoken in their small villages which then crystallized once they came to the United States.
Today’s Italian-Americans have the ability and luxury to make informed choices with regard to their children’s education. Many heritage families have not maintained Italian at home, despite coming from previous generations of Italian immigrants. However, their desire to sustain their linguistic heritage has evolved with time. Jack Spatola explains:

In my opinion, particularly within the Italian-American community, parents see the value of maintaining their heritage, maintaining the culture. I see that much more prevalent in young professionals. I see it as the need for maintaining the language and culture that before did not exist.

For this new generation, language programs offered after school or on weekends were not sufficient means to attain their goals, to become connected to their linguistic and cultural roots, and to develop young bilingual Italian-American children. Jack confirms:

The Italian-Americans, as well as many other ethnic groups that have assimilated in the United States, have reached a particular level of understanding, of realization, of sophistication, of valuing their roots. Maybe because of a copycat mentality—“Others are doing it, why shouldn’t we do it? We should do it too!”—or a real awareness. But, also, an understanding of the merit of a brain that has the ability to really think in two languages.

This enthusiasm for bilingualism and the many cognitive, professional, and social benefits it affords children throughout their lives has attracted much attention in the Italian-American community. In addition to re-invigorating their cultural heritage and language, dual-language programs bestow upon children lifelong skills that they can carry with them, adding an element of personal development to the Italian community’s quest for bilingual programs.

Success at Last

In 2015, with Jack Spatola’s unwavering help, the Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Brooklyn teamed up with P.S.112 in Bensonhurst to launch the first Italian dual-language program in New York City. The team found an extremely supportive advocate in Italian-American P.S. 112 Principal Louise Alfano. When the program’s opening was announced, the school received 270 applications for only twenty seats. Approximately 140 of the children were Italian-Americans whose parents wanted to preserve their precious cultural identity that had originated generations before, with even higher numbers expected for the following year. For the organizers, seeing so many families with young children interested in the dual-language program was enlightening; they always knew that there was potential, but they did not fully understand the incredible extent of the community’s interest until parents started to sign up. In a joint statement, the Jack Spatola and the Federation’s President Carlo Scissura declared:

The response from residents has been outstanding, and we have received many calls about these services. We believe that bringing dual-language programs to such a diverse community is vital, as they will help maintain different cultures while also generating a better understanding and greater respect for other ethnicities.

It became clear that, despite past failures to launch a dual-language program, the community was now ready to support and embrace the initiative—and there was ample room for even more programs to develop and grow.

As we can see from the Italian dual-language story, it is not always easy to create programs from the bottom up. Their story sheds light on the unfortunate fact that founding parents sometimes miss out on the opportunities they worked so hard to create, simply because the program does not materialize fast enough to serve their own children. However, their story also illustrates the importance of perseverance, community connections, and the resilience of heritage language communities. This is not to be forgotten.

The desire to re-invigorate a linguistic or cultural community should not be underestimated, especially in the “melting pot” of the United States that holds many unique community histories. There are numerous multi-generational benefits in safeguarding a heritage, from preserving one’s own literature, culture, and history to fostering a sense of belonging, pride, and identity as a member of a cultural heritage group. Dual-language programs enable heritage language students to sustain their heritage and develop new identities and skills of their own, in addition to becoming great sources of pride within each community. It is beautiful to see how this dual-language program has finally come to fruition within the Italian-American community of New York, with an outpouring of support among hundreds of interested families. As the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Each player in this story contributed to the Italian dual-language program’s success—no matter how small their role or if they themselves were able to carry out their project in time. In the end, with a lot of perseverance, the right connections, and a little luck, bilingual education programs can and will succeed in transforming and revitalizing our communities.

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