School or Scuola?
What to Do When Relocating to Rome with Kids
What to Do When Relocating to Rome with Kids
As an American mother of two and Rome resident since 2010, new and imminent arrivals often solicit my advice about local schools as they anxiously research educational options. While I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject, I can lay claim to a modicum of expertise based on my childrens’ age (7 and 6), our neighborhood (Gianicolo/Trastevere/Monteverde Vecchio), direct and indirect experience, anecdotal evidence and a statistically relevant amount of hearsay. So in the interests of helping bewildered, overwrought newcomers make the best decision for their family (and saving myself the trouble of copying/pasting/personalizing the same email over and over) I herewith offer my admittedly limited insights.
Among your considerations should be the age of your children and the length of your proposed stay as well as cost and convenience.
Our kids were just starting primary school when we arrived and instilling an appreciation of Italian was paramount to our 12-24 month relocation plan, so my husband and I were set on a scuola Italiana. Our quandary was whether to go public or private. Soon after initiating research, a general consensus emerged among both Italian and non-Italian parents we spoke with that, unfortunately, the public schools here no longer enjoy the stellar reputation they once enjoyed -- many in fact are so drained of funds that they can't even provide toilet paper in the restrooms. We ultimately chose the private route once learning that long wait lists were the rule at Rome’s best-regarded public schools and that a private Waldorf-inspired option was within walking distance that cost half as much as my son’s daycare in California. We also thought it would help ease their transition abroad since our daughter had attended a Waldorf kindergarten (and honestly, leaving their beloved tabby cat to start at a new school in a new language is one thing, but making them pack their own toilet paper each day is quite another).
Happily, Arcobaleno was the right choice: the teachers were super, our kids made friends quickly and they began speaking Italian confidently and embellishing their frequent outbursts with expressive hand gestures after only six months. Unfortunately, our Waldorfian paradise was forced to move across town over the summer so we were faced with a difficult decision: run the gauntlet of Roman traffic by driving to the school’s new far-flung, sidewalk-lacking location to double park twice daily or transfer to the local Catholic school 12 minutes away by foot and near my favorite no-name forno, a sprawling outdoor mercato and my go-to cheese guy. As Americans who relish our new pedestrian lifestyle and recoil at the thought of willingly raising our blood pressure four times daily by getting behind the wheel at rush hour, and as non-religious former Catholics forswearing religious education for our offspring early on, this wasn't an easy choice for us. Ultimately we opted for proximity over ideology and signed up at Istituto Sant’Ivo. It's more traditional than what our kids are used to in that they’re expected to sit longer and do more homework, but an acceptable tradeoff for the sake of our entire family’s well being and my sanity as their daily chaperone.
We’re satisfied with our decision, but I’m less thrilled that Italian teachers and parents across the board invariably pretend they didn’t hear you or look at you with a shocked, uncomfortable expression and their mouth hanging open like a cat assessing if something’s rancid when you suggest the possibility of volunteering in the classroom. On the plus side, our kids have the option to stay until 5 pm and are becoming acquainted with the theological underpinnings of the Western canon -- to the point that they now authoritatively fill in the more vivid/bloody details for us when we encounter cautionary frescoes on cultural forays. My chef husband most appreciates the fact that they get a three-course hot meal every day. For me, the icing is they’re actually learning the libretto from Mozart's Don Giovanni in preparation for a performance this spring. It’s been truly amazing to hear them singing my favorite opera in Italian at the dinner table and not something I could ever imagine them doing back in the U.S. (its theme about the exploits and ultimate fate of an unrepentant sex-addict aside). So amazing in fact that I’m almost considering softening my stance against the Church for its long rap-sheet of transgressions – almost. In somma, the school is well organized, the teachers are firm but loving, there’s only an occasional bloody crucifix in evidence, I have only seen lay-people on campus and music and athletics are available on site after school at a discount. A fine solution for those planning to stay a year or two.
Some other families here at the American Academy in Rome that were stranded by the Waldorf-inflected school with us last year decided to transfer to Ambrit, a highly regarded private international school where instruction is in English and more academically rigorous, there’s a door-to-door school bus, and annual tuition is on par with that of a private university back home. Kids love it and the field trips sound enviable (i.e. outings to Pompeii in 5th grade; to Venice in 8th), but parents consistently remark that the rubric of “the more you pay, the fewer number of days” applies when it comes to total class time. If you go this route and work outside the home, be sure to develop a deep roster of on-call babysitters.
We're moving back to California in August, but if we were staying any longer we'd most likely consider making the commute to Scuola Janua, one of Rome’s more traditional Waldorf-method schools slated to move out somewhere near E.U.R. Even though it's future location remains uncertain, the overall emphasis on art and music is right up our alley and a great way to learn/reinforce a language. Plus, the quality of baked goods at all those inevitable classmate parties promises to be above average given the pervasive philosophical preference for handmade over commercial. We also have Canadian friends who send their son there and really like it.
The decision is of course a very personal one, but I would be confident that the younger the child the easier it will be for her/him to adjust to Italian school and pick up the language quickly. If anything, I think we parents often prove to be the less flexible ones. The memory of our summer vacation stands out as a case in point. We spent a week on an Austrian farm with some French- and German-speaking families, and thanks to the onsite trampoline and my son's Lego® collection, the kids soon found a way to communicate and became fast friends; we parents followed their lead and were thereafter sharing sausages, beer and hiking recommendations. By week’s end the kids were sad to leave, but we had standing invitations to Belgium and southern France and my son was actually speaking some German.
Reasons to Consider an Italian-language School:
- Your kids are 8 years of age or younger;
- You value multilingualism (your kids will pick up Italian rapidly and begin speaking and helping you argue with bureaucrats after only 6 months);
- You will get to meet real Romans and have plenty of opportunities to improve your Italian;
- You prefer that your bambini hum/sing opera arias before bed instead of “Little Rabbit Foo Foo” or anything by Hannah Montana;
- More soccer/football than rugby;
- If it doesn’t prove the right fit, you can always transfer.
Reasons to Consider an English-language School:
- Your kids are 9 years of age or older;
- Your kids will prepare for British system exams which commence in grade 5;
- You will get to meet other English-speaking ex-pats who work at FAO, IFAD and the World Food Program;
- If you’re American, you’d like to increase your child’s chances of picking up a plummy British accent;
- More rugby than soccer/football;
- You value computer literacy at a young age (and could really use help creating decent PowerPoint slides for your next presentation at work);
- You're in Rome for less than a year, don’t speak Italian and aren’t planning to learn it beyond differentiating basic pasta shapes when eating out.
Reasons to Consider Public v. Private School:
- Your kids are used to supplying their own toilet paper;
- Organic lunches are mandated by the state;
- You will inevitably improve your Italian and encounter fewer English-speaking expats;
- You want to experience Rome beyond the postcards and Woody Allen’s new movie;
- You already think your kids are too coddled and desire to “toughen them up” by experiencing an overcrowded/underfunded urban school;
- You need first-hand anecdotes for the book you are currently researching on how state educational systems everywhere are in decline.
Bottom line: If you like the idea of your child becoming bilingual and increasing your own opportunities for meeting locals and speaking/learning Italian, choose an Italian school. You could always transfer to an English language institution if it doesn't work out. (In fact, many parents who send their kids to an English school from the start with the aim of facilitating adjustment to life abroad, find themselves regretting not having opted for Italian immersion.) Alternatively, if your children are older and/or well on their way to preparing for British/American system exams, an English-language international school might be the better course.