As a member of the BAIA board I felt that I should visit the new campus of the Italian International School at 735 Fell Street in San Francisco, CA. After all, BAIA represents and serves Italian entrepreneurs, executives and professionals working in the Bay Area. Many of them have young kids or are thinking about starting a family. Last Thursday was a cloudy day in San Francisco but I forgot about the grey sky as soon as I entered in the school. Little ones with smiling faces welcomed me.
I sat down with Valentina Imbeni, the Head of School and with Claudia Volpi, the Board Chair, to talk about the school. Enjoy!
Valentina, how did the school start?
The preschool started in 2002 as a home-based play group program. It rapidly grew with the help of committed families and a $75,000 grant from the Words of the World Foundation, a foundation that supports bilingual education. In 2010, the preschool was able to move from its one room school in the Church of St. Gregory to its current 7000 sq. ft. campus in the Dogpatch (728 20th Street). The preschool now serves over 130 kids and has added a new building with two classrooms this year. In 2012, the elementary school program (K-8th grades) started and this year the 735 Fell street campus was inaugurated with a special visit from the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The elementary school is now enrolling students for grades K through 4th for 2015-2016.
Valentina, what distinguishes the Italian International School from other schools?
Our school’s core principle is the belief that the child is capable, intelligent and beautiful. Children learn by doing and they co-construct knowledge with their peers and teachers. Teachers are researchers and provide well thought and engaging learning opportunities and guidance. The preschool embraces the world renowned Reggio-Emilia pedagogy, developed by Loris Malaguzzi. The elementary school combines with this approach the rigorous, International Baccalaureate for the Primary Years (IB-PYP) curriculum. The school is aiming to be, by 2015, the first International Baccalaureate (IB) – Primary Years Program School in San Francisco. The IB is an inquiry-based transdisciplinary approach that offers a curriculum of global significance. In the case of La Scuola, children are immersed in Italian and introduced to another language in fourth grade; math, science, social studies, music and arts through units of inquiry or projects such as “How technology has impacted the world”.
Valentina, why are there no IB Primary Years Programme Schools in San Francisco considering that there are about 5,000 around the world?
Because it is difficult and expensive to implement. It is a challenge to find teachers capable of teaching to the IB’s criteria. Reggio teachers are already accustomed to cooperative lesson planning across subjects and documentation and therefore the Reggio pedagogy complements the IB program. In addition, the IB requires continuous training of teachers and additional planning time built into their schedules. Both these elements are very expensive and require extremely dedicated educators
Valentina, how does the school support children with different learning styles? How are behavioral problems handled?
Teachers assess each child and adapt the curriculum in a way that fits the child. We don’t have time-out or detention. At the beginning of the year, we prepare with the children a classroom agreement and we review it periodically. We give positive guidance. We tell the child who is misbehaving “How do you think you should have behaved given our classroom agreement?”
Claudia, is the school only for families with Italian heritage?
No, the Italian language and culture guide what we do, but our community is truly international. At last count we had 17 different languages that are spoken. About 60% of our families do not have an Italian connection. They have chosen the school because of the combination of language immersion, a constructivist approach to learning and the decidedly Italian aspects of our school: beautiful spaces and furnishings, the engaging and nurturing staff (our teachers hug kids) and the emphasis on art, music and environmental science The Reggio Emilia approach believes that if a child is in a place that inspires him/her to be curious and engaged, he will learn and love to learn forever. Our campuses were designed by the Italian architect Michele Zini, from ZPZ partners, an expert in Reggio Emilia inspired school design.
Valentina, what do you like best about your job?
Everything: the children, the staff, and the legacy I am determined to leave to this beautiful city. In this job, I learn something new every day.
And what do you like the least?
The challenge of achieving a family/work balance. I would like to spend more time with my two kids and my husband. There is always so much to do.
What is the most pressing challenge that you are facing?
The most pressing challenge is to attract and retain good teachers. This is particularly difficult in a city with such a high cost of living like San Francisco. All the fundraising that we do helps us to achieve the difference between a good program and an exceptional program.
Claudia, you have been the Chair of the Board since April 2012. What are the priorities of the Board?
We have three strategic priorities: academic excellence, financial strength and permanent real estate. We want the school to be recognized as one of San Francisco’s premier elementary schools and to obtain our IB World accreditation in 2015; the creation of an endowment is in the pipeline and of course we are always fundraising to continue to invest in our programming. And, like many others in San Francisco: our dream is to own a home. I’d like to see us in a 40,000sf building near the water or a park. We are constantly looking for real estate!
Aside from the business priorities, our hope is that we can foster in our students the qualities and skills that are valued in San Francisco and Silicon Valley - thinking outside the box, risk-taking, problem solving, critical thinking and having sincere social and global awareness.
If you want to learn more about the school please go to http://www.lascuolasf.org/. We look forward to seeing you at La Scuola’s annual fundraiser, the glamorous “La Dolce Vita” gala. (Save the date – March 14, 2015).
Grazia Bennett – BAIA Board Member