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  • Back to School in Italy
    Learn how education in the homeland is different than it is in the United States
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    School is different in Italy. During the summer in the United States families are pummeled with ads for school supplies, clothing, and stuff for making quick brown bag lunches. At the start of summer, the stores remind you that school is just around the corner and by the end of August, you feel as though you are already smack in the middle of Halloween and Thanksgiving.

    In Italy, people consider the summer, especially August with its vacation days and Ferragosto celebration, magical. No one would take that away from children (or adults for that matter) with reminders of the impending school year. It would be sacrilege. Despite this, however, the kids do have summer homework that is not for the faint of heart. Somehow, though, the students still manage to spend their days on the beach without a care in the world, and they get their homework done, too, even if it's completed as they walk into school on the first day back.

    When they do return to campus, they have the same butterflies in their stomach that Americans – and frankly students across the globe – have. But their experience is different. Elementary school children wear white smocks to school over their clothes. Gym is never apart of the school day. Schools have little to do with sport, in fact. Kids usually participate in extracurriculars – from dance to soccer to art – with private organizations after school is over. The school day ends by lunch time, so everyone dines at home. There are no latchkey programs. You have a nonna or a zia to watch you in the early evening when everyone returns to work after the siesta – at least that's how it is in southern Italy.

    Middle school is when academics start to get serious. Those are the years spent preparing for tests to get into high school. Not everyone makes it. You'll hear of many a child in middle school and high school getting bocciato or left back. Coming back from that is an emotional nightmare because many will ostracize you.

    If you make it through, getting into high school means you'll have to pick a specialization. For example, someone interested in literature and writing might choose Liceo Classico, whereas an aspiring doctor would opt for Liceo Scientifico. Essentially, you're picking your major and your future career at 13 or 14 years old. Imagine that? And you can still be bocciato throughout these years.

    At 18 or so, most receive their diploma. And "diploma" refers only to high school. Some go straight to work at this point, while those who want to be professionals seek the "laurea," which is the word for a college degree. College is nothing like the cultural experience it is in the United States. Virtually no one has a job while studying, and most continue to live with mom and dad throughout university. As for the academics, many students don't even go to class. They work on the readings and learning the material on their own, in study groups, with a tutor or the professor. This is all in preparation for the exam. You have to take a certain number of exams in certain subjects – and pass them – to get your laurea. You can take as long as you'd like – but you'll be paying an additional tax all the while. Even so, many of the laureati I know earned their degree closer to 30 than 20.

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), and you can follow her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.

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