Portland, Oregon. Image by David Mark from Pixabay
At the corner of NW 14th and Quimby stands Friendly House, the home of “La Scuola Italiana di Portland’s preschool”.
Parents and preschoolers open the door and are instantly inside an Italian classroom; Italian children’s music is playing softly in the background, papers with finger-paint handprints hang on the walls, and colorful posters for the days of the week and number charts hang in a corner filled with throw pillows.  There are toys everywhere and books in Italian fill several shelves.
In the middle of it all is “Maestra Lara” Carnovali, standing in her stocking feet with a big smile on her face and welcoming each child and parent in Italian.  She speaks constantly to the children, directing them, asking questions and encouraging the children to answer her in Italian.  The atmosphere is so engaging that no one even notices when mom or dad slips quietly out the door.

Lara is a native Italian.  She received her degree in Education (Scienze della Formazione Primaria) from the University of Milano-Bicocca in 2008 and taught elementary school in Milano before moving to Oregon with her husband and children.  She knows firsthand how quickly children pick up a new language.  Her young children have begun using English more and more.
Children younger than five years old tend to pick up multiple languages very quickly, which is why it is important to introduce a new language as early as possible.  Some children attend the preschool just two days a week but already speak and understand a multitude of words and phrases.
“I am jealous,” Lara laughs. “They speak Italian better than I speak English!”
La Scuola Italiana employs the Reggio Emilia approach, a full immersion program that fosters children’s intellectual development through multi-sensory, child directed learning.  In other words, the children learn as they would naturally, by using Italian in everyday activities, such as cooking and picking up their toys.  The school also maintains a low teacher-to-student ratio to allow for more individualized attention.
This is important to Lara.  “When I taught in Italy,” she explains, “the ratio in the elementary school was 25 to 1.  In this preschool, we have one teacher for every four students.”
The theme for this year’s preschool is “At School with the Smurfs,” and Lara uses it to introduce the students to numbers, letters, nouns, and verbs.  They sing songs to memorize days, months and colors, and play games such as “C’è o Non C’è?” and “Buffo,” a board game using dice where the children practice counting in Italian as they move around the board.
The children also learn to use the polite words “Scusa,” “Grazie,” and “Per favore.
Founder Grazia Solazzi is the driving force behind La Scuola Italiana.  When she came to the United States with her family in 2001, she had no plans to open a school.  But when her children began to read and write in English, it became important that her children retain their native language.  She wanted her children to be at ease in both Italian and American cultures.
Together with other parents who shared her vision, she founded La Scuola Italiana di Portland in 2006.  It is the only Italian language school for children in the greater Portland metropolitan area.
“There are many excellent benefits to raising a bilingual child,” Grazia explains, “Children develop better problem solving skills and achieve better overall school performance.  And the earlier a child begins learning a second language, the more likely it will be for him or her to reach native-like fluency.”
All teachers at La Scuola Italiana are native or native-fluent.  The goal is not simply teaching the language – it is about helping students understand Italian culture and how Italians interact with one another.  In addition to preschool, the school also offers classes for older children and adults, as well as summer camps for children of all ages.
“Our biggest challenge is providing the best teachers,” says Grazia.  “We want native or native-like speakers with strong teaching skills. Not an easy combination to find in Portland!”
Winner of Red Tricycle’s “Totally Awesome Children’s Language Classes” award for three consecutive years, La Scuola Italiana is not your typical brick and mortar school.  Keeping overhead costs down is the primary concern; administrative staff work from home and the space at Friendly House is leased.  The school is also a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit.
“Our goal is to someday have an Italian Cultural Center which would house the school,” Grazia shares.  “It would also be a place for the Italian groups to meet and we would have other Italian cultural programs – films, cooking demonstrations and lectures.  It would also be nice to have a library set up.  We are just starting out now.”
For more information, visit La Scuola Italiana di Portland at www.scuola.us

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