As an American mother of two and Rome resident since 2010, my advice about local schools is often solicited by new and imminent arrivals as they anxiously research educational options.
While I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject, I can attest to a modicum of expertise based on direct and indirect experience, anecdotal evidence and a statistically relevant amount of hearsay.
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, public schools here no longer have 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 we had learned that long waiting 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 day care in California. We also thought it would help ease the transition abroad.
Happily, it 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 location to double park twice daily, or transfer to the local Catholic school 12 minutes away by foot.
As Americans who relish our new pedestrian lifestyle and recoil at the thought of willingly raising our blood pressure 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 registered at the Catholic school.
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 trade-off 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 Italians across the board invariably pretend they didn’t hear you or look at you with a shocked, uncomfortable expression when you suggest the possibility of volunteering in the classroom.
On the plus side, our kids have the option to stay until 17.00 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 church frescoes. My chef husband most appreciates the fact that they get a three-course hot meal every day. For me, the icing on the cake 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 favourite opera at the dinner table and not something I could ever imagine them doing back in the US.
In short, the school is more academic than ecclesiastic, the teachers are firm but loving, 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 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 a par with that of a private university back home. Kids love it and the field trips sound enviable (e.g. outings to Pompeii in fifth grade; to Venice in eighth), 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 an extensive 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 one of Rome’s more traditional Waldorf schools. The overall emphasis on the arts 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.
• If you like the idea of your child becoming bilingual and increasing your own opportunities for meeting locals and speaking/learning Italian, consider an Italian school. You could always transfer to an English language institution if it doesn't work out.
• If you already know you want an Italian school, fear your kids are already too coddled, need first-hand anecdotes for the book you are currently researching on how state educational systems everywhere are in decline and want to get to know Rome beyond the picture postcards, go public.
• Alternatively, if your children are older and well on their way to preparing for British/American system exams and you’d like meet other English-speaking ex-pats who work at FAO and the World Food Program, an English-language international school might be the better course.
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 an Italian school and pick up the language quickly. If anything, we parents often prove to be the less flexible ones.
Marie Dolcini is an American writer and mother of two residing at the American Academy in Rome. This article appears as part of a series of features aimed at addressing some of the more quotidian concerns associated with relocation to the Eternal City. Her views are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Wanted in Rome.