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Five Questions: Joy in Translation

By Jennifer Massoni Pardini

“In today’s uncertain, often noisy and fractured society, we see it as essential to instill in children the ability to ask good questions … and continue to think creatively about how we can improve the world around us,” says La Scuola’s head of school, Valentina Imbeni. | Photo courtesy of Jutta Kamp

In San Francisco and now East Palo Alto, students are heading back to “la scuola.”

This month, students at La Scuola International School return to its San Francisco campuses and walk through the doors of its brand-new location on the Peninsula. This third outpost serves preschool through first grade with plans to expand to the eighth-grade level currently taught in the City. Growth is also underfoot at its main campus in the Mission, the first Reggio Emilia–inspired K–8 school not only in the Bay Area, but in the U.S.

In bringing its two San Francisco campuses together — the Dogpatch location still serves preschoolers — and designing a new main building, La Scuola will continue to add classrooms and ateliers: subject-specific studios that reflect Reggio Emilia’s focus on collaborative and studentinitiated learning, where the environment itself is key to exploration and creativity. “At La Scuola we have had a Digital Atelier and an Art/Material Atelier and more,” explains Susan Lyon, Ed.D., who sits on the school’s board of directors. “These ateliers are created according to the interests and research of the children.”

La Scuola’s head of school, Valentina Imbeni, Ph.D., is a native of the Italian region known for this approach — as well as balsamic vinegar, Luciano Pavarotti and Ferrari. She grew up in Bologna, what she calls “the San Francisco of Italy” and home of the oldest continuously operating university in the world, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088. From her summer break in Italy, she fills us in on what’s happening in the Mission, down in East Palo Alto and, perhaps soon, not too far from her own Italian roots.

1 What inspired you to go into education?

I have been at La Scuola for 15 years, and I am its founder in its current shape and form. I joined a group of enthusiastic and committed parents who had started a parents’ co-op for preschool-age children who wanted to learn Italian and believed we could turn this wonderful idea into a pre-K through 8 unique program inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, from my native Emilia-Romagna. The inspiration to change my life and career from engineering and research to education was the birth of my first son, Stefano, and the desire to offer him the same excellence of education I was lucky to experience in Emilia-Romagna, and the gift of bilingualism and Italian language and culture.

2 Is La Scuola the only Italian-immersion school of its kind locally?

Indeed, we are! The only other Italian-immersion school in the U.S. is in New York. We are also the only immersion school accredited by the International Baccalaureate organization.

La Scuola’s director of early childhood education and Menlo Park native, Megan Reed, works with preschoolers in the garden at the international school’s Dogpatch campus. A third location in Silicon Valley opens this month. | Photo courtesy of Jutta Kamp

3 How does a child’s environment play into their learning?

La Scuola is a unique combination of the Reggio Emilia approach, International Baccalaureate framework and Italian immersion (children do not need to know Italian to be at La Scuola). All these methodologies believe in learning through inquiry and play for our youngest students.

The atelier rooms are at the center of the transdisciplinary learning and a unique feature of the Reggio Emilia school. They allow for exploration and discovery in the arts, music and science. They show our students [how] to express themselves using multiple languages, extending their ability to match diverse situations with appropriate, evocative engagement and response. Their resiliency and flexibility allow them to move through the world nimbly, with joy.

4 With the opening of its Silicon Valley location, La Scuola now serves the Peninsula. Why did you pick this location for your expansion?

We had always been thinking of an expansion in the Palo Alto/Silicon Valley area, and we were fortunate to find a partner and sponsor that allowed us to fulfill our dream. We are also working on an exciting expansion to Milano, Italy, that would create a unique connection to our language of immersion.

5 Italian culture has made such an impact in San Francisco, with North Beach being a rich example that continues to thrive today. As someone who has spent considerable time in both Italy and San Francisco, how do you see Italian culture continuing to shape our city?

Italians were here right at the start of our beautiful city, and I believe they can continue to shape it by bringing ideas, innovation, creativity and an attention to beauty and aesthetics that hopefully our city will preserve. La Scuola believes that beauty is a human right, and that children experience more joy and wellbeing in a bright and beautiful learning environment.

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