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District to phase out Italian, replace with it Mandarin

60-year-old John Laruccia, a Sea Cliff resident who

60-year-old John Laruccia, a Sea Cliff resident who was instrumental in bringing the Italian foreign language program to the North Shore School District, sounds off to board member George Pombar prior to the school board meeting. (Dec.13, 2012) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A proposal to remove Italian as a required language for high school graduation was passed unanimously Thursday night by the North Shore school board despite an impassioned plea from parents, students and educators to keep it.

Mandarin will replace Italian to fulfill the state's World Language requirement. Italian will be phased out gradually as part of the plan. It was proposed by Superintendent Edward Melnick to keep pace with changing demographics and help students compete globally.

Italian language and culture will be offered as an elective instead.

After the vote, dozens in the audience shouted at board members and some threatened to campaign against them in the next election.

"This is not a yelling match," said Carolyn Genovesi, board president, over loud objections from the audience. "It is not over . . . We just made a decision to support the superintendent."

Before the vote, thunderous applause greeted speakers who opposed the policy change during the meeting at North Shore Middle School in Glen Head.

Kathryn Grande, a former board member and teacher in the district, reminded the board that Italian classes boast the second-largest enrollment of the language programs.

"Surely the parents and educators know a student's motivation to learn is a priceless factor in the learning process," said John Laruccia, 60, of Sea Cliff.

Melnick has said a yearlong study helped the district answer the question, "What were going to be the important languages for kids to know in the 21st century?"

The district now offers French, Italian, Latin and Spanish to meet graduation requirements.

Enrico J. Annichiarico, chairman of the New York State Commission for Social Justice for the Order Sons of Italy in America, criticized the proposed change, saying Italy plays a major role in the world.

"I dare say that your actions smack of discrimination and are insulting to the Italian-American community," Annichiarico said in a letter to the district.

He said he doesn't object to the addition of Mandarin, but the district is trying to downgrade Italian "with what is not good research."

Melnick said the district's study shows that Mandarin would be one of the best offerings for students as they prepare for the future, especially on a global stage. English, French and Spanish were deemed key languages, and Latin was considered crucial to understanding English grammar and the classics, he said.

Melnick said he understood that "many parents want children schooled in their own language. . . . But we felt from an educational point of view, we want to make sure our kids were best prepared for the world in the 21st century."

Vincent Cefalu, a parent of two students taking high school Italian, complained that the proposal was coming to a vote "too quickly."

"This type of thing has to be out out here for the people in the neighborhood to decide," he said.

Until this school year, the district gave students some Latin instruction in the fourth and fifth grades, and in sixth grade students chose between French, Italian, Latin or Spanish.

This year, Latin is not offered in the fourth and fifth grades, and Mandarin is offered in kindergarten and first grade. Sixth-graders choose from French, Italian, Latin and Spanish.

Also Thursday night, the board was to consider offering Mandarin in kindergarten through second grade and then giving students in the third, fourth and fifth grades a choice of Mandarin or Spanish. Sixth-graders then would choose from French, Latin, Mandarin or Spanish to follow in high school.In 2010-11, according to the district's state report card, 64 students in the district took the Italian Regents exam, compared with 79 who took the Spanish Regents and 34 who took the French Regents.

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