Italian-American group urges schools to promote a more positive image of Italians

New Jersey’s deep connections with Italy — from the rush of immigrants more than a century ago to its original namesake, “Nova Caesarea” — are being explored in depth by a little-known commission that has created a curriculum for the state’s public schools.

The state’s Italian and Italian-American Heritage Commission has released a wealth of lesson plans and other classroom resources for the public schools to teach Italy’s heritage in both the state and the nation as a whole.

“It’s really about how Italians have been central in the making of America,” said Gilda Rorro Baldassari, chairman of the commission’s curriculum committee and former state department official.

Baldassari and other leaders of the commission came before the State Board of Education earlier this month to present the new curriculum — titled the Universality of Italian Heritage — and announce a website and other programs for distributing the information to schools and teachers.

It includes extensive resources to teach about everything from the Roman Empire’s influence on the rule of law, to Leonardo DaVinci’s place in the arts and sciences, to Pinocchio’s role in literature.

“Probably the greatest impact that the Roman Empire has is in setting up the rule of law,” Baldassari said.

“We want to let teachers know that we now have this information for them, and we want to get it out to the schools.” A school already well versed in the topic is Nottingham High School in Hamilton, which features an Italian café and courtyard, complete with bocce court and espresso maker.

Frank Campione is the school’s Italian teacher, as well as world language chairman, and he said the availability of the curriculum enriches not only his language classes but also across all subject areas.

“You can get into the whole culture and history,” Campione said. “With immigration, the students are exposed through Ellis Island, and there’s a whole unit on DaVinci and his influence.”

The effort has been a long time coming. The commission was first created by law in 2002 as a way to build up the state’s Italian heritage and dispel negative stereotypes.

It is part of a long line of commissions in New Jersey with specific curriculum missions, including one for the Holocaust and another for African-American history.

The commission started building the curriculum for schools soon after it was founded, launching pilot projects among a dozen school districts in the early 2000s. Conferences were also held, and other programs promoting Italy’s long legacy in the state prospered.

Unfunded by the state and relying largely on private fundraising, the commission took another decade to build up the curriculum to the point it could release it statewide. The commission is housed in the state Department of Education, but operates separately — again, without state funding.

“The most important thing we have is the curriculum,” said Baldassari. “We’re the only organization in the country that has done this.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.


Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal