In the fall of 2018, the TASIS Elementary School will roll out a restructured academic program designed to ensure that all students have a native English speaker as a homeroom teacher and also receive additional instruction time in both English and Italian in a number of subjects. Below we review the programmatic changes planned for next year and explain why the Elementary School has American and Italian Sections.
A New Approach to Homerooms
All students in grades 1–5 are assigned a homeroom teacher and spend the majority of their time with that teacher, who delivers instruction in English Language Arts, which is closely tied to the Core Knowledge Sequence, and Math, which follows the world-renowned Singapore Math program. In the current model, students in the American Section have a homeroom teacher who is a native English speaker, whereas students in the Italian Section have a homeroom teacher who is a native Italian speaker. (See below to learn why the Elementary School has an American Section and an Italian Section.)
In the new model, all students—regardless of which section they are in—will have a native English speaker as a homeroom teacher. This also means that students in the American Section and students in the Italian Section will be mixed together into the same homeroom.
“We see this as a major advantage,” said Theresa Cullen Hill, who has been the Elementary School Head since 2015. “Students will now have additional exposure to both English and Italian, and each grade’s homeroom teachers and Italian Section teachers will be able to work closely in teams to provide an optimum program.”
Each grade typically has two homerooms, and, in addition to English Language Arts and Math, each mixed group of students will also have Science, Art, Music, Physical Education, lunch, and recess together. They will then be divided by American/Italian Section for two areas of academic instruction: History & Geography and Italian Language. In essence, a team of three teachers—two homeroom teachers and one Italian Section teacher—will work together to deliver a dynamic academic program to each grade level.
Ms. Cullen Hill believes that the new arrangement will have social benefits as well. “Mixing American Section and Italian Section students into the same homeroom for most of each day will make students feel like they’re part of a grade rather than a specific section,” she said. “The new model will also provide us greater flexibility. Instead of dividing students into homerooms based solely on their language sections, which can lead to imbalances, we can now factor in class size, gender balance, and social dynamics.”
A New Weekly Schedule
Changes for students in grades 2–5
As a result of changes to the bus departure schedule and other new efficiencies, students in grades 2–5 (who have their classes in Hadsall or Aurora, both of which are part of the main TASIS campus) will benefit from an extra 30 minutes of academic instruction each day. The school day will continue to begin at 8:00, but classes will now conclude at 15:45. The dismissal process will begin at 15:45, with buses departing campus at 16:05. (Note that the dismissal process will continue to be moved up a bit on Wednesdays.)
The academic day will also be restructured to ensure that students in both the American Section and the Italian Section receive more instruction in English, particularly in English Language Arts, which will see an increase from 450 minutes per week to 570 minutes per week. Students in each section will also have an additional 15 minutes of Science each week (105 instead of 90) and will continue to have 300 minutes of Mathematics and 90 minutes of Music per week. All of these subjects will be taught in English, regardless of whether a student is in the American Section or the Italian Section.
All students will continue to receive bilingual instruction in Art for 90 minutes per week and in Physical Education for 135 minutes per week. They will still have 150 minutes per week for lunch and 150 minutes per week for recess.
The only subjects in which students will be taken out of their homerooms and grouped exclusively with their fellow American or Italian Section students will be History & Geography and Italian Language. Students in each section will spend a total of 600 minutes per week on these two subjects. The American Section will split the time fairly evenly between the two subjects—with History & Geography taught in English and Italian Language taught, naturally, in Italian—while the Italian Section will spend roughly 480 minutes on Italian Language and 120 minutes on History & Geography (the actual breakdown will vary from week to week), with both subjects taught exclusively in Italian. It should also be noted that for students in the American Section, the Italian Language classes will be further segmented according to ability, with native Italian speakers sorted into their own classroom.
Changes for students in grade 1
Students in first grade spend most of their day at the School’s Early Childhood Center, Al Focolare, which is located in Gentilino, just 200 meters down the hill from the main TASIS campus. Classes at Al Focolare will continue to start at 8:15 in 2018–2019, but the dismissal process will be pushed back to 15:30 and buses will depart at 16:10. (Wednesdays will remain a shorter day.) The new schedule will add about 30 minutes of class time each day, ensuring that first-grade students in both the American and Italian Sections will receive more academic instruction in English Language Arts, Italian Language, History & Geography, and Art.
Inspiration for the Changes
The restructured Elementary School program has been primarily designed to provide all students more direct instruction in English.
“While it is a huge bonus that all our students can learn Italian, which is incredibly useful for families that intend to stay in Ticino long-term, we also understand that with a student body as international as ours, mastering English is the primary goal for most students,” said Ms. Cullen Hill.
Regardless of which language a student is stronger in (or more motivated to learn), the benefits of studying in multiple languages at an early age are undeniable. An abundance of scientific studies have concluded that speaking more than one language while growing up not only provides children a number of distinct learning advantages but also changes the structure of their brains. A study performed at University College in London, for example, determined that learning a second language actually increases the amount of advanced gray matter in the brain in much the same way that physical exercise builds larger muscles.
“We have seen many examples of students who have entered our program with a very low level of English or Italian (or both) and gone on to achieve fluency in just a year or two,” added Ms. Cullen Hill.
Many of the specific changes to the program were recommended by the TASIS Academic Steering Committee, the Elementary School Academic Committee, and the Elementary School Operational Analysis Committee, all of which were commissioned by the TASIS Board of Directors in 2016 to examine the scope and sequence of the School’s K–12 curriculum.
“A great deal of excellent curriculum work has been happening for years at TASIS,” said TASIS Headmaster Christopher Nikoloff, who began his post in July 2017. “TASIS is a reflective community that is always trying to get better, and we are excited about continuing the work of building a PK–12 content-rich, coherent, and cumulative curriculum.”
In 2005, TASIS received an exemption from the Canton of Ticino that allowed it to found the TASIS Elementary School, Ticino’s first English-language primary school. This exemption states that children at TASIS who are 4–15 and have resided in Ticino for no more than six years may be educated primarily in another language, provided that 20 percent of the educational program is in Italian. Those who have resided in Ticino for six or more years must have additional instruction in Italian in order to meet Cantonal requirements.
The solution that the School and the Canton agreed upon was for TASIS to offer two separate tracks—an American Section and an Italian Section—for students in grades 1–9. (Note that students in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten are assigned to a designated section for the future but are not formally divided into American and Italian Sections until they start first grade. These students receive their primary instruction in English, have an Italian Language class with a native Italian speaker, and have bilingual instruction woven into various aspects of the program.)
In the American Section, which is primarily designed for students whose families have resided in Ticino for fewer than six years, core academic subjects follow the rigorous Core Knowledge Curriculum and are presented in English. Students also take an Italian Language course each day, with instruction based on current proficiency level, and receive bilingual instruction in certain specialized courses, such as Art and Physical Education.
Students whose families have resided in Ticino for six or more years must join the Italian Section at the start of their seventh year in the Canton, but many families choose to have their children enter the Italian Section earlier, particularly if they would like to accelerate the pace at which they learn Italian. As it was originally envisioned, in the Italian Section, many of the core academic subjects were to be taught in Italian, based on the best of the traditional Italian curriculum that mirrors much of the rich Core Knowledge Curriculum, while several would be taught in English, enabling students to achieve academic proficiency in both languages.