Spanish still may be the runaway favorite for students learning a foreign language in Illinois, but one northwest suburban teacher has nearly quadrupled enrollment for a less ubiquitous language –Italian.
Lisa Sasso, an Italian teacher at South Middle School at 400 S. Highland Ave., started the foreign language program in the 2002-03 school year with a $25,000 grant and 40 students. A decade later, Sasso has had a full course load with 120 students and a part-time teacher who takes on 30 more kids.
The peppy 45-year-old Sasso attributes most of her positive results to a strong academic program that feeds into equally strong local high school programs. She chalks up the remainder of the success to the allure of all things Italian.
"It's just the excitement. It's not Spanish. It's not French," Sasso said. "The people are so loving and nice. The food, the culture, the history, the music...the girls are all gaga over the boys."
And although taking little personal credit, Sasso does acknowledge that students seem to like her and that her class has a reputation for being fun.
"There's no magic secret. I wish I could tell you why," Sasso said. "It's a dream job that I get to teach this language."
Statewide, Spanish programs continue to grow at a "very pragmatic" rate, said Linda Egnatz, a Spanish teacher and president of the Illinois Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Italian, meanwhile, is a "minor offering" in schools, which makes South's program a "special situation," she said.
"It's not something you see in very many schools," Egnatz said. "But students talk and parents recognize when there's knowledge growth -- that's an incredible compliment (to Sasso)."
Egnatz said European languages such as French and German have seen a decline in courses offered in recent years, while Italian programs have traditionally thrived only in small pockets of the state.
"Good foreign language teachers can grow a very small language to a very popular language," Egnatz said.
Sasso started in Arlington Heights School District 25 as a French teacher. She saw an advertisement for the Learning for the Future grant and took it to her school principal, who encouraged her to apply.
The grant is funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was processed through the Consulate General of Italy in Chicago and the non-profit Italidea, according to Roberto Pennazzato, the consulate's education office director.
In the metro area, 52 public and private schools offering Italian are connected to Pennazzato's office. The grants are renewable but are meant to be seed money to establish a program at the elementary or middle school level. It's an Italian government effort that dates back to the late 1990s across the globe, consulate officials said.
"The main goal of the program and of the grants was to develop the situation of learning the Italian language and culture," Pennazzato said.
South Middle School, one of 12 grantees, has gotten about $160,000 in funding through the 2011-12 school year, according to Sarah Jerome, District 25 superintendent. The money has primarily gone to offset teacher salaries, but also pays for textbooks and materials.
Lyn Scolaro, who worked with the consulate in awarding the grants, said schools like South were targeted because those students fed into high schools with strong programs.
"South very much took a chance on that," Scolaro said. "[Sasso] took that and made that program her own."
Scolaro also teaches Italian at nearby Prospect High School, where many of Sasso's former students move on to. From the start of South's program, Sasso has worked in sync with the high school programs to make sure her students were prepared, Scolaro said.
"She definitely goes over and above, and it's not just school as usual for her," Scolaro said. "It's not just writing sentences and verbs."