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Italian Teachers’ Association of New York Hosts Annual Awards Ceremony

The NY Chapter of the AATI honored high-achieving students and bestowed awards upon two outstanding Italian educators.

by Alex Catti

The honorees, AATI board members, and scholarship recipients

The Italian Teachers’ Association of New York and Westchester (Chapter of American Association of Teachers of Italian) gathered at NYU’s Kimball Hall on Saturday, June 15, 2019 to acknowledge the accomplishments of both students and educators. Awards were given in the name of Dr. Leonard Covello, a pioneer in community education and cultural awareness.

Guests were welcomed by Antonette Laricchia, president of the Italian Teachers’ Association of New York and Westchester and by Lucrezia Lindia and Rosa Riccio Pietanza, past presidents. Following Laricchia’s welcome, Diana Marie Paunetto sang beautiful renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Fratelli d’Italia.” Lucrezia Lindia, president of the Società Onoraria Italica, praised National Italian Exam award winners Alyssa Bonino, Louis Saraceni, John Ferrara, and Carolina Cedraschi for their hard work and dedication to learning the Italian language and culture.

Cavaliere Josephine Maietta and Dr. Maria Palandra were then honored with the Dr. Leonard Covello Educator of the Year and the Dr. Leonard Covello Administrator of the Year awards respectively. Who was Dr. Leonard Covello, what can we learn from him, and how have Cav. Maietta and Dr. Palandra carried out his legacy?

One hundred years ago, American students could not simply “take Italian” in school. This may seem surprising by today’s standards, especially given the American public’s affinity towards all things Italian. However, considering the global political unrest of the early twentieth century and the widespread hostility toward Italian immigrants at the time, it stands to reason that the Italian language and culture was not seen favorably.

Fast-forward to 2019, and America finds itself with Italy as one of its closest allies and approximately 17 million people in the United States claiming Italian ancestry. This was largely thanks to Dr. Leonard Covello. Dr. Covello was born in Avigliano, Italy in 1887. He immigrated to the United States at the age of nine and would later receive a Pulitzer scholarship to attend Columbia University, where he would graduate with his bachelor’s degree in 1911. Dr. Covello began teaching Spanish and French in 1913.

In 1926, New York City saw 42% of its high school students graduate. In 1931, it was reported that only 11% of all Italian-American students who were registered for school actually graduated. A great discrepancy existed. Covello investigated the root causes of this disparity. What he found was that many Italian families saw education as a threat to the family unit. Families were used to having their children remain at home to take care of the household; school would only separate the families physically and give the children socioeconomic mobility, which was also a threat to the household and the family unit. Covello’s solution? Bridge the gap between the community and the school. 1934 saw the opening of Benjamin Franklin High School with Covello as the principal.

In trying to figure out how to foster community-centered education, Covello discovered that language was a divisive, rather than unifying, aspect of the Italian community. Italian dialects are notorious for different from what we now know today as Standard Italian. Unlike the Italian immigrants of today, Italian immigrants in the early twentieth century spoke different dialects–not all of which could be mutually understood. Therefore, Italian dialects were not conducive to communication within the community. As a result, second generation Italians did not maintain their mother tongue. To make matters worse, the public school system did not consider Italian to be on par with German, French, Latin, and Spanish. This was detrimental because it created an air of inferiority toward the Italian language, culture, and, ultimately, Italian people. After much campaigning, Covello succeeded in having Italian recognized as equal to the other foreign languages. Why did it matter though?

The Italian language caused children to feel conflicted. For many, it was the language spoken at home, but it was not considered prestigious. It was often seen as a source of shame. Was it better to maintain your familial culture and traditions, or was it better to assimilate and not associate yourself with an “inferior” language and culture? This was a very real dilemma for young people at the time. Children didn’t necessarily feel integrated into the American culture, but they didn’t necessarily feel part of the Italian culture either. Covello recognized this and was convinced that the study and social elevation of the Italian language would mitigate these feelings.

Today in 2019, the Italian community is fortunate enough to have educators who share Dr. Covello’s passion for helping the youth of all cultures to reach their full potential. Cav. Maietta has worked tirelessly for the past 22 years as an Italian teacher in the Syosset Central School District. Dr. Palandra has dedicated her life to enacting change and enriching the lives of students both at the secondary and collegiate levels.

Cav. Maietta left Sicily and arrived in America at the age of 15. Upon arriving in America, she vowed to promote the Italian language and culture, and she has stayed faithful to that mission. She is currently the President of the Association of Italian American Educators (AIAE), and a board member of several organizations: the Italian American Committee on Education (IACE), I Giullari di Piazza, The Josephine Foundation, ItaliAmerica Foundation, Consultant of the Region Sicilia USEF and ARPA Foundation of Pisa. She holds graduate degrees from Hunter College and Fordham University. In 1997, she was hired to work on a new foreign language program for children and has spent the past 22 years teaching Italian. In 2005 she was knighted as a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi of Italy. Cav. Maietta also hosts the radio talk show “Sabato Italiano” on 88.7FM WRHU Hofstra University. She has worked to bridge Italian and American cultural institutions and has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including being the first person named NIAF Teacher of the Year in the USA by the National Italian American Foundation. She has been honored by the governor and comptroller of New York State. Cav. Maietta also received The Ambassador Award from the Italian American Museum of New York. In NEWSDAY’s education section, John Hildenbrand wrote about Josephine’s teaching in an article, “Where the Sun Rises on the Best of Italy.”

During the awards ceremony, Cav. Maietta spoke about the AIAE gala, which has been held for the past two years at the Italian consulate. The gala honors those who support the Italian language and culture and is an opportunity for college students to receive scholarships. Cav. Maietta closed by stating how Leonard Covello broke the glass ceiling for Italian Americans in academia after becoming a principal and a professor. Covello demonstrated a need to teach the language and culture. Cav Maietta stated that thanks to Covello’s work, “today, there are about 630,000 Italian-American educators from pre-k to postsecondary education. The growth of the percentage of Italian-American educators is greater than the percentage growth of the Italian-American population.”

Dr. Palandra received her Ph.D. in Educational Research from Hofstra University and a P.D. in School Supervision and Administration from Queens College. She also holds an M.S. in Curriculum and Teaching from Fordham University and an M.A. and B.A. in Romance Languages and Literature from Hunter College. Dr. Palandra, who is currently the head of La Scuola d’Italia Guglielmo Marconi, has served in various educational roles. She previously held the titles of teacher, curriculum writer, project specialist, grant writer, director of curriculum and instruction, assistant superintendent, superintendent of schools, consultant, and college professor. While working at the Elmont School District, Dr. Palandra oversaw the passage of a bond referendum and a multi-million dollar facilities expansion program. She created an atmosphere of high educational expectations, accountability, and optimism, which led to dramatic increases in the academic performance of a racially, socially, linguistically, and socially diverse student body.

Dr. Palandra spoke about some of the initiatives of La Scuola d’Italia, one of them being a program that exposes students to language via theater. Dr. Palandra closed by stating her fascination with the writing of Leonard Covello. He understood the struggle of immigrant families. He wrote that children were becoming American by becoming ashamed of their parents. Regarding Covello’s writing, Dr. Palandra stated, “Unfortunately, there are always tendencies of wanting to be acculturated and forgetting a part of an identity that is [very] important, so I think his writing should be a must for all teachers in training.”

The awards ceremony concluded with a performance by soprano Cristina Fontanelli, who sang “Mattinata.” The event would not have been possible without the help of the planning committee of the Italian Teachers’ Association: Antonette Laricchia, Gabrielle Pati, Lucrezia Lindia, Francesco Lindia, Rosa Pietanza, Lina Rocchio, Skylar Jeffries, and Maria Colella.

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