For the past four months, I have been studying abroad with a program called School Year Abroad (SYA) in a small Italian town called Viterbo. Prior to coming here, I was aware that I would encounter many differences between American and Italian customs. However, one of the most shocking differences I have encountered so far is the schooling system in Italy.
In February, my classmates and I participated in an annual school tradition at SYA, called “Cinque Giorni,” which translates to “five days.” We were given the option to choose from three high schools located in the city of Viterbo, where we would spend a week in the classroom with Italian students.
In Italy, attending private school is not common. Most students attend public schools. Before entering, high school students have the opportunity to choose which school in their province they want to attend.
At all three speciality schools in Viterbo, students take the core subjects such as Italian, math, science, language, physical education and history. At the Buratti Linguistics and Classic School, students choose either the classics or linguistics school. Students at the classics school study multiple classic languages, whereas at the linguistics school, the students study spoken languages. There is also Ruffini, the scientific school, where all students take multiple science classes at once. Finally, there’s Santa Rosa, which is the arts school. Students take the core subjects in addition to art classes.
I attended Buratti. Before going to Buratti, I had been given a run-down on what school would be like, because my host sister, Laetitia, currently attends the school. She described it as miserable, because her whole life revolves around school. I remember the first couple weeks of my home-stay when Laetitia and I were comparing our school experiences. She expressed that she was surprised by how much freedom we have at GDS. She also expressed envy of my school experience.
Before attending Buratti, I had looked down upon GDS’ system of schooling, due to the immense amount of stress students are subjected to. However, after my five days attending Buratti and discussing with my Italian friends the Italian school system, I have discovered a newfound appreciation for GDS.
At all of the public schools, there is no flexibility in the students’ schedules. For example, if you go to the scientific school in Viterbo, you will take the exact same classes as a student attending a scientific school in Milan. School starts at 8:00 and ends between 1:00 and 3:00, depending on the day. Students have only one ten-minute break throughout the day, and they eat lunch at home after school with their families.
There are many other structural differences. Rather than high school being four years long, students attend five years of high school. At the beginning of high school, students are assigned a class which is similar to a homeroom in America. In this class, they will stay with the same students for the rest of high school. They attend every subject with their class for all five years of high school. Each school year, they are assigned to one classroom where they spend their entire school year and school day. Throughout the day, teachers move classrooms to teach their next class.
I was already not looking forward to being confined to one classroom for the entire school day. Being forced to stay with the same people all day and sit in one classroom reminded me of being in elementary school, where we lacked freedom. For the entire school day, I sat at one desk. Most of the classes were like lectures, with little student-teacher interaction.
Sitting in that classroom made me realize that I had been taking for granted the freedoms we have at GDS. We are able to roam around the school, experience classes with different groups of students throughout the day, interact with each other through discussions in class and have the privilege of an open campus. Compared to Italian schools, we live a much more lively school day.
My Italian friend, Davide Fiorentino, who attends Ruffini, says that Italian high school students do not have time to “cultivate their passions.” He says it is because their schedules are set for every year of their time in high school.
Fiorentino added that there are no extracurricular activities offered by the school other than the occasional lab-course. When I learned this, I was shocked. At GDS, there are numerous extracurricular activities offered to students.
He also says that he has to “force free time into his schedule,” which he normally spends with his friends. At the beginning of high school, he participated in out-of-school activities, such as dance and gymnastics, for about 11 hours per week, but he said he had to cut down on his time spent on activities to two hours as his grades began to suffer. Now, he and many of his peers are unsure about what they want to do in the future because they do not have many opportunities at school or free time to explore extracurriculars.
Fiorentino also said that school encompasses all aspects of his life. On a weekday, his normal schedule is to attend school from 8:00 to 2:00, study and complete homework from 4:30 to 8:30, eat dinner, then continue doing assignments until he has finished them. This resembles a schedule that many students at GDS are following, with school being a priority for them. But we are given fair warning of when assignments are due. And our teachers can only assign us homework that will take no more than 70 minutes.
We also have immediate access to mental health resources and teachers who are willing to adjust due dates if we are overwhelmed. In Italian schools, there are no school counselors. Teachers do not communicate their test schedules with each other, which can lead to days with a major assignment due in every class.
Fiorentino said he is aware that many of his classmates suffer from mental health issues due to the amount of homework they have. Asking teachers for extensions is not as normalized in Italian schools as it is at GDS. So students have the option of either neglecting their mental health to be successful in school or performing badly in school.
On my last day at Buratti, I talked with my class about my school experience. Their English teacher had attended a school in Ireland. We agreed that the Italian school system is very stressful and restricting to students. Before my experience at Buratti, I had never realized how lucky we are at GDS. Of course, there are flaws, but I believe our school structure allows us to explore our interests and gain independence. We are lucky that we have access to mental health resources, teachers who are willing to adjust assignment schedules for the betterment of students’ mental health, freedom to choose classes we are interested in and the ability to move around throughout the day.