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Learning and teaching are school president’s twin passions

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By Ken Mammarella

Scuola Marco Polo is open to all children who want to discover Italian and Italy. “Italians from Italy,” said the school’s president, Agnese Abate. “Italian descendants. Italian lovers.”

The school – which on scuolamarcopolo. org calls itself “a safe space to learn and live the Italian language and culture in a vibrant community for kids and adults” – was founded in 2000, and its original emphasis was on students who already spoke some Italian and families who wanted to pass along Italian culture and language.
Its founder found a worthy successor in 2014 in Abate, and her husband, Marco Circelli.

Abate was born in Milan and grew up there. In 2009, she married Circelli, and they moved from Italy to the Delaware Valley a few years later, following Circelli’s sister and brother. The live in Malvern and have a 7½-year-old son. Jonathan is being brought up bilingual and is sometimes a “little helper” at Marco Polo, she said.

Abate welcomes the help from her son. She’s president, and Circelli is the school’s secretary and treasurer, and Abate also counts “basically everything for the school” as her responsibilities.

And all that’s on top of her day jobs: She teaches Advanced Placement chemistry and science at Malvern Prep and is an assistant professor at Temple University, where she conducts research in medicinal chemistry.

Over its two decades, Scuola Marco Polo has moved multiple times around Greater Philadelphia, including classes in Narberth, Roxborough, the History of Italian Immigration Museum in South Philadelphia and, this fall, in Radnor.
Most of the families the school serves are now from the Main Line, she said, adding she anticipates renting a different site next year. The long-term goal – which had a $300,000 Indiegogo capital drive – is for the school to have its own building.

“Scuola Marco Polo believes that Italian language, traditions, music and culture are essential tools to create a unified community,” it says on its site. “We are happy to celebrate Italian and American feasts with families of diverse background and culture.” (That, of course, includes birthday cupcakes.)

Abate said Scuola Marco Polo is many things: a nonprofit, a labor of love for the staff of six and the center of a local Italian-American community.

“I love it,” Abate said. “We don’t make a lot of money. We made a group that likes to be together. We love to have the community. We have families get hooked on the passion that we put into it.”

There are now 25 to 30 students, ages 2 to 12, with Abate suggesting that the younger the better to learn more about all things Italian. Bilingualism offers multiple benefits, she said, including cognitive growth, social-emotional advantages and greater and more lucrative job opportunities.

There are face-to-face classes Saturdays and virtual classes after school Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Basic tuition for the 2021-22 school year is $645 for 28 weeks, October-May, for the Saturday class. Basic tuition for a virtual class is $95 per month. There are discounts for early payments and siblings.

Classes are not graded, and the school’s website sets up two tracks, one for bilingual students and one for children who are not. It also lists some themed programs, including classes in Italian cooking, singing and playing the melodica and other musical instruments; soccer; and summer camp.

“We’re flexible and welcome ideas,” Abate said. “It’s fun for the kids and fun for us. It’s not just language, but we also play games and sing songs.” There are also theater and dance activities.

Saturday classes start at 10 a.m. and end shortly after noon. In nice weather, the classes are in a Radnor park, split between soccer and Italian language and culture.

Some families have extended the day by picnicking together. “These families have become friends through the school,” she said. “They’re bonding with each other.”

“My daughter has attended Scuola Marco Polo for the past two years and loves learning Italian,” Eileen Erwin writes in a testimonial on the school website. “She’s excited all week to go to Italian class on Saturdays, where she learns from caring, creative teachers who make learning fun. This program has enriched my daughter’s life and also allowed me to network with a fantastic group of parents.”

“We support what is missing in elementary school,” Abate said. “We teach only in Italian. It’s full immersion. Italian. Italian. Italian.”


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