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In Bassiano, a tiny mountain village with 1,678 residents just south of Rome, Valentina and Latino Lorenzi sit side by side in the town’s one and only school. But these unlikely desk-mates aren’t siblings or even cousins. Valentina, who’s 12 years old, better knows Latino, 83, as Grandpa. “I’ll teach him how to use an iPad and stuff like that,” says Valentina.
Renowned for its premium ham, Bassiano is now becoming known in Italy for an odd experiment being carried out by its mayor, Domenico Guidi. To avoid shutting the school down because there weren’t enough students, Guidi enrolled 47 enthusiastic pensioners who didn’t have a chance to study earlier in their lives; he succeeded in raising the total number of pupils to 164. “We have bitterly fought to keep our school open, and we’re so glad to have found a solution,” says Alessandro Colandrea, the father of another student, Valeria, who says she looks forward to learning about her grandparents’ experiences during the war.
The mayor’s crusade comes as a result of Italy’s prolonged recession, which has pushed the central government to boost austerity by curbing spending and, among other acts, closing village schools. In the last three years alone, more than 235 mountain schools have been shut down, according to ANIEF, Italy’s lobby for schoolteachers. Many other schools — some located on islands, where there are often just one or two kids — are also at risk of closure. Other mayors, including those in regions such as Sicily and Marche, are planning to mix youngsters and seniors in the same classrooms should the need arise.
Part of the reason this is an issue in Italy in the first place is that more and more people are moving to larger cities and towns in search of a better, easier life or to study at high school and university. In the last 15 years, the country’s small towns have lost more than 90 percent of their population — a trend that’s on the rise. All told, there are around 6,000 ghost villages that have been abandoned due to mass emigration as well as natural calamities, according to the Polytechnic University of Milan, while another 15,000 are slowly dying out.
There are similar challenges being faced in other parts of Europe. In the U.K., changes to education funding are putting many rural schools at risk of being shut down, and the government’s reform plan, launched in 2013, allocates funds according to the ability of schools to attract pupils and remain competitive. Poland is also struggling with school closures due to a lack of students. But Bassiano may just become a model for Polish towns, thanks to a certain relationship: “The village priest here is Polish and he supported us in our fight from the very beginning,” says Guidi.
Moves like these could also save governments money in the long run. At least that’s the case in Bassiano, where hiring a bus and drivers to shuttle students around would have cost 110,000 euros (around $123,200) annually, double what’s currently spent to run the village school. While Guidi says he wouldn’t have raised taxes to cover the shortfall, the money would have had to come from somewhere. Then there were other hassles. “Students would have been … traveling across steep and winding mountain trails, and it would have been stressful for both them and their parents,” says Guidi. “The community would have been torn apart.”
Italian law calls for compulsory education until the age of 18, though there’s no rule that limits the age for returning to school. It was at a village assembly that Guidi initially presented his idea — “the elders,” he says, “were thrilled.” He hopes the intergenerational exchange will help preserve oral traditions, with grandparents teaching children about, say, craftsmanship like shoemaking and crocheting, while youngsters will share tips on how to use modern technology.
While Bassiano’s “mixed” classes don’t formally kick off until September, kids and octogenarians alike are already practicing what it’s like to co-inhabit middle school while sharing the same books, teachers and, of course, homework. “I’ve badly wanted [a diploma] all my life, but couldn’t afford to study when I was young,” says Lorenzi. “There was the war, I had to work and had no time.”
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