Italian and Latino Immigrants Across the 20th and 21st Century in New Haven, Connecticut

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New Haven, Connecticut is a city that proudly parades its long relationship with Italian immigration and culture. The influence of the Italian immigrants is still visible in the form of Italian flags, markets, and restaurants scattered throughout the city. Old neighborhoods such as Wooster Square, once a concentrated neighborhood of Italian-American immigrants, now welcomes tourists and visitors to indulge in a tourist friendly version of the area’s charm and ambiance. These remnants of Italian influence are the result of a major wave of European migrants into New Haven during the first half of the 20th century. The charm of neighborhoods like Wooster Square seems to overshadow the reality and the struggles that generations of Italian-american immigrants in the past faced for decades in the 20th century. New Haven today is still a very diverse city with a population that is roughly 68.2% non-white, and 15.8% foreign born with the prevailing immigrant and ethnic group being composed of Hispanic/Latinos.1 For many of the earliest generations of Italian-American immigrants, a major frontline where they experienced American society was in public schools, and the experiences of early 20th century Italian-American immigrants may offer us some insight into what shaped the present day climate in schools across New Haven, and subsequently how Latin-Americans experience schooling in New Haven today. For the purpose of this paper I will ask and seek an answer to the question: How did schooling, language, and opportunity affect the experiences of Italian youth in the early 20th century and how does this compare to the experiences of Latinos today in New Haven, Connecticut?

The experiences of Italian-Americans are significant to understanding the changes that New Haven has made in its policies and responses to its Immigrant populations, particularly Latin American immigrants. Both Italians and Latin-Americans migrated to New Haven in major waves and created systemic changes to the city’s schools and population. As of 2012, New Haven recorded a hispanic/latino population comprising 26% of the total population, also representing 40% of New Haven’s school population.2 In the early 20th century, Italians also represented 25% of the overall population and 41% of school populations.

Although both groups have their differences, culturally and ethnically, both are proportionately composed of non-english speaking, roman-catholic individuals who were/are darker-complexed than their caucasian and northern european peers.3 Both groups migrated to the United States in search of economic and social stability, but education was either an obstacle or a means of social and economic mobility and their experiences were typically dependent on how New Haven approached non-english speaking or bilingual students, and also the opportunities that it presented to these immigrant populations.

In this research paper, I will delve deeper into the most relevant issues which affected the experiences of Italians and Latinos in New Haven. How the city has changed its educational approaches towards english-language learners and immigrant students has changed vastly since the arrival of Italian immigrants, and the rates at which they achieve social and economic prosperity. On one hand, Italians of the 20th century experienced varying social and political pressures that undermined their cultural and familial roles, a lack of educational opportunities, and poor attitudes and approaches towards non-english speakers, making school and education an obstacle. On the other hand, Latin-americans of today would have a different experience than Italians in the 20th century, as New Haven has made reforms to increase opportunity and positive reception of these students, coupled with the immigrants’ own higher-expectations and reverence for education than that of the Italians.

Stephen Lassonde’s historical interpretation of Italian-immigrant experiences described in his book Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working Class was my inspiration and the backbone of my research on Italian immigrant students. While there is significant literature and research on the broader topic of Italian-Americans, Learning to Forget is a rare piece which gives a direct scope into New Haven’s Italian diaspora between 1870 and 19404 and also interprets how New Haven’s Italians experienced society, labor, family, and most importantly-schooling. Today, Latinos have a significant influence on New Haven, as they are the prevailing immigrant group. The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven is an organization which is heavily involved in the New Haven community, especially in marginalized poor and immigrant communities. Their mission is defined as: “To create positive and sustainable change in Connecticut’s Greater New Haven region by increasing the amount of and enhancing the impact of community philanthropy.” This organization has published many data-heavy reports on New Haven’s demographics. For this research I will be using their 2015 report Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven as it offers 20+ pages of data specific to the impact and experiences of New Haven’s many immigrant groups.

Part I: Italian-Americans in New Haven, Connecticut

During the peak of migration years (1900-1930), Italian-Americans arriving in New Haven would be experiencing not just an foreign society, but a society which was also rapidly changing in its response to immigrants. Between 1870 and 1911, Connecticut was passing a series of compulsory education laws which would put rigid restrictions on attendance, and child labor. The passing of these laws may have seemed like a benevolent effort on behalf of educational reformers at the time, but that these laws undermined many values and expectations of Italian parents, and put more emphasis on assimilation than inclusion for the Italian students. At the time, Italian parents were skeptical and resentful of the system. Many of these family’s had traveled from southern Italy or Sicily5, and were typically unskilled to low-skilled laborers who expected children to contribute economically to the family, thus making the education system and compulsory laws as an obstacle rather than an institution for social mobility. However, some of the resent of these Italian parents may have been justified as many times schools were “educating” these students less than they were “dealing” with them.

Isolation or segregation was common in many cities at the time. While New Haven took a less vocal approach, other cities, such as Boston even “actively discouraged poor and immigrant children from attending school by expressing openly their contempt for them and consigning children to the city’s most inferior facilities” (Lassonde, p. 54). Despite efforts to pressure Italian youth into assimilating, they assimilated at what the city considered an extremely slow pace. By the 1920s, southern Italian immigrants had outnumbered the cities more familiar immigrant groups, the Irish and Jews.6 Unlike their Jewish and Irish peers, Italians often did not speak English when they began school and subsequently, Italian students were consistently low-proficient or illiterate. In the early days of IQ testing (WWI era), there was speculation that the inability for Italian students to achieve in education was ultimately due to “racial deficiencies” (Lassonde, 57). Eventually by the 1930s the blame for illiteracy amongst Italian students was shifted from “racial deficiencies” to the slow pace at which Italian students learned English. Several key factors played a role in the reasons for the slow pace at which Italian students learned English: (1) Italians were often concentrated in their own neighborhoods, such as Wooster Square, Forbes Avenue, or Union Avenue7 where Italian was the primary language. ( 2) Italian parents had little education themselves, and valued labor and family life more than self-development and socialization which schools were promoting. And finally, (3) There were no English-Language acquisition programs for Italian students. With no incentive or opportunities presented to learn English, Italian students were typically much older than their grade level peers, and only attended schools until no longer legally obligated.8

For Italian students, Language was only one of the obstacles that prevented them from being successful in the classroom. Not only did Italian students struggle with language and literacy, but their parents were also barely literate. Italian students struggled with not just a lack of opportunities, but a lack of incentive. Older generations had been conditioned for years to hold little value for education,9 and their harbored resentments were only amplified by the restrictions schools and lawmakers put on their children. For many years, Italian parents were uninvolved and unconcerned with their children’s educational outcomes. Despite efforts to resist from both parties, inevitably, there came a turning point. Around the depression years, compulsory school attendance laws became more effectively enforced, and subsequently, child and adolescent truancy dropped as more children were staying in school longer (Lassonde, 192). Inevitably, both parents and students began to recognize high school’s opportunity for both social and most importantly, occupational mobility and, according to Lassonde, parents “surrendered their faith in the past for the promise of a more affluent future for their children” (Lassonde, 187). The result was a reversal of roles and compromises. Italian children became more economically dependent on their parents for longer, but parents recognized these changes would ultimately lead to more prosperous and thriving future generations.  By World War II european immigration was tapering off, and after a series of political and social movements, it reached a near-standstill for most of the 20th century. At one point, more than 40,000 ethnically identifying Italian’s resided within New Haven. Today New Haven’s Italian diaspora has a population of less than 3,90010. Italians are blended into New Haven’s community almost seamlessly, and are much less a topic of political discussion than that of tourists who visit the area’s Italian restaurants and markets.

Part II: Latin-American immigrants in New Haven

Today, New Haven’s prevailing immigrant group is Latin-American immigrants, primarily migrating from Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala.11 While New Haven’s population is overall much larger today than in the early 20th century, Latin-American immigrants and ethnically identifying hispanics represent almost the same portion of the population that Italian’s did-26%. Today, about 1 in 8 New Haven children are immigrants, and 1 in 5 children have at least one foreign-born parent.12 Despite similarity in numbers, Italian students and Latino students are unlikely to have similar experiences in New Haven’s schools due to more recent reforms, changes to curriculum, and more positive attitudes and perceptions of education amongst today’s latino immigrant groups. Instead, the unfortunate experiences and early outcomes of Italian immigrant students offer us reason to support these positive changes, rather than reverse them.

One of the major factors contributing to illiteracy and low-proficiency of Italian students was the slow rate at which they learned English. In reality, most students suffered from having no english-language acquisition programs, and in many of the earlier cases, only went to school to avoid truancy and violation of compulsory attendance laws. While today’s schools are now required to provide English language tutoring programs to aid students as they learn English, New Haven is a city which has expanded beyond simply offering ESL (english as a second language) and ELL (english language learner) courses. In new haven’s schools, more than 60 languages are spoken, and 23% of children identify with a language other than English as their primary language. Spanish is only second to English as the most spoken language amongst students.13 The New Haven school district prioritizes these students by offering tutoring, and language acquisition classes and offer even more specific programs for Spanish-speaking students. The district’s “Newcomer” program groups Spanish-speaking students by grade (K-8) into their own classrooms where language acquisition is a priority (students typically have 10 to 30 months of experience with English). Other and older students partake in ELL or private ESL courses, but some form of language acquisition is mandatory as per Title III, a federal program known as the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act (a part of No Child Left Behind). Outcomes are positive for students in the program, by about five years, the students are 80% proficient in English, a stark difference from the Italian immigrants of the early 20th century. 14 New haven even boasts a bilingual inter-district magnet school, the John C Daniels School of International Communication, where students participate in curriculums that are taught in English, Spanish, and Mandarin-Chinese. In a report published by the Community foundation for Greater New Haven, the reasoning for concepts such as bilingual programs was “The variety exposes all students to different values and experiences, which prepare them to work in diverse environments and live with tolerance later in life.”15

Unlike the experiences of Italians, the concept of inclusion versus assimilation is stronger in the city’s response to today’s immigrants than it was in the past. Specifically, Latin-American immigrant youth and parents also report more positive feelings towards the system. Like Italians, many latin-american immigrants are low skilled laborers who come to work in manufacturing, or agriculture. Unlike Italians, Latin-Americans of today have more positive perspectives on Education, and are more likely to view it as a means of upward mobility for their next generation. 97% of surveyed children of immigrants in New Haven proclaimed education as “critical” to their future in the U.S.16, reflecting the likelihood of more positive attitudes and less resentment at home towards education. Among its many programs which benefit immigrant students, New Haven also created the New Haven Promise Scholarship Program to help foreign-born students (regardless of immigration status) pay for college. Overall, the city has an increased awareness and many immigrant-friendly organizations. In 2009, the city also launched a district-wide campaign with harsher punishment for under-performing teachers and more funding for community outreach programs. The results of this campaign were significant, as student achievement went up nearly 20 percentage points across the board17.


All in all, Italians and Latinos are comparable groups in both numbers and demographics, but their experiences in New Haven’s public schools vary greatly. In the early years of the 20th century, Italian’s lacked opportunity to learn english, and subsequently succeed in the classroom, leaving many students illiterate or barely proficient until they were old enough to leave school. This form of passive discrimination continued until the expansion of secondary school, and Italian youth and parents finally gave into the reversal of their cultural roles and norms. Had Italians immigrated to New Haven today, they would have experienced a very different climate, one that puts english-language acquisition first so that the student can succeed, and one that encourages and embraces the diverse nature of their public schools through bilingualism, and community involvement.


1 “New Haven City, Connecticut Data” U.S. Census Bureau.  2014  <

2  Page 5, Figure 02:  “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

3 “Hispanic/Catholic Fact Sheet.”  2014  <>

4  Lassonde, Stephen. “Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working-class 1870-1940.” Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2005.

5  “Immigration:  Italian.”  Library of Congress Online.  <>

6  Preface, 19:  Riccio, Anthony. “The Italian American Experience In New Haven”  SUNY.  2006.

7 Riccio, Anthony. “The Italian American Experience In New Haven”  SUNY.  2006.

8  Pages 57-59:  Lassonde, Stephen. “Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working-class 1870-1940.” Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2005.

9  Pages 57-59:  Lassonde, Stephen. “Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working-class 1870-1940.” Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2005.

10 “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

11 “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

12Page 6: “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

13  Zahn, Brian.  “More than 60 Languages Spoken in New Haven Schools.”  the New Haven Register. 9 January, 2016.  <>

14  Zahn, Brian.  “More than 60 Languages Spoken in New Haven Schools.”  the New Haven Register. 9 January, 2016.  <>

15 “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

16  Page 14: “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

17  “New Haven Public Schools”  US Department of Education.  2009.<>

Waiting for Superman-Video Analysis

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Emma Palmieri

Ed Reform

17 April 2016

Video Analysis: Davis Guggenheim, Waiting for Superman (2010)

In his 2010 film documentary Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim combs through the many complexities of public education as he follows the stories of five families and the obstacles they must navigate through in order to ensure their kids receive the best (public) educations within their grasp. While all five children from the families in the documentary come from different backgrounds, cities, states, and economic brackets, Guggenheim illustrates for the viewer just how all five of these children are affected by even the smallest ripple effects in our public educational system. 

Four out of the five children live in poor, urban areas and are already attending (or will soon be forced to attend) failing public schools for elementary, middle or high school.  The first child we meet, Anthony, lives with his grandparents, never knew his mom, and has a father that died of a drug overdose while he was young.  Anthony and his grandmother recognize the importance of his education, and are entering him in the lottery to attend SEED Charter School.  Daisy is on the cusp of middle school, planning to attend one of the worst middle schools in LA if she does not get into her lottery choice of KIPP LA Prep.  Francisco is a first grader in the Bronx, already attending a failing school and struggling deeply with reading despite his mother’s best efforts), his choice is to attend the Harlem Success Academy.  Bianca is a kindergartner attending a $500 per month parochial school in Harlem, but because her mother struggles to make the tuition, they are hoping she will be chosen to also attend the Harlem Success Academy.  The final child, Emily, is an eight grader who live in an affluent area and would likely do very well in her public school, but her parents do not want her to attend a school that tracks its students, so they are entering her in the lottery for Summit Preparatory Charter High School.

In the first scene of Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim describes how his perceptions of public school have changed since his last documentary (The First Year, 1999) to today as he becomes a parent with school-age children and conveys the struggles of the five families he follows with a single quote of his own: “Ten years later, it was time to choose a school for my own children.  And then reality set in-My feelings about public ed didn’t matter as much as my fear of sending them to a failing school.  And so every morning, betraying the ideals I live by, I drive past 3 public schools as I take my kids to a private school.  But I’m lucky-I have a choice”  (04:00).  The five families Guggenheim follows for the purpose of the documentary have the opposite experience, they are the “unlucky” ones, who must put their faith in a lottery or their local district schools.   

Throughout the documentary, key figures such as Geoffrey Canada, Michele Rhee, and Bill gates narrate the issues facing America’s children today.  Canada (president of the Harlem Children’s Zone) and Rhee (former controversial superintendent of Washington, DC 2007-2010) describe an abysmal system protected by bureaucrats, special interest groups and the ultimate iron shield-the teacher’s unions.  Michele Rhee, a Washington, DC superintendent famous for taking on the teacher’s unions and ruthlessly firing teachers and closing schools made one of the most compelling statements in the documentary when she described her journey of taking on teachers who view their jobs as “rights” instead of “privileges”.  Rhee decided that instead of offering tenured teacher’s contracts, she would offer merit based pay with incentive based bonuses.  When she was completely shut down by the teachers’ unions, she stated: “Now I see in more coherent ways why things are the way they are-it all becomes about the adults” (1:26:00).  What is compelling about this statement, is that whether or not one agrees with Rhee’s methodology, who is really vulnerable in this situation? Why do teachers feel so threatened by the idea of merit based pay?

  While issues of political agendas and how it affects our own children were a common theme in the documentary, The children of Waiting for Superman are living the reality.  Even though academics such as Richard Khalenberg and Halley Potter (A Smarter Charter) might criticize the growth of charter schools and their academic results, there is clearly something to be said when over 700 children are entering a lottery for just 40 spots at one charter school (which was the case for Francisco and Bianca and the Harlem Success Academy). All of the children we follow in the documentary had between a 5 and 50% chance of getting into their school of choice, all of which schools were charter schools.  Unfortunately for the children of the documentary, only Anthony and Emily were able to make it into their schools, while Bianca, Daisy, and Francisco will be left to the mercy of their local district schools.

   waiting for superman

(1:37:32) Bianca and her mother Nakia crying together after Bianca was not chosen in the lottery for the Harlem Success Academy. 

This documentary was compelling because it forces the viewer to look beyond their comfortable position as someone who “believes” in public schools and their teachers and instead look at the situation through the perspective of the student and the parents, who cannot stop time and wait for public schools to make a miraculous recovery before their child is due to enter a new grade or school next year.  The reality is that these kids need help, not hope, and the parents are turning to anything that offers an innovation from what they know is already failing.


Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.

Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. A Smarter Charter: Finding WhatWorks for Charter Schools and Public Education. Teachers College Press.  2014. 

Home Educators Advocate and Show their Appreciation at CT State Capitol

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Emma Palmieri

Ed Journalism Assignment


On Wednesday, March 23rd I attended CT’s Home Educator’s Day at the state capitol eager to get a glimpse into the illusive world of homeschooled students.  Even as an Educational Studies major at Trinity College I do not often encounter or interact with homeschooled students or those educating them.   The event was organized by families and organizations across the state, including The Education Association of Christian Homeschoolers (TEACH), Connecticut Homeschool Network (CHN), and the National Home Education Legal Defense (NHELD).   I was eager to speak with individuals from all three groups or at least gain some information on their motivations, why there is such a large christian homeschool presence, and (as many of them had experience with the public school system) why they now actively advocate for homeschool instead of, for example, public school reform.

The day persisted was scheduled into several events which included meeting with legislators, presentations by homeschoolers, and activities for the children attending.  I arrived during the “displays and presentations” portion of the day, where different organizations, families and homeschool networks were presenting their work and achievements as well as advocating and pitching homeschool to those who may be interested or on the fence.   There were about 10 displays, most of which belonged to a christian homeschool network known as Classical Conversations or TEACH, another christian faith based homeschool organization.  Several of the other displays belonged to a caterer distributing free cookies (to show appreciation/spread awareness for homeschooling), the CT Homeschool Network, and NHELD who were distributing information on homeschoolers’ rights and how to handle social workers if you should encounter one.

The women working the Classical Conversations table were the first to approach me. Most of their displays were filled with art or science homework and projects completed by homeschooled children or teens.  I explained that I am an Educational Studies major at Trinity College interested in learning about homeschool, but because I was eager to hear their sales pitch, I also explained that I am a parent with a child who will be of kindergarten age next year.   Both of the women I spoke with had been homeschooling for 7 years, and their children had never been to public school.  Why homeschool? I asked.  Their responses were intertwined with their faith based motivations.  They wanted a “more realistic” and domestic experience for their children than public school provided, and  also to cultivate good morals.   When I asked how the faith based approach influences their curriculum, one response was: “We do teach science, but we also teach that God created us, he is the center of the universe.  We recite the 10 Commandments every day.  Stuff like ‘thou shalt not kill’, we do that every morning.”  She also explained that they educate their children at home every day, and meet collectively through the Classical Conversations network once a week to discuss progress and catch up.  The women explained that they receive some training through the network through home-educators workshops, and that they are encouraged to purchase curriculum materials via the Classical Conversations organization.  My final question for the women was how a low income family with two working adults or even a single parent family could afford to homeschool their child, the women I spoke with did have admittedly biased responses as they both had husbands who worked full time for livable wages while they stayed home to homeschool their children “You just make it work, I guess” was the response of one woman, the other nodded in agreement.  I thanked them for their time and information.

Because I arrived during the displays portion of the day, I unfortunately was not able to speak with a legislator about recent accomplishments of homeschoolers.  Through some brief research, though, I discovered homeschool is on the rise.  Homeschool is legal across all 50 states (though some do have different laws/regulations) and by 2011, roughly 3.4% of all school-aged children were homeschooled.  Connecticut alone is estimated to have about 24,000 homeschooled students.  While Connecticut’s numbers are not unique (many states also estimate this number of home-schoolers), more populated states such as California and Florida record an estimate of between 100,000-200,000+ students electing homeschool over public or private institutions.  I am grateful to have been able to attend Connecticut Homeschool day at the state capitol to learn about home-educators as well as for the information I was graciously provided by representatives of Classical Conversations, TEACH, CHN, and NHELD.


In the Concourse Lobby with Displays by Homeschoolers and organizations behind me.  

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Emma Palmieri’s Learning Goals

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Having gone from a community college to an Educational Studies major and non-traditional student at a small private liberal arts college in New England, I’m interested in education from a historical context and what shaped it into what I know and experience today, as well as what people in the past have experienced.

Trinity College IDP program

IDP Photos
IDP Students at Trinity College