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Michele Brambilla

MILAN - Some stories do have a happy ending. The most multiethnic school in Italy, Lombardo Radice public school in Milan, had a new batch of first graders again this week.

Last year it wasn't allowed to open to a new incoming elementary school class because it had "too many foreigners." It had appeared to be an action that would de facto condemn the longstanding school, considered a model of successful integration, to be closed permanently within five years.

Instead, on Wednesday morning, 21 six-year-olds showed up for first grade at the school entrance at 83 Via Pier Alessandro Paravia, in the San Siro neighborhood near Milan's famous soccer stadium.

Eighteen of the pupils are foreign, a proportion in line with Lombardo Radice's tradition. Two years ago the school had 93 foreign students, from 27 different nationalities, out of a total of 97 children; last year the number was 80 out of 93. This year, if the count is correct, foreigners will make up 83 % of the student body.

But what does "foreign" actually mean here? Of the first grade's 18 "non-Italian-citizen children" (none of whom are EU citizens), 14 were born in Italy, and every one of them went to nursery school in Milan.

"To us, they are little Milanese children," says Deputy Mayor Maria Grazia Guida, who was at opening day Wednesday, along with all the others who have been working for the past year to save the school.

But why was the school put on the road to closure? Because under the Berlusconi government, a decree from Minister of Education Mariastella Gelmini set a rule that no more than 30% of a class could be foreign children.

The rule has now been abolished by the new minister, Francesco Profumo. "It was not at all a figure picked out of the air. The 30% is a quota indicated by the best experts on integration," says Diana De Marchi of the center-left Democratic party. "But we have tried to show that this needs to be interpreted case by case. When the children were born in Italy and have gone to nursery school in Italy, there are only minor language problems in integrating them."

In short, laws should be made for people, and not vice versa. "It’s more important to look at the children's biographies, where they were born, where they have gone to school; whereas last year they only looked at their surnames," De Marchi adds.

For many families the closing of the school was a real blow. The school is among the only government institutions in this poor pocket of the more well-to-do neighborhood of San Siro. For many children, but also for their parents, it was their best chance for integration. Fathers and mothers turned to the courts, in vain; children wrote to Italian President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano. In the end, the battle was won.

Still, the story is not completely over. Deputy Mayor Guida says, "The city will be supporting the school to help with any eventual problems, and we are planning initiatives to collaborate with the Via Giusti elementary school that's close by."

Via Giusti is the school to which many Italian parents send their children, out of worry about excessive "multiethnicity" in the Via Paravia school. Thus two worlds have been created: almost entirely Italian in Via Giusti, almost entirely foreign in Via Paravia.

“Now, we will be getting the Italian parents from Via Giusti involved," adds Maria Grazia Guida. "The goal is for the students to be distributed in a more balanced way between the two schools next year. The world is facing a great transformation, and as Cardinal Scola (the Archbishop of Milan) has said, we need to understand that diversity is enriching."

At Wednesday's school opening, the second grade was missing. But that is the consequence of what is now only an unpleasant memory for the Via Paravia school.

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