By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 14, 2003 at 5:25 AM

You'd think that serving as the Wisconsin State Coordinator for the National Italian American Foundation and executive administrator of WisItalia, on top of his day-job as director of business development for Jabas Group, an employee benefits consulting firm, would be enough. But Al Rolandi, a man with apparently unlimited energy, took yet another important role in Wisconsin when he was appointed president of the newly installed Midwest chapter of the Italian American Chamber of Commerce in Wisconsin, a branch of the Chicago group.

The Italian government obviously considers the new IACC group to be an important step as the Chicago-based General Consul, Enrico Granara, made the trip to Milwaukee in May for the announcement.

"A lot of Italian companies are finding out about the Midwest and seeing that it's a really great place to establish a company," says Rolandi. He says he hopes his other positions within Wisconsin will bring "all the resources he can muster," together for the Italian community.

"It's just over two years old, and it's changing policy. It's amazing," says Al Rolandi, executive administrator of WisItalia, a non-profit organization which aims to integrate Italian language classes into Wisconsin schools.

If you ask Rolandi to talk about his organization, you'd better make sure you've got a seat and some time. The man passionate about his cause. And with Rolandi leading WisItalia since its formation in December 2000, you can bet that a few things have been accomplished.

It began when Rolandi, as the Wisconsin coordinator of the National Italian American Federation, was meeting with Italian groups and universities all over Wisconsin, and became impressed with the consciousness level of Italian heritage he was seeing in his state. He says he learned that the University of Wisconsin had one of the largest and most esteemed Italian language programs in the nation, and that some of Wisconsin's economic bloodlines like GE, Kohler and SE Johnson Wax, have strong affiliations with Italy.

"I thought, wow, how could that be, without any kind of feeder system?" says Rolandi. He also learned of the many companies in Wisconsin were Italian owned, like CIFA USA, Inc., a worldwide concrete product supplier in Cudahy. "It was amazing what we were uncovering," says Rolandi, adding with fervor, "Non c'e' cultura senza la lingua," meaning 'without the language there is no culture.'

Two years ago, when Rolandi helped form WisItalia, despite what the strong Italian ties in Wisconsin, the Italian language was not being taught in any elementary or secondary school in Wisconsin.

"Italian is an important language for our future workforce, and we need to prepare students to be competitive in the international market of ideas, the arts, business and politics," says UWM Professor Robin Pickering Iazzi, coordinator of the university's Italian Program. "I would also note that there are significant communities of Italian Americans (in Wisconsin), who want their children to have the opportunity to learn Italian."

Paul Sandrock, a consultant in Foreign Language Education at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, says there are several motivators that draw schools to teach certain languages, including the heritage of the particular student and the language population in any given area. He also says that economics can be very important, explaining that students are often motivated to study a particular language based on future career plans.

Rolandi contends that this is one major reason schools should be looking to include Italian language classes in their curriculum. WisItalia's Web site names several large companies in Wisconsin that are Italian owned or have a "strong Italian interest," including Case Corp. (CNH) in Racine (owned by the FIAT auto empire, which is itself part owned by GM, completing the circle with the Midwest). The site also lists 86 companies in Wisconsin that export or have production in Italy. About 25 percent of international exports from the Green Bay area alone are headed to Italy.

"Companies will pay thousands (of dollars) to educate people to work in Italy if they're doing business there," says Rolandi.

Iazzi concurs. "I have received increasing numbers of calls from companies in Wisconsin that need graduates who have strong communication skills in Italian," she says.

Armed with reason and raring to go, Rolandi set about establishing a group to carry out the goal of fostering Italian in Wisconsin schools, but he didn't want it to be just any old advocacy group.

"If we were going to have an organization promoting the Italian language, it's got to be statewide, and it needs to be highly accredited," says Rolandi. So he formed a group which included seven Italian professors from UW System schools, an attorney and a former congressman.

"And it wasn't just Italian people," says Rolandi. "It was friends of the Italian culture, too."

One of the first charter projects that WisItalia worked on was implementing two Italian language classes at Rufus King High School in 2001. The program was a success with 35 students enrolled in the classes during the first year. The number increased to 40 in the 2002-'03 year and the same number are enrolled for next year. Also new in September, King will introduce college level IB classes in Italian enabling students to earn college credits in the Italian courses.

Since then, WisItalia has helped to jump-start Italian language programs in the Kenosha School of the Arts, Edgerton High School, the continuation of two classes at Spring Harbor Middle school and four after-school Community Learning classes in Madison. This fall, Kenosha's Bradford and Tremper High Schools and Madison's La Follette High School will also begin Italian language programs due to efforts from WisItalia.

Similar groups, like the NOI Foundation, which works in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, have the same objective. WisItalia has connected with those groups to share knowledge, experiences and ideas.


Rolandi says that WisItalia is not language exclusionary, but rather the group supports a higher level of foreign language choice for the students.

"We are proponents of multiple languages tbeing aught -- not just Italian," says Rolandi. He says that in such a global economy, it makes sense to teach more languages with caps on class loads, instead of dropping classes to teach only one or two languages.

Rolandi explains that another alternative available to qualified high schoolers in Wisconsin is taking Italian language classes through Wisconsin's Youth Options Program. According to Wisconsin Statutes, some 11th and 12th graders at Wisconsin public schools can be eligible to take courses not offered within their district at a Wisconsin System University. The district may also be responsible for payment of the child's tuition for the class.

According to Jennifer Elsner, of the youth options program at UWM, two students have taken Italian language classes through the Youth Options Program in the past two years, both from MPS Schools.

"In partnership with WisItalia, we have established a section of first-semester Italian for high school students, to be offered in Fall through our off-campus program, and accessed through the Youth Options Program," says Iazzi. "This is an exciting initiative, and I hope the course fills a need for students and the community."

Rolandi says his group will continue to advocate for the Italian language in schools around Wisconsin, but acknowledges the group's accomplishments until now have been no small sweat.

"If you would have said two and a half years ago that we would be where we are now, I would have said that would be unbelievably fantastic," says Rolandi.