International School expands to meet demand for program

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  The International School of Louisiana is expanding all three campuses. The Jefferson  Parish school will be moving to its permanent home at the Bunche campus in Metairie next year. Here Sean Wilson, CEO and head of school, visits a first grade class Friday, April 5, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The International School of Louisiana is expanding all three campuses. The Jefferson Parish school will be moving to its permanent home at the Bunche campus in Metairie next year. Here Sean Wilson, CEO and head of school, visits a first grade class Friday, April 5, 2013.

The International School of Louisiana is expanding all three of its campuses next school year in answer to demand from the community for language immersion education, said Sean Wilson, head of the school.

Wilson said that the school typically has to turn away about two-thirds of applicants due to space restrictions.

With three campuses, including one on the West Bank and one in Jefferson Parish, the school will grow from approximately 1,100 students to about 1,300 students.

At board meetings over the past few years, some parents have expressed concern about expanding too much too quickly, but Wilson said that the goal is to provide more families with an opportunity to receive an immersion education.

The benefits of language immersion are wide-ranging, Wilson said. Children who are at least bilingual perform better academically and gain a broader perspective of the world and the place they play in it, he said.

With 29 countries represented among the faculty and staff, the students are exposed to many different cultures. “It’s like the world is brought to them,” Wilson said. “They see things differently. That experience alone sets a precedent for how they view the world.”

In sixth grade, all students are required to take a third language — Chinese. Wilson said that after he took a trip to China, he came back with the belief that Chinese will become the global language of business.

The Type 2 charter school, overseen directly by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, started in 2000. Following Hurricane Katrina, it moved from its flooded Canal Street campus to 1400 Camp St.

Next year, about 150 fourth and fifth grade students will be housed at a new location at 1516 Thalia St. The Uptown Campus offers French and Spanish language immersion to grades kindergarten to eight.

In 2010, Wilson applied for a Gulf Coast Recovery Grant to open a school on the West Bank. The school opened at 502 Olivier St. in Algiers Point in 2011 with the help of a $1 million grant, offering Spanish immersion to kindergartners. It is adding a grade each year until it reaches kindergarten to eight. Next year, a modular building will be added to house approximately 130 kindergarten and first-grade students.

In fall 2012, the school opened a campus in Harahan at a temporary location at 822 S. Clearview Ave.

At Tuesday night’s Jefferson Parish School Board meeting, the board approved an operating agreement for the International School to lease the site of the former Ralph J. Bunche Accelerated Academy in Metairie.

Bunche, which helped students who are least two grade levels behind accelerate their education to catch up in high school, closed last year as part of the district’s consolidation plan. Also based on the school’s low enrollment and persistent failing state grade, the decision was made to move the Bunche program into a high school.

Next year, the International School of Louisiana-Bunche Campus will open at 8101 Simon Ave. The school started with K-7 and next year will add an eight-grade, offering French and Spanish immersion to about 400 students.

The Jefferson Parish school will be led by Principal Adierah Berger, who stepped in as interim principal after the resignation of Nobert Estrella in December, who cited philosophical differences as his reason for departure.

The school is accepting applications from students for all three campuses, though students transferring into grades 2-5 are required to have previous language immersion experience.

With about 30 percent of the students coming into the school with Spanish as their native tongue, Wilson said that what the school can offer the metro area’s burgeoning Latino community is the “best of both worlds.”

The Spanish-speaking students are able to thrive academically by learning in their own language and hold onto their heritage, while also taking some courses in English and being immersed in an English-speaking world, he said.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the school is that “only the best and brightest need apply,” Wilson said.

Space permitting, the open admissions schools accepts and welcomes everyone, has a diverse student body and more than 50 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch.

In preparation for the expansion, the school has begun a fundraising campaign for equipment, renovations and to establish a library at the Bunche campus.

The school, whose state-calculated school performance score has steadily increased for the past five years and was 1.5 points shy of an A grade for the 2011-12 school year, will have its charter up for renewal in 2015.