Language-immersion program opens on Jeff campus

The neighborhood is one of the oldest in Jefferson Parish. Located off a busy area of Airline Drive, the area is quiet and dotted with homes with simple landscapes and residents who look out for one another.

This is the end of Simon Street in Metairie, a parcel of land that for years was the site of Ralph Bunche School. But this year, a new school with a different name and a different approach will open.

The faculty and staff of the Jefferson campus of The International School of Louisiana will welcome 400 students entering kindergarten through eighth grades on Wednesday.

The school has two additional campuses, Uptown at 1420 Camp St. and on the West Bank at 502 Olivier St., Algiers. And leading all three campuses as the head of school for ISL is New Orleans native Sean Wilson.

“I am looking forward to seeing lots of smiles when we open next week,” Wilson said. “Our teachers and staff at all three campuses are ready to get a new school year underway and we are especially excited about our new location in Metairie.”

Last year, ISL’s Jefferson campus was in the Jefferson Parish Public School System’s east bank administrative building on Clearview Parkway near Harahan. Space was at a premium.

In contrast, the new Jefferson location sprawls over five acres of land and has nine buildings that will be utilized as classrooms, a library, administrative offices, a cafeteria, an office of development and a conference room/teacher resource center.

There is also a large gymnasium and an outdoor athletic field.

“We are making use of all our space we have at this new location,” Wilson said.

Prior to ISL’s move, the site was the location for Bunche Accelerated Academy for High School Preparation and before that, Bunche Middle School. Last year, Bunche closed and students were relocated to Alfred Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School in Kenner.

ISL was founded in 2000 by a group of parents who envisioned a public school offering a foreign language-based academic program. ISL was Louisiana’s first language immersion charter school.

Serving first on the executive board of ISL’s Family, Teacher and Community Organization, Wilson joined the ISL administrative team as director of business operations in 2006 and oversaw the Uptown location’s post-Katrina recovery as interim executive director. He was officially named head of the school in May 2007.

“When our kindergarten students come to the ISL, their families select one of two foreign languages they want their child to learn — French or Spanish,” Wilson explained. “So when the students walk into their classroom that very first day, every core academic subject is taught in either Spanish or French and that includes reading or language arts, math, spelling, art, science and music.

“No English is spoken in the classroom.”

Wilson said that about seven weeks into a new school year, teachers “start to begin to see a change in their students.”

“We have a one week break in October and in the past, when the kids have returned to school after that break, you can see real results,” he said. “They are speaking French or Spanish with more confidence and are eager to learn more.”

Those entering first grade have the foundations of French and Spanish and are able to speak and write sentences. And Wilson said that by the time children reach second grade, they are bilingual.

“After that, the sky’s the limit,” Wilson said.

Amy Berins Shapiro is the president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization. She has three children enrolled at the Jefferson ISL campus — Lilly, a fifth-grader, Zach, a fourth-grader and Emma, a second-grader. All three are in Spanish immersion.

“One of the first questions most parents ask is how does your child adjust to the school in terms of the language immersion aspect,” Shapiro said. “Children are like sponges, and their brains are able to absorb so much, especially pick up on foreign languages, when they are young.

“I love that my children are exposed to languages, diversity and culture. Being multilingual, I feel, will give them an edge when it comes to their future and having more job opportunities. In fact, Lily’s confidence was boosted when her teacher told her that she speaks as fluent in Spanish as do native speakers her age.”

Wilson, who grew up in Marrero, received his undergraduate degree in psychology and business, and his master’s degree in business management, both from the University of New Orleans. He taught math and science at Charles J. Colton and Fannie C. Williams School in New Orleans before entering the private sector to work in accounting.

“I enjoy the business side of what happens within an organization,” Wilson said. “I also enjoy being with and around people who are energized and optimistic. And I am fortunate that have a lot of support from my staff, our board and our families.

“We have students from all faiths and walks of life represented at our schools. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. The emphasis we place on the multi-lingual aspect of education and our diversity helps to create for the students an awareness of the world around them. And hopefully from this experience, they will be able to see the world more holistically and how important it is to be inclusive to everyone in their community. ”