When Treme star Wendell Pierce is pouring drinks this weekend as celebrity bartender for the International School of Louisiana’s 8th Annual Refrigerator Art Auction patron party, it won’t be the first collaboration between the civic-minded actor and the quickly-growing school — nor is it likely to be the last.
Pierce, who is spearheading the redevelopment of the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood where he grew up, first became acquainted with ISL through neighboring families with children at the school, he said. As he began researching charter schools that might be a good fit for the neighborhood, ISL’s history of success since several years before Hurricane Katrina stood out.
“They have a record that’s pretty admirable,” Pierce said in a telephone interview this week. “I love the idea of foreign-language immersion. I wish that it was something I had done when I was a kid.”
ISL board president Andrew Yon said he first met Pierce at a Refrigerator Art Auction two years ago, recognizing him from his work on The Wire (about a month before the HBO premiere of Treme). They struck up a conversation, and soon afterward, a meeting convened between ISL leaders, Pierce and a handful of Pontchartrain Park neighborhood parents to discuss the possibility of ISL coming into the nearby Mary Coghill school, where Pierce’s mother was a teacher for 30 years — though the challenge of placing a full language-immersion program into an existing school was deemed to be significant. Several months later, ISL found out that it had been awarded a major grant to open a new campus on the Westbank, and attention shifted to that expansion instead.
Now, a new opportunity for partnership has arisen. The Recovery School District is opening a new campus on the Parkview Elementary site near Pontchartrain Park this fall, and the Mary Coghill program is slated to move there — leaving its existing building without immediate plans. The neighbors want to ensure the old Coghill building remains a school, however, and Pierce remains enthusiastic about ISL.
“It would bring a multitude of choices for the kids of neighborhood,” Pierce said.
“ISL is one of those charter schools with a premier record and a good approach,” he continued, noting the school’s French, Spanish and Chinese language tracks. “Some of the most successful people in the world benefit from being able to go into all those different markets, no matter what field they go into. When someone has that opportunity, their goals in life are expanded. Greater opportunity means greater ideas, and that means greater entrepreneurship and growth.”
Pierce recalled traveling to Beijing for the Olympics in 2008. “Can you imagine a French field trip, or a Chinese field trip?” he asked.
Much of the education reform debate is really a veiled struggle over resources, Pierce said, such as the governor’s proposal for vouchers that would shift public tax dollars to private schools or charters that do not accept students with special needs or low test scores. By contrast, he said he admires the spirit of openness at ISL.
“Our growth, our success and our wealth hinges on access to education for all,” Pierce said.
Meanwhile, ISL has continued to aggressively pursue expansion opportunities. After the opening of the Westbank campus last year, the school successfully obtained a charter to open a new school in Jefferson Parish this fall. The board had also applied for other expansion opportunities in New Orleans, but were initially turned down and decided not to reapply and instead focus on the new Jefferson Parish campus.
But Pontchartrain Park remains an excellent opportunity, Yon said. Great schools and great neighborhoods have a “symbiosis,” he said, and a leader like Pierce could help overcome any bureaucratic hurdles that might arise.
“The whole neighborhood is an incredible story, and to have someone like Wendell as a champion for it — both of those seem like great conditions for any new school,” Yon said. “He has so much presence in the city that having him on your side — that’s how you get things to happen.”
Between now and then, however, there is the Refrigerator Art Auction this Sunday. At the patron party, Pierce said he plans to serve drinks that both of his signature characters — Bunk from The Wire, and Antoine from Treme — would enjoy, as well as his own playing a new role of sorts.
“I enjoy being the bartender, listening to people’s troubles, even at a fundraiser. It’s going to be fun,” Pierce said. “Belly up to the bar, and Antoine Batiste will be your bartender.”