“[Facilities] is one of our biggest issues, as it is for many other charter schools,” said ISL board chair Matthew Amoss during the school’s monthly board meeting Wednesday. “We’re always cramped for space, and we always have way too many people wanting to come to ISL, more than we have spots.”
ISL’s struggle with space issues at Camp Street has been growing year by year, as more students stay from its popular lower grades all the way into middle school. How to handle the problem dominated the school board’s meetings for much of the last school year, starting in October 2012 when the idea of moving Camp Street’s upper grades to Algiers drew large crowds of parents in opposition. In the spring of 2013, the board decided to ease the overcrowding by leasing extra space on Thalia Street, but that deal unexpectedly fell through, forcing the school to add modular buildings just prior to school restarting in the fall of 2013.
Even the space in the modulars (and the shotgun “cottage” the school owns) are not enough to accommodate the needs of a full, four-section-per-grade K-8 school, said Head of School Sean Wilson. The main building has 31 classrooms, the cottage holds two and the modulars hold eight — a total of 41 rooms, when the current need is for an estimated 54 rooms, Wilson said. The current configuration only works because every possible enrichment classroom has been sacrificed — there is no art room, for example, and no space for students who need to one-on-one or small-group remediation.
“There’s never anywhere to put our kids,” Wilson said.
As the school year comes to a close, Wilson has drafted an analysis of possibilities for Camp Street that include a number of options. They are not ranked in any order, and are only considered starting points for discussion moving forward:
- Leave Camp Street building for a new, larger location. If the school bought a new location, it would no longer be subject to the land-use decisions of the Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District. But they also know that many families are strongly attached to Camp Street, and enrollment could suffer if the school moves outright.
- Split the lower and upper grades into two campuses. This would have the advantage of easing overcrowding immediately, and a location could be easier to find for a middle school than for the full K-8 campus. But school leaders strongly favor keeping the youngest and oldest students on a single campus as part of the school’s culture, and the plan would inconvenience parents with children in different grades.
- Move the current program from Camp Street to a new, larger location, but keep the building for a new charter. ISL expanded first to the Westbank and then to Jefferson Parish, and envisions a future with enough lower schools to feed into a single new high school.
- Reduce the number of incoming classes to two or three sections per grade instead of the current four. This would only help slowly, and could make it difficult for the upper grades to retain students.
- Discontinue the middle school program. The lower grades could keep four sections per grade and restore the enrichment areas, but it would essentially harm ISL’s educational offerings to the community.
- Offer only one language at Camp Street, instead of two currently. This would have a similar effect to reducing to 50 incoming students, but would still force families in one language track to move.
Each of the options comes with its own set of considerations about cafeteria space and play areas as well.
Another possibility not currently considered by the draft facilities plan would be to create some sort of expansion at the Camp Street campus itself, similar to the new wings currently being added behind Audubon Charter School’s Broadway campus. But that, too, would leave many issues unsolved — ownership of the building, for example — as well as face substantial hurdles from the city government and from neighbors.
Wilson said that parental discussion of these options with the board will be important as soon as possible.
“We really need to engage our parents early on to talk about what’s viable,” Wilson said.
The strategy to move forward is currently being handled by the school board’s planning and development committees, and board chair Matt Amoss said he expects it to dominate board meetings through the spring.
“Through the end of this school year, we’re going to focus on this,” Amoss said.