Westbank expansion finalized, International School considers acquiring struggling schools in Orleans or Jefferson

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Nobert Estrella, the new principal of the Westbank campus of the International School of Louisiana opening next year, speaks to assistant principal Rosa Alvareda (left) and principal Melanie Tennyson of the ISL Eastbank campus. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

With its new Westbank campus in hand and a principal for it hired, the International School of Louisiana is now preparing for the possibility of further expansion through acquiring low-performing schools around New Orleans.

After months of negotiations with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, ISL has finalized the lease on the Holy Name of Mary site in Algiers Point and taken possession of the building. When renovations are complete, the school is planning an open house in July, Head of Schools Sean Wilson reported at a Wednesday night meeting of the ISL board.

The school has also hired Nobert Estrella to serve as principal of the Westbank campus. Estrella, a native of the Dominican Republic, is currently assistant principal of South Plaquemines Elementary in Port Sulphur, but previously served as principal and assistant principal of schools in New Orleans, and Wilson praised Estrella’s “experience in moving students from below-grade level to grade level.”

Greeting the board with both a Spanish gracias and a French merci, Estrella said he studied French throughout school before taking his first job as a Spanish teacher. Leading a school that immerses children in both subjects, he said, represents a perfect opportunity.

“I feel like this is a little gift, a little slice of heaven,” Estrella said. Referring to the third language taught at the school, Mandarin, Estrella joked, “And in six to eight months, I plan to know a little Chinese.”

With the major pieces of the Westbank campus in place, the board is once again considering the possibility of other expansion. On Wednesday, board president Grant Ligon described a series of “letters of intent” the school is sending to the state Department of Education that signal ISL’s interest in possibly acquiring a low-performing school that will be reassigned to a new operator this summer.

Though details have not been released, the state Recovery School District is soon to determine which chronically-underperforming schools and need a new operator, Ligon said. In order to be eligible for consideration, Ligon said, the school is sending letters expressing interest in various types of new charter schools in Orleans and Jefferson parishes under the name “Global Academy of Louisiana,” a name Wilson said would allow the new school to be differentiated from ISL.

“The mission of the Global Academy of Louisiana is to provide an open-admission, rigorous public school education focused on multi-lingual learning, international awareness, respect for world cultures, the celebration of diversity and community responsibility,” the letter reads.

ISL does not have its eye on any particular school, and may ultimately choose not to assume one at all. But board members have long expressed the desire to grow the ISL model into multiple campuses, and the letters of intent are a necessary first step, Ligon said.

“We’re just setting a place at the table,” Ligon explained.

The school does not take the responsibility of operating a new school lightly, he noted. Based on this year’s test results, the school’s preliminary estimate is for a school performance score of 110, up seven points from the current year’s 102.7.

“It’s taken years to get this school where it is,” Ligon said.

The continued improvement in test scores this year drew praise from the board. The number of students scoring “basic” or better rose from 77 percent in 2009-10 to 88 percent in 2010-11, and math grew even more dramatically, from 74 percent last year to 91 percent this year. The proportion of students scoring above average (either “mastery” or “advanced”) doubled in each subject, from 22 percent in English to 43 percent, and from 17 percent to 35 in math.

“It takes a phenomenal amount of work to move students from one band to another band,” Wilson said.

New board members John Wettermark (left) and Duane Drucker (center) speak with incoming board president Andrew Yon after the ISL board meeting Wednesday night. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

“This is that progression that we’ve talked about,” replied board member Andrew Yon. “The true measure of success is not that every kid is at advanced or mastery, but that in total, kids are improving every year.”

Finally, two new members joined the board, Duane Drucker and John Wettermark. The board also voted for next year’s officers: Andrew Yon was chosen next year’s president; Matt Amoss will be vice president, and Charlie Hadley will be treasurer.

To read live coverage of the meeting, click in the box below.

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