Under new leadership, New London's ISAAC welcomes back students

New London — It was a flurry of activity in the city’s downtown on Wednesday, as middle school students returned to classes at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication.

ISAAC, as it is called, holds a unique place in the landscape of school choices available in the region these days. It is the city’s only nonprofit public charter school and is governed by a board of directors rather than a school board.

School leaders say ISAAC continues to thrive at offering a theme and project-based education with a diverse, small-school environment.

Two of the school leaders among the group offering high-fives to students entering the school on Wednesday are familiar faces in New London.

ISAAC Interim Executive Director Louis E. Allen Jr. spent more than two decades in New London Public Schools, where he helped develop and lead the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, among other roles.

Jaye Wilson, the retired former principal at Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School, is ISAAC’s interim principal.

Wilson grinned when asked about her new position and said while she had enjoyed retirement, she was also excited to be part of a school with a “family atmosphere.” She called ISAAC a "well-kept secret" and said part of her role would be to ensure the community knows what the school has to offer.

The school, the four-story brick building at 190 Governor Winthrop Boulevard that used to be home to the YMCA, hosts 276 students in grades six through eight. It maintains close ties with its neighbor, the Garde Arts Center, and other local partners as part of the arts-themed curriculum.

About 50 percent of students come from outside New London.

Board of Directors Vice Chairwoman Heather Doughty, whose three children attended ISAAC, said the school strives to update its offerings in the face of competition and follows a rigorous EL Education curriculum model, something formerly known Expeditionary Learning.

It added Spanish class this year, is exploring more after-school and sports offerings and piloted a summer educational program. The school also added a safety officer this year.

Board Chairman Christopher Jones said that behind the scenes, work this year is focused on meeting requirements of a state charter renewal. The school is in its fifth year of a five-year charter renewal and will follow a process over the coming months that includes visits from state officials, public meetings and finally a recommendation on renewal from the commissioner of education.

Doughty said charter schools in Connecticut are highly regulated compared to those in other states.

One of the tasks at hand for the school’s board of directors is deciding whether to have a principal and executive director or a single position, as has been done in the past. Allen and Wilson, who both are expected to stay for the year, have limits on how much they can earn under state statute as retirees from a public school system. The law states they can receive no more than 45 percent of the "maximum full-time annual salary rate for the assigned position.”

Allen was hired shortly after the resignation of former executive director David Howes in April and after a search turned up no viable candidates for the position.

The school is funded by the state at $11,250 per student, with some additional funding for programming coming through grants.

The idea for the school, which received its charter from the state Board of Education in 1997-1998, came from parents who had helped create the nearby Regional Multicultural Magnet School and continued the vision of integrating art, music and multicultural education.

Board member Lee Cornish-Muller, during a brief tour of the school, said the proof of the success of the school is on the students’ accomplishments when they reach high school and the number who later return to visit.

“It creates a lasting impression,” Cornish-Muller said. “They don’t forget their experiences here.”

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: ISAAC received its charter from the state Board of Education in 1997-1998. Information in an earlier version was incorrect.

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