An effort aims to open a French-language school in Terrebonne

Efforts by parents in Pointe-aux-Chênes to open a French-language school are heading for a vote at State House.

The action comes after the Terrebonne Parish School Board voted in April to close Pointe-aux-Chênes Elementary School, citing declining enrollment. The roughly 100 pupils started attending Montegut Primary School, about six kilometers away, from last fall.

Parents and Native American tribes in the small community had fought to keep the school open as a French immersion program.

Look:A documentary explores the fate of Pointe-aux-Chênes and its Native American residents

State Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, introduced Bill 261, which would pave the way for such a school to open. The bill, which is to be voted on at the State House on April 5, says the school would be located somewhere in the parish of Terrebonne, although supporters hope to open one in Pointe-aux-Chênes.

“French immersion is a natural fit in the community, and there is potential for it to become a destination school for other students coming to the parish,” Magee said.

The bill proposes to create École Pointe-au-Chien, a public French immersion school for students from pre-kindergarten to grade four. The school would operate independently of the control of the state superintendent of education and all local and state boards of education except its board of trustees.

According to the bill, the board would include:

  • Three members appointed by the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe.
  • A member appointed by the Jean Charles Isle Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana.
  • One member appointed by the Governor.
  • One member appointed by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.
  • One member appointed by the Consul General of France in Louisiana.

Board members will serve four-year terms.

Will McGrew, CEO of Télé-Louisiane, has worked with tribal members and other advocates since the school board decided to close the Pointe-aux-Chênes elementary school. He is one of the vice presidents of the nonprofit board set up to support the new school.

Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe members Donald and Theresa Dardar stand with Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary students Jaylynn Naquin, Nina Naquin, Jessie Herbert and Katalina Meza outside the school board office in the parish of Terrebonne to protest the proposed closure of the school in March 2021.

McGrew said organizers were considering options on when to open the school, which could happen as early as August.

“There’s a huge opportunity here to improve academic outcomes, and Pointe-aux-Chênes Elementary was already a good school,” McGrew said. “Adding French for students can help in the future to find jobs, connect with their community and their elders.”

Earlier:Pointe-aux-Chênes community reflects on importance of primary school as closure approaches

Most of the students at the former Pointe-aux-Chênes elementary school identify as Native Americans, including several members of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe. The tribe had an ongoing relationship with the school, where members taught cultural activities such as basketry, woodcarving, darts, and other traditions.

Many families in Pointe-aux-Chênes still speak French, a practice that began with their contact with the Acadians who settled in the area in the late 1700s. As of 2018, members of the tribe and other community members submitted petitions to the school board to implement a foreign language program.

Pointe-aux-Chênes Elementary School is seen August 30, a day after Hurricane Ida damaged it.

CODOFIL has offered support to help sponsor and provide French teachers in the region.

Advocates also submitted a request through the Terrebonne Parish School District in January to establish a French immersion charter school.

Terrebonne Schools Superintendent Philip Martin said the district hired an independent consultant to review the request. The district will have a decision by April 15. Otherwise, applicants can appeal to the State Board of Primary and Secondary Education for a decision.

The Pointe-aux-Chênes school building sustained approximately $2 million in damage from Hurricane Ida, Martin said. No plans have been made on what will be done with the school or if it will ever reopen.

Magee said he will continue to push for a quick fix for families in Pointe-aux-Chênes.

“It’s very important to me,” Magee said. “Every community should have a primary school and be able to keep its cultural identity alive.”

– This story was originally published by Coastal Bureau of New Orleans Public Radio at WWNO.

Sylvester L. Goldfarb