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This state bill hopes to establish French immersion program at closed Pointe-aux-Chenes school

Kezia Setyawan
Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School in April 2021.

For years, Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary school parents, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe and other community stakeholders have been working toward establishing a French immersion school in Pointe-aux-Chenes.

Located in Terrebonne Parish, Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School was one of the state’s few schools where the majority of students identified as Native American. The school closed in June after a decision by school board officials, though some state and community leaders are working to reverse that.

One of those people is State Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma), who introduced a new education bill to create a French immersion school at Pointe-aux-Chenes.

Magee said that this would be a win-win for everyone.

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

The bill proposes to establish École Pointe-au-Chien, a public French immersion

school for students in pre-kindergarten through 4th grade. The school will be located in Terrebonne Parish and independent of the control of the state superintendent of education and of all local and state education boards, except its board of directors.

In the bill, the seven-member board of directors will be represented by three members appointed by the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, one member appointed by the Isle de Jean Charles Band of 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 CODOFIL and 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 on the legislative, legal and policy development side to create the new French immersion school with tribe members and other stakeholders since the decision for the school closure. He is one of the vice presidents of the nonprofit board set up to support the school.

McGrew said that they are deciding between options on when to open the school. With the bill introduced in the state legislature, the school could open as early as August. For McGrew, the actualization of the French immersion school could be a model for other bayou communities.

“There's a huge opportunity here both for improving educational outcomes, and Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary was already a good school,” McGrew said. “Adding French for students can help in the future with getting jobs, connecting with their community and their elders.”

Stakeholders also submitted a charter school application through Terrebonne Parish School District in January to establish a French immersion school.

This has been part of an ongoing struggle led by the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe and other community members since April 2021, when the Terrebonne Parish School Board voted 6-3 to close Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School last June, citing dwindling enrollment. Students were relocated about five miles away to Montegut Elementary.

Kezia Setyawan
Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe members Donald Dardar and Theresa Dardar stand with Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary students Jaylynn Naquin, Nina Naquin, Jessie Herbert and Katalina Meza stand outside of the Terrebonne Parish School Board office protesting against the proposed school closure in March 2021.

According to records, Pointe-aux-Chenes enrolled 100 students and Montegut enrolled 143 children in 2021.

Most of the students at Pointe-aux-Chenes identify as Native American, with many being members of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe. The tribe had an ongoing relationship with the school, where members taught cultural activities in the cafeteria like basket weaving, wood carving, blow darts and other traditions.

Many families in Pointe-aux-Chenes still speak French, and since 2018, members of the tribe and others in the community have submitted petitions to the school board to implement a foreign language program.

CODOFIL has continuously reiterated support in helping sponsor and provide French teachers to the area.

Magee previously helped pass $1 million dollars in additional funding for the school listed in the House Budget in May in an attempt to have school officials revisit the decision to close. He also sponsored a resolution supporting the community’s effort to keep the school open last year.

"The House of Representatives will consider withholding COVID-19 relief funding from the school board if it continues to close schools unnecessarily,” read the resolution.

In June, Pointe-aux-Chenes parents filed a federal lawsuit attempting to block school officials’ decision to close the campus, alleging a pattern and practice of discrimination against Native American and Cajun children.

The federal judge ended up denying the plaintiffs' motion to move forward with the lawsuit and scheduled a settlement conference between parents and the school board back in December.

As of March, both parties are still in the process of settling.

Terrebonne Parish Superintendent Philip Martin said that the district has received the charter school application and has hired an independent consultant to review it. The district will have a decision by April 15, if not, applicants can appeal to the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for a decision.

Kezia Setyawan
Damage Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School sustained a day after Hurricane Ida on August 30, 2021.

The Pointe-aux-Chenes building also suffered damage from Hurricane Ida. Martin said damage predominantly came from roof and wind damage, estimating to be about $2 million. The school district is looking at repairs to cost around $200 million total.

There are currently no plans yet on what will be done to the school and if it will ever open back up.

For Magee, this was an important bill for him to introduce, and he has continued to put pressure on parish officials in providing a swift solution for Pointe-aux-Chenes families.

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

Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.