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With new French immersion school signed into law, what's next for Pointe-aux-Chenes?

Kezia Setyawan
Governor John Bel Edwards signs HB 261, establishing École Pointe-au-Chien, a public French immersion school on Friday, June 24 in Pointe-aux-Chenes at the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe building in front of tribal members, officials, kids and other stakeholders.

The establishment of École Pointe-au-Chien was officially signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards, in a ceremony at the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe building on Friday that signaled an end to an ongoing struggle to establish a French immersion school in the community.

The school is set to begin serving students from Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes next year in August for children pre-K through fourth grade.

HB 261, which allocated $3 million for the school through the state budget bill and supplemental appropriations, passed after a unanimous vote in the state Senate and House at the end of May.

After traditional drumming led by the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe and Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, Edwards gave some remarks to a group of more than 40 people in attendance on why this bill is important.

“I'm most excited because it does help preserve the language, the culture, the heritage, the traditions, and it is about resiliency. This is about surviving and holding on to what's most important to you all,” Edwards said.

The tribe and parents have also been formally submitting petitions since 2018 to start French immersion in the area.

Stakeholders hope the next step in the process will be to ensure that École Pointe-au-Chien is housed in the previously closed Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School, according to Will McGrew, CEO of Télé-Louisiane and vice president of the École Pointe-au-Chien non-profit organization established to support the state school.

That campus has been closed since June 2021, after the Terrebonne Parish School Board voted 6-to-3 in April 2021 to shutter the school due to dwindling enrollment. Students, who are predominantly Native American and of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, were relocated about five miles away to Montegut Elementary School.

Kezia Setyawan
Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians Traditional Chief Albert Naquin leads in drumming before formal remarks by Governor John Bel Edwards.

A federal lawsuit was filed last June attempting to block school officials’ decision to close the campus, alleging a pattern and practice of discrimination against Native American and Cajun children. The case is still in the process of being settled, and stakeholders hope it will be complete soon so they can figure out what will happen with the building.

“My understanding is both sides have publicly expressed a desire to resolve the case in recent weeks,” McGrew said. “The École Pointe-au-Chien team is optimistic all parties will help ensure that this groundbreaking new school can open in August 2023, as outlined by HB 261, at the property of the closed Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School."

The Terrebonne Parish School Board voted to transfer the heavily damaged old elementary school building to the state to use for the new French immersion school.

Previously, retired superintendent Philip Martin said that damage is expected to cost around $2 million.

Tribal member Patty Ferguson-Bohnee said she appreciates the support and acknowledgement from government officials to issues that concern the community.

“That means a lot because it means that you're thinking about us and you recognize us. The Indians of Louisiana have been kind of a forgotten people and so having that relationship and that recognition is really important and empowering to everyone,” Ferguson-Bohnee said.

During the signing, parents told the governor that they hope to see the school expand in the future to include even more grades.

Kezia Setyawan
Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe kids hug each other after the bill signing event.

The French language has long been an important part of Louisiana’s unique cultural identity, particularly for the Cajun and Native American communities down the bayou. The new French immersion program joins many others that have already existed across the state, and despite there not being one yet in the Pointe-au-Chien area, children are already still learning French there today.

Pointe-au-Chien tribal member Jaxon Dardar, 11, said last year in an interview with the Houma Courier that it was disappointing to see his own school close in the bayou he grew up in. It was at Pointe-aux-Chenes that he learned the Indian French traditions through tribal elders and different workshops.

“I like speaking to elders in my community in French,” Dardar said.

State Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma), who initially introduced the bill, also gave thanks to the input people provided for the legislation.

“I want to thank all the tribal leadership for always supporting me, and y'all know my door is always open,” Magee said. “And finally, I want to thank the governor for signing the bill and being supportive of the bill. You don't always get the governor's support with legislation. But I think this is one of those great examples of how we can still work together.”

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