State's first Indigenous French immersion school now has a permanent home
It’s a happy ending for the little school down the bayou.
When local officials voted to close Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary due to low enrollment more than two years ago, it looked like the school would remain shuttered, as in other coastal towns.
But the community fought back.
Parents filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination — because the school taught mostly Indigenous and Cajun students — and because families had petitioned for an immersion program in French, both groups’ native language.
Through the lawsuit, activism and a flurry of media coverage, the community built a coalition of support, including from the state’s legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards, and opened its own special state-authorized school last month.
École Pointe-au-Chien is the first Indigenous French immersion school in Louisiana — and possibly the country.
One thing was missing, though: A permanent building.
That changed last week when the school board in Terrebonne Parish sold the town’s former elementary school campus to the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe. The price tag? $1.
“We’re finally going to have a home, our own home,” said Christine Verdin, chief executive and principal of the new École Pointe-au-Chien.
Verdin, who is also a Pointe-au-Chien tribal council member, said the tribe will lease the buildings on the former elementary site to the new school’s board after they are renovated. Hurricane Ida significantly damaged the campus — a place where Verdin herself attended school and spent a decade teaching — shortly after it closed in 2021.
Model for other communities
Will McGrew, École Pointe-au-Chien’s board president — and co-founder of the multilingual media company Télé-Louisiane — said he hopes the new school serves as a model.
“It is a relatively small community,” he said. “But I think it has big implications for the parish and Louisiana as a whole.”
It’s becoming more difficult for people to stay in coastal communities like Pointe-aux-Chenes, as waters rise and land slips away. Storms are more frequent and intense. Costs, especially for insurance, have risen dramatically, straining families’ already tight budgets.
And population loss means fewer resources for those who remain.
The community of Pointe-aux-Chenes no longer has a library, grocery store or fire department. Disappearing services, in turn, drive out more residents — and as numbers dwindle, officials have a hard time justifying remaining amenities, like schools, because of the small number of people they serve.
McGrew said he believes École Pointe-au-Chien can serve as an example for other at-risk communities in the state, whether they’re historically Cajun, Indigenous or Black Creole; and whether they’re in rural areas or in historic neighborhoods in cities like Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans.
“Not only is it a worthwhile investment to maintain local community schools,” McGrew said. “But we can make sure they’re culturally responsive.”
He said he hopes Pointe-aux-Chenes’ successful bid to establish a new school that meets its needs will send a message to local school boards, as well: “You’re losing out on an opportunity here; it’s not just a cost.”
Verdin said Pointe-aux-Chenes is one of only a few Louisiana communities where people still speak a lot of French — in some cases more often than English.
And the fact that the buildings — and the land — that housed the old Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary are now owned by the tribe is meaningful, she said.
For generations, schools in Terrebonne Parish were triple-segregated, with separate schools for white, Black and Indigenous students — until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Verdin spoke only French at home as a child. She learned English at school and was part of the first generation to attend integrated schools in Terrebonne Parish. The segregation of the schools, she said, meant her community held onto their French for longer than others.
“We have a lot of people in Terrebonne Parish that lost their language before we did,” she said.
Louisiana turned away from its French roots in the 1920s when the state’s new constitution reversed language rights that had allowed Indigenous tribes and other groups, like Cajuns, to speak their native languages — and banned the teaching of French in all public schools.
Verdin’s goal is to teach all children who want to learn French, she said. All children in Terrebonne and nearby Lafourche Parish, not just members of the Point-au-Chien Tribe, are eligible to attend the school.
Long road ahead
While the local district’s sale of the property to the tribe marks the end of parents’ fight for a school of their own, École Pointe-au-Chien has a long journey ahead.
Hurricane Ida severely damaged the campus; at least two buildings are complete losses, McGrew said. Their roofs were torn off and rain caused water damage. Those structures will likely be bulldozed, he said, and the others gutted. School leaders are working with the tribe to rebuild, he said — a project they hope to complete in the next two years.
In the meantime, École Pointe-au-Chien is in session, operating out of a local church, and plans to move to another temporary space — a Knights of Columbus building that’s owned by the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe — next month.
The state gave the school $3 million for this academic year, largely to help with startup costs, including construction, McGrew said.
While the school’s physical space is under construction, Verdin, who has been teaching for more than 30 years in the parish, has her own project in progress: Creating a brand-new curriculum.
Coursework in Louisiana French doesn’t exist, she said, so while the school’s curriculum is under development, teachers are using resources in standard French and adding activities that introduce local dialects and vocabulary, including inviting tribal elders into the school.
The goal is for the school to eventually use a curriculum that’s as close to the French spoken by its students’ grandparents as possible, McGrew said.
École Pointe-au-Chien also has a lot of growing to do.
This year, only 9 students are enrolled, Verdin said, down from the roughly 90 kids, in kindergarten through fourth grade, who were attending the district-run school when it closed. Some of those students now attend the nearest district school, four miles away.
The new school will likely need more students to survive long-term since school funding is generally tied to enrollment. But its official plan calls for a gradual, deliberate expansion.
“We don’t want it to be a fly-by-night school,” Verdin said.
This year, the school is offering kindergarten and first grade, with plans to add pre-K and second-grade classes next year, then one grade a year until it reaches fifth or sixth grade.
Verdin said she hopes that when the school moves onto its new permanent campus in a few years, it will send the message to the community that it’s there to stay. She wants to eventually see the school enroll roughly 300 students across all grades.
To ensure the school has enough money, despite its small size, McGrew said the board will pursue additional funding sources, including federal grants for schools that serve Indigenous students and private donations.
The school’s immediate goals are modest: securing a bus, so it can provide transportation for students, and serving them lunch.
Despite the challenges, including plenty of red tape and paperwork, Verdin said teaching and learning are going well. All children are speaking French in the classroom.
Those kids, she said, will be the school’s best tool to attract new students.
“After people see them in the community speaking to their grandparents, and some of them, their parents, that’s going to be a promotion in itself.”