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Proposal To Close Small School Stirs Up Big Drama In Terrebonne Parish

Sheri Neil learned how to cook with her mother and aunts in the school cafeteria.
Tegan Wendland
Sheri Neil learned how to cook with her mother and aunts in the school cafeteria.

The Terrebonne Parish School Board will vote Tuesday night on whether to close a tiny school that means a lot to many.

Terrebonne Parish School District Superintendent Philip Martin said he wants to consolidate Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary with Montegut Elementary, about 4 miles away, due to declining enrollment.

“Sometimes you have to make these very difficult decisions,” he said.

The community on Bayou Pointe Au Chien has mounted a campaign in opposition to the proposal and plans to protest at the school board’s Tuesday meeting.

A group of about 30 people held a protest outside the school last Wednesday, holding signs that said, “Save Our School.” They formed a line in front of the little white, wooden, single-story schoolhouse and chanted and played drums as school let out for the day.

ShanaRae Dardar picked up her kids, 8-year-old Presley and 9-year-old Jackson, just like her mom used to pick her up 20 years ago.

Jackson Dardar (L) says phy ed is his favorite class at Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary, and his sister Presley (R) says she loves her school.
Tegan Wendland
Jackson Dardar (L) says physical education is his favorite class at Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary, and his sister Presley (R) says she loves her school.

“It’s the heart of our little community,” Dardar said.

Presley and Jackson joined their mom and grandparents to protest the proposed closure.

In this largely Native American community, most of the 88 students are from two local tribes, the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Pointe-au-Chien. The community fought for integration in the 1960s so kids like them could get an education.

Dardar’s mother, Sheri Neil, runs the only restaurant in tiny Pointe-au-Chien, Sheri’s Snack Shack, after spending decades working in school cafeterias. She got her start here, at the school.

“My aunts worked here in the cafeteria years ago. I used to come with them in the morning. ...I used to open up the cans in the cafeteria” Neil said.

Over the years, the teachers worked to include cultural programming in the curriculum so the kids could better understand their heritage.

Dardar’s children belong to the Pointe-au-Chien tribe. They’ve been learning how to make dolls from Spanish moss, craft with garfish teeth, and carve wood.

“I love that they still include our Cajun heritage here along with the Indian heritage for our kids to learn about their ancestry and their background,” Dardar said.

For many in the community, the proposal to shut down Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary is about a lot more than a school closure, it’s a death knell for a dying community.

Neil sees the threat of the school being closed as a final blow.

“We have one church, one fire department, one store, my restaurant. And one school. Don't take it,” she said.

The Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribal Council opposes the consolidation. Instead, they say the Terrebonne Parish School Board should invest in making the school better by teaching the kids Louisiana French, a language that is fast-disappearing after decades of systemic racism suppressed it being spoken in schools. Younger people like Dardar struggle to have conversations with French speakers like her grandmother.

But Martin said it would be too expensive to turn it into a French immersion school, and added that its closure was inevitable.

“I probably should have done this two or three years ago,” he said. “I just kept hoping that the numbers would get better.”

Twenty-five students have left over the past five years, and Martin said it’s part of a bigger trend. People are moving away from the coast due to land loss, flooding and the threat of storms.

“We never want to do things that alienate people,” Martin said of the community's opposition to the plan, “but sometimes you have to make these very difficult decisions. And if we thought for one second it's going to be bad for kids, we wouldn't even consider it.”

He said it wasn’t a funding issue. But he also said the cost per student is very high at a small school like Pointe-Aux-Chenes,

Over the weekend, The Houma Courier published an op-ed signed by 32 professors opposing the closure. They call it a violation of the United Nations’ declaration of human rights and say it would signal a continuation of the region’s discriminatory history of denying education to Native American children.

Martin said he didn’t think that argument had legal standing because the students would still be offered a quality education. If the proposal passes, those students will join the 143 students at Montegut. Both Montegut and Pointe-Aux-Chenes elementary schools have been ranked as B schools by the Louisiana Department of Education.

The plan needs a majority vote from the nine-member school board in order to pass.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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