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Pointe-aux-Chenes French immersion school proposal passes through state House legislature

Kezia Setyawan
The Louisiana House in session on April 5.

On the same day that Louisiana’s House lawmakers unanimously passed an education bill to create the Ecole Pointe-au-Chien French immersion school, the Terrebonne Parish School Board voted against approving that school’s charter application put forth by Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe members and school parents.

The bill passed, and the charter school application failed, on Tuesday, but the dream to create a culturally-reflective French immersion school could still become a reality as the proposal heads to a Senate vote.

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.

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 School.

A federal lawsuit 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, is still in the process of settling. There is no word yet of what will be done with the school building.

Pointe-au-Chien tribal member Patty Ferguson-Bohnee said that reopening the school in the area is in line with the tribe’s strategic plan at the school board meeting. Pointe-aux-Chenes is a predominantly Indigenous area with many residents a part of the local fishing economy.

“We want to create an institution that not only strengthens the tribal identity of the students, but also familial ties to the French language, and serve as a symbol of the community's resilience in light of attacks on our heritage or attacks through environmental measures,” Ferguson-Bohnee said.

For Ferguson-Bohnee, the school represents an opportunity to create spaces to pass on traditional and local knowledge about the fishing industry and the ecological challenges in hopes that the students that pass through École Pointe-au-Chien shall become the future stewards of the land and the community.

Kezia Setyawan
State Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma) speaks with Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe member Theresa Dardar and Télé-Louisiane CEO Will McGrew before HB 261 is voted on the House floor.

On the House floor, State Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma), who was responsible for introducing the bill, said that it is a reinvestment in the area after the elementary school’s closure last April and damage from Hurricane Ida.

“This bill allows them to reopen their school and really save the community,” Magee said.

Some legislators, including State Rep. Beryl Amedee (R-Gray), voiced their support for the bill.

“I think this is a lovely opportunity to help French to continue to flourish and to expand so that it never becomes a dead language,” Amedee said.

After redistricting, Pointe-aux-Chenes will be under the jurisdiction of State Rep. Joseph Orgeron (R-Larose), who said that he will happily support a French immersion school in his area.

At the Capitol steps before the House vote, Pointe-au-Chien cultural heritage and resiliency coordinator and parent Cherie Matherne recounts how she learned French growing up from her grandmother who wanted to talk with her about flowers. Matherne said that she’s started to speak with her children in French and the school proposal is an important part of keeping the culture alive.

Kezia Setyawan
Will McGrew, CEO of Télé-Louisiane and Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe member Patty Ferguson-Bohnee speak in front of the Capitol steps in support of HB 261, which would establish École Pointe-au-Chien, a public French immersion school for students in pre-kindergarten through 4th grade in Terrebonne Parish.

“That's why the school is important to keep going with our kids because it's very important for our culture,” Matherne said.

During the Terrebonne Parish School Board meeting later that evening, Strategic Solutions, LLC, a third party charter school reviewer, presented and recommended to not approve the charter school application for the 2022-2023 school year. None of the nine board members motioned for the application to move forward.

Though school board member Matthew Ford did not vote to approve the application, he said he supported it as an individual and as a community member. Ford said that the school board’s rejection could signify a stronger chance of the bill’s approval through the state for a charter school. It would also give more autonomy to the applicants of the charter school proposal.

“I believe in self governance wholeheartedly,” Ford said

Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe parents, including Jessie Billiot, gave testimony on why not having a school in Pointe-aux-Chenes is a form of community destruction.

“There's nothing funny about it. Not putting the school on the map is — you're just killing your culture, you’re killing it faster than leveeing up the Mississippi that’s eroding the land around here,” Billiot said.

After the meeting, stakeholders said they plan to appeal the board’s decision to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by June, and plan to pursue all available options.

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

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