École Pointe-au-Chien opens as first French immersion school in Terrebonne Parish
Lire en français sur Télé-Louisiane
Gaëtan Lombard sat in a low chair in front of his three students, his hand in a panda puppet, leading an ice-breaking activity to coax them into uttering their first word of the day in French.
Bonjour, Lombard repeated over again, until, one by one, his students began repeating the word themselves. These three children, who on August 16 participated in the first day of school of the inaugural academic year of École Pointe-au-Chien, continued their day immersed in French by learning days, months, numbers and simple commands.
School officials welcomed kindergarten and first grade at the Vision Christian Center in Bourg where the school will be housed for a few months until moving to the Knights of Columbus building just a few miles down the road in Pointe-aux-Chênes. After a year or two of renovations at the site of the former Pointe-aux-Chênes Elementary that closed in 2021, the school will move there as its permanent location.
École Pointe-au-Chien, authorized and funded by the state legislature, opened as the first French immersion school servinga predominant Native American population. Christine Verdin, the school’s executive director and a native French speaker from the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, said her school will be the first to incorporate, on a large scale, the local Louisiana dialects spoken by the Indigenous and Cajun communities nearby. French is still used daily up and down the bayou in these parishes, Verdin said, by grandparents and other family members.
“Even though Gaëten is French, he has already started adding Louisiana French words into his lessons, because he understands that it’s important for us and our children to learn our French, too,” she said. “We’re including Louisiana French, spoken by Cajuns and Indians, and the culture of the two.”
Cynthia Breaux Seitz, a francophone from south Lafourche Parish, is teaching English language arts and will be supported by Cynthia Owens, a French-speaker from Thibodaux, who is also teaching social living and art.
This focus on local teachers and the continuation of the regional French dialect lie at the core of the school’s mission to both preserve and continue the culture of the many bayou communities that make up Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Will McGrew, CEO of Télé-Louisiane and president of the École Pointe-au-Chien State Board, said this aspect sets the school apart from the more than 30 immersion programs in the rest of Louisiana.
“If you look at other minority language situations, the whole point of the schools in the minority language was to keep the language and culture alive as it's spoken there, as opposed to just being a second language,” he said. “Whereas, sometimes when immersion schools in Louisiana are pitched, it's kind of blurred nowadays, where it's like, is it just to learn a second language or is it specifically to keep Louisiana language and culture alive? And with École Pointe-au-Chien, you can really see that, of course you are learning a second language, but the primary impetus for the school is to keep the local language and culture alive.”
In order to introduce students to the region’s French, Verdin said they’ll have francophone members of the community visit for cultural workshops, discussing topics like shrimping and local Indigenous practices like palmetto basket weaving. This focus on continuing not only the region’s language but the culture that it’s tied to is among the reasons École Pointe-au-Chien garnered so much support from state officials. Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly expressed this important point as he has provided support for funding the school.
“The language and culture of our coastal communities like Pointe-aux-Chênes and Isle de Jean Charles are part of what makes Louisiana a state like no other,” Edwards said. “I’m proud to see the work of this community and leaders in the legislature, especially Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, to pass this heritage on to the next generation with the creation of the first French immersion school in Lafourche and Terrebonne.”
Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, was outspoken in his support for École Pointe-au-Chien, noting that it’s an added value and an asset to the region. “I am thrilled that Louisiana is investing in our communities and culture by bringing this kind of education to Terrebonne,” he said. “Building all the levees in the world will not matter if we do not invest in the people behind them.”
Rep. Beryl Amedée, R-Houma, who attended École Pointe-au-Chien’s opening day, said that a time when native speakers of Louisiana French are often older than 60, École Pointe-au-Chien is an important tool in the fight to save what’s left. Amedée pointed out that by building a new generation of francophones in the region, these communities will be better equipped to continue what’s been passed down.
“We have a future here,” she said. “We can write new songs in French, for example. We can have new traditions and keep up moving forward with modern times, because we don't just want to preserve the past—we want to continue our culture into the future.”