Trailblazer | Education
When Christine Verdin was born into the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe in lower Terrebonne Parish, Native Americans were segregated into separate schools known as settlement schools. It wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the public schools were integrated just as she was entering school. Her first teachers, though, happened to be Baptist missionaries who did not punish the children for speaking French as was the case across South Louisiana. It turned out to be a blessing for longer preservation of the French language there, even though instruction was in English. “French is my first language,” says Verdin proudly. “My parents spoke almost no English, so we always spoke French at home.” Today, Verdin is on the verge of doing something no one would have imagined possible 60 years ago. She will become the first principal of the first French immersion school primarily serving Native American children. Act 454 of the 2022 regular session created École Pointe-au-Chien, a public charter school, pre-K through 4th grade. Plans are to open its door in August. It was a long struggle to get to that point.
Recognizing the success of French immersion programs, the community began petitioning the Terrebonne Parish school board six years ago, well before COVID and Hurricane Ida. Their request fell on deaf ears in spite of a state law requiring parishes to respond. The decision in 2021 to close Pointe-aux-Chênes Elementary in Montegut, named a Blue Ribbon school in 2015 with a student population 50% Native American, provided the impetus to push for reopening it as an immersion school. Two months after closing, Ida hit, heavily damaging the building. Repairs throughout the community are ongoing thanks to generous volunteers and Williams Architects, a New Orleans architecture firm.
With 34 years’ experience to her credit, she spent 14 of them in the pre-K and Kindergarten classroom, the rest as an instructional coach and master teacher. Verdin’s inspiration to become an educator came from an aunt who, after finishing settlement school upon completing 7th grade, was sent along with others to a boarding school for Native Americans near Eunice. Her aunt later went to college and became a teacher. While French is still prevalent in the area, it is less spoken among the younger tribe members. “My hope for this school,” says Verdin, “is that it brings the language back to the community, brings it home and bridges the gap between generations.”