French immersion charter school École Saint-Landry opened its doors to its inaugural class of students in Sunset this week after more than four years of dreaming, hardship and labor.

Tucked inside the former First Baptist Church of Sunset at 671 Napoléon Ave., teachers at the four-classroom school eased roughly 58 kindergarten and first-grade students into their first taste of immersion education Wednesday with French greetings, explanatory gestures and simple phrases directing them to the bathroom and where to dispose of breakfast.

The church’s fellowship hall was transformed in just two months from a vacant gathering space to a bright and cheerful learning environment by a construction team and slew of volunteers, school leader Lindsay Smythe-Doucet said.

Everything about launching the school was a learning experience, from navigating permitting regulations to securing the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s approval to open, she said.

Supporters from Smythe-Doucet’s Leadership Lafayette cohort, the charter school’s board and the principal’s family came out to paint, build furniture such as desks, classroom easels and tables, prepare laptop carts and organize. Others offered resources, such as free printing for student handbooks, or purchased items from the school’s classroom wishlist, the principal said.

“I’m just so grateful to the people who have come out and who believe in me and believe in this school,” Smythe-Doucet said.

“I often tell people, ‘I’ve never created a school before. Have you created a school before?’ It’s become a running joke because there’s really no one who I know who’s been in my shoes. What’s great about it is we all understand where we’re coming from and because of that we’re more willing to help each other out. Everybody extends a lot more grace to each other because of that,” she said.

The help freed the school’s teachers to prepare for the new school year.

Three of the educators were recently recruited from France by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. The school also has a Lafayette Parish native trained through Escadrille Louisiane, a CODOFIL program that equips Louisiana natives to teach in French immersion schools, an ELA and special education teacher, and an administrative manager who doubles as the music teacher, Smythe-Doucet said.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck mentality.

“We’re double and triple dipping around here...We’re diving in because there’s nobody else to do it. It has to be us. We have to be a family and we have to be a team. They’ve been nothing but amazing. They’re ready to go and have rolled with the punches,” she said.

The school has contracted with the St. Landry Parish School System to provide services that the tuition free, public charter school can’t provide with its existing staff and resources — like breakfast and lunch service, transportation, nursing care and specialized education support.

Meals are currently prepared and served by nearby Sunset Middle School, and students parishwide utilize satellite school bus stops to reach the charter school, the principal said.

A Type 1 charter school, École Saint-Landry was approved by the St. Landry Parish School Board in 2019 and is evaluated and overseen by the local system. Smythe-Doucet said she’s met weekly with school system officials to ensure all requirements for the school’s opening and operation are met.

Former St. Landry Parish School Board member Jerry Domengeaux, the charter school’s board chairman, said he believes grassroots support from stakeholders in Sunset and around Acadiana made backing by the school district possible.

Domengeaux donned a neon safety vest and helped direct traffic and greet car riders on their first day of school Wednesday. The board chairman said seeing the children walk into a school he helped create for the first time was gratifying and humbling.

“It was like a dream come true. A small miracle, really,” he said.

Domengeaux and his wife Karen, a retired teacher and principal of 43 years, became involved in the school after attending a meeting to discuss the future of the vacant Sunset High School at the behest of Sunset Mayor Charles James, he said. When a French immersion school was proposed to revive the campus, they were hooked.

Devoted or not, the yearslong road to launch the school was taxing, he said.

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First the charter’s team and the school district were at odds over enrollment numbers, creating questions about which charter authorization to pursue, then they had to locate an alternate site, recognizing the revitalization of the former Sunset High School, the school's future planned home, is another yearslong endeavor. Next, the coronavirus pandemic struck, causing the school to delay its opening by a year.

Amid these struggles, the board was tasked with raising or borrowing funds to cover startup costs, he said.

“Every time you’d want to throw in the towel something good would happen and so we just kept going. After a certain point you reached a point where there’s no turning back. You have to make it happen or you lose the faith and the hope of a lot of people who've tried to help along the way,” Domengeaux said.

Both Domengeauxs are passionate about their French heritage.

Jerry Domengeaux is fluent in French, taught by his grandmother , and grew up with the language in his home, even after his father was punished for speaking the language in schools growing up. The practice was common after schools were pressed to make English the primary language in the classroom.

Karen Domengeaux said children of French heritage should be able to celebrate their history and all area children should know how the Acadian culture shaped the region.

“It would be a shame if future generations weren’t exposed to what the heritage and culture of our town, our parish and our state is. We want that to continue. They’d never know what they missed — the joie de vivre, the love of life, not only the obvious dancing and cooking but a way of life that’s friendly, cares for each other and is happy,” she said.

The couple also hopes the school will be a boost to Sunset.

Jerry Domengeaux owns Domengeaux Lumber Depot, located down the street from École Saint-Landry, and the couple are both Sunset High graduates. They saw the hit the town took in 1991 when the high school closed, and are hopeful the charter school’s opening will spur families to move to the area and encourage economic growth.

“When you lose a high school in a small town, it has a large impact. Being able to open another school here in town I think is going to bring more traffic and more people and more business to this area. That’s what we’re definitely hoping for — that it will help this town grow,” he said.

Parents like Mary Brower are also investing in the school.

Brower and another École Saint-Landry parent, Raven Milton, formed a parent-teacher organization ahead of the opening and launched their first fundraiser on Wednesday: the sale of back-to-school portraits snapped of each child on the first day.

Brower, a U.S. history teacher at Northwest High School in Opelousas, said she’s seen personally how parent involvement can change a child’s experience of school and alter the school environment for the better.

“Parent involvement is important at any school, but specifically here because a new school is so vulnerable. It’s like a newborn kitten that doesn’t have a mama. You have to feed it and nurture it. This is the same thing, almost. We’re going to have to nurture that school and help it grow. The teachers and administrators can’t do that alone,” she said.

The Opelousas mother said she chose the charter school for her 5-year-old son, John David, to challenge and stimulate him. Already an advanced reader, her family believes he may fall in the gifted category.

It’s also an opportunity to pass on her family heritage to her youngest child. Brower grew up hearing French spoken by her parents and grandparents, but didn’t learn it herself. Integrating the French language and culture into her family’s life through her son’s schooling feels like a way to reclaim a missing piece of her life, she said.

“Even though I can’t pass it on to my children the way my grandparents passed it on to their children, this school is giving me that opportunity to pass that on,” Brower said.

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