St. Tammany Parish school administrators must determine by Friday whether a petition drive to create a French immersion program for kindergarten and first-grade students has met the requirements set out in state law.
If so, the school system will have to create the program, something officials resisted last year. At that time, the parent-led effort failed after the school system imposed a last-minute requirement for parents to fill out a form.
But Anne Ogden, the Covington mother who led the drive, is trying again. She submitted petitions from the parents of 26 students who will be entering first grade next year and 38 who will be entering kindergarten.
All are asking for their children to be taught in French.
"Clearly the population wants it," said Ogden, who cites studies that have shown students in such programs post better test scores, a boon to them and to their school system.
State law requires school systems to provide French and Spanish immersion programs if the parents or guardians of at least 25 students going into kindergarten or the first grade file a request in writing by Jan. 31.
The state law has changed in some ways since Ogden first pushed for the program last year, including the addition of Spanish immersion. Also, the deadline for submitting petitions moved up to Jan. 31 from March 1.
Last year, the School Board notified Ogden seven days before the old March 1 deadline that parents had to fill out a form, something she and her attorney, Charles Branton, argue is not required by state law.
Branton asked for the form, but the School Board did not provide it, Ogden said. The petitions she submitted then followed what is outlined in the state law, she said.
Ogden said that the School Board's form was designed to harass and intimidate parents. Among other things, it stated there would be a lottery for 25 spots if more than 25 children applied, and it required applying parents to waive their child's right to attend the school whose attendance district they live in.
That worried parents who were afraid their child wouldn't be picked but then wouldn't be able to attend a nearby school, she said.
Ogden wasn't able to get enough parents to sign the form by the March 1 deadline last year, and ended up suing the School Board in 22nd Judicial District Court. The suit alleged that she and other families had met the state requirements — parents of 36 children entering kindergarten and 27 entering first grade had signed an electronic petition for the program.
But Judge Raymond Childress found that while the form was "onerous," it reflected what a school board needed to make a commitment to an immersion program. The plaintiffs have appealed that ruling to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
"Right now, we want to get a French immersion program set up for students that is provided by the Legislature," Ogden said. "That's our goal, and we are using every means we can."
Ogden said lawmakers have been supportive of the efforts, particularly state Rep. Polly Thomas and Sen. Eric LaFleur, who sponsored changes to the law, which now requires school systems to inform all parents about the existence of any newly established immersion programs and to allow all eligible students to enroll.
Ogden said this change means that the program could end up having more students than just those who have petitioned for its creation.
It also sets a Feb. 15 deadline for school systems to let petitioners know whether the requirements have been met.
As for location, the law spells out that school systems must make a reasonable attempt to place the program near where the majority of applicants live.
Last year, parents didn't know where the program would be offered, and the form provided by the school system said no transportation would be provided.
That was also discouraging to parents, Ogden said, noting how large St. Tammany Parish is. "If you live in Folsom and the school is deep in Slidell, that could be a four-hour commute for a parent each day," she said.
St. Tammany schools provide bus transportation to students in Catholic schools but were unwilling to provide it for an immersion program, she noted.
"Obviously, they don't want it to go forward," she said.
But parents who are pushing for the program have already discussed setting up car pools so every child who wants the program will be able to participate, Ogden said.
"I think that people are very interested in this, invested in this, once they understand it," Ogden said.