‘It's what made us': Paul Breaux has long been the center of Lafayette’s integration struggle

Former students of Paul Breaux High School gathered to share their stories. From left to right, Barbra Ruffin Robertson, Sylvia Cluse, and Wilfred "Paul" Cluse.
Former students of Paul Breaux High School gathered to share their stories. From left, Barbra Ruffin Robertson, Sylvia Cluse and Wilfred "Paul" Cluse. Robin May

The first time Patricia Cravins stepped onto Paul Breaux’s campus was in 1955, for her brother’s high school graduation.

Over the next 43 years, its halls would become a fixture in her life. As a student, she would watch the high school close. As a teacher, she was there when it reopened as a middle school.

For Cravins, the school’s legacy speaks for itself. Paul Breaux educated generations of Black students, like the man whose name it bears. It was one of the few places they could get an education in Lafayette.

When word got out that the Lafayette Parish School Board might close Paul Breaux, it harkened to prior episodes of change and tension surrounding the school and its students over the last few decades.

“It has a long, long legacy, and a very successful legacy. We take pride in that school, in that community. But like many of the communities all across America, the older communities, we've just deserted, left them, abandoned them, not nurturing the way we used to,” says Cravins.

Beginning with the closure of the all-Black Paul Breaux High School in the 1970s to its reopening as a middle school a decade later, Paul Breaux has been at the heart of Lafayette’s struggle to integrate its schools. Decisions to add or move programs, at nearly every turn, stoked racial divisions and anxieties about how best to organize public education in Lafayette.

Despite the initial rumor that stirred Cravins and others to defend Paul Breaux, the Lafayette Parish School Board did not shutter it. Instead, the board voted 5-4 to move the French immersion and gifted programs to other campuses. Paul Breaux will remain open in 2024, but its supporters worry the change of plan is a stay of execution.

It’s a familiar limbo for the school's supporters.

The first time they closed Paul Breaux

Paul Breaux High School’s closure in 1970 sparked widespread protests.

The high school was a neighborhood school. A Black neighborhood school. Tucked in the McComb-Veazey neighborhood, the campus is canopied by cypress trees that droop Spanish moss above the swamp in Heymann Park.

And like many Black schools in the segregated South, Paul Breaux High School was underfunded and overcrowded, according to former faculty.

But what the school lacked in resources, it made up for in care, recalls Sylvia Cluse, a graduate of Paul Breaux’s 1962 class. She describes an environment where learning was paramount, with an emphasis on whole child teaching. Her teachers went to the same churches, lived in the same neighborhoods, and socialized with her parents.

“I knew these people personally. They knew me as a child until the time that I graduated. These people raised me, corrected me, loved me and nurtured me,” she says.

After the Alfreda Trahan v. Lafayette Parish School Board case of 1964 forced the district to integrate, Lafayette adopted a “freedom of choice” model as its first attempt at integration. Students left Black schools like Paul Breux, often not returning, as the educational advantage of the formerly all-white schools, like Northside High, were substantial.

While those schools had newer facilities and updated textbooks, for the newly integrated Black students, opportunities for extracurricular activities were few and far between. Students who were formerly in sports, debate and band at Paul Breaux often found themselves unable to integrate in those activities.

By the late 1960s, a federal court struck down the “freedom of choice” model, prompting the district to close Paul Breaux and other schools to comply with the latest integration order.

Integration overall was painful, says Barbra Ruffin Robertson, whose late husband Max Robertson served as the principal of the middle school from 1991 to 1995. While the resources at Paul Breaux High School sometimes fell short, Robertson, who graduated from Paul Breaux High School in 1965, says the curriculum content was still more advanced.

[Paul Breaux] has a long, long legacy, and a very successful legacy. We take pride in that school, in that community. But like many of the communities all across America, the older communities, we've just deserted, left them, abandoned them, not nurturing the way we used to.

Patricia Cravins

Losing Paul Breaux High School represented something bigger to those who loved it, considering its connection to Paul Breaux the man, a civil rights pioneer and educator.

“Our reputation was known not only in Lafayette or the state of Louisiana, but throughout the United States,” Robertson says. “People knew about Paul Breaux from the uniqueness of this institution.”

Closing the high school wouldn’t be the last conflict. By the late 1970s, Lafayette was again in court, trying to integrate. And Paul Breaux was once more part of the plan.

Faced with a court order to fix its integration plan, the district voted to make Paul Breaux a middle school, which by then had become a district-wide campus for eighth graders after the high school was closed.

Black leaders favored reopening a Paul Breaux High School. The middle school plan, at first a temporary move while another campus was renovated, was a compromise, according to news reports at the time.

By 1980, Paul Breaux reopened as a middle school with a large portion of its zone drawing from the mostly white Comeaux High School district in South Lafayette. Gifted programs were added by 1982, first as a pullout program that drew students from across the district on select days, and later as a full-time part of campus.

French Immersion would come later, as Lafayette faced yet another integration battle.

‘It's what made us'

Drake LeBlanc, who founded a French multimedia company when he was 25, is a product of Paul Breaux's French Immersion program. Photo by Robin May

“If you want to know what the successes of Paul Breaux Middle School look like, you can look at me, who at 25 years old founded a French multimedia company based right here in Lafayette, Louisiana,” says Drake LeBlanc.

Leblanc is a product of the French immersion program the school board moved to Paul Breaux in 1998.

That same year, the Lafayette Parish School Board neared completion on four new schools in historically white areas, without seeking court approval, to accommodate a growing school population.

While the school board of the time attributed the French immersion move to overcrowding at Edgar Martin, some in the Black community nevertheless understood it to be an effort to get ahead of a potential desegregation violation.

“They knew what they were doing because they had to abide by the desegregation order. A lot of what happened at Paul Breaux was due to that. A lot of this was well-studied. They looked into that because they didn’t want to be in violation,” says alum Roberston.

Many Lafayette schools remained functionally segregated in the eyes of the law at the time. More than half of Lafayette Parish’s 39 schools were “racially identifiable” in 1998. Black schools had Black students, teachers and leadership and were demonstrably lacking in resources compared with racially identifiable white schools, broadly meeting the standards set out by the courts.

In 2000, U.S. District Judge Richard Haik ruled Lafayette out of compliance with the original integration order from the civil rights era and ordered the closure of three predominantly Black inner-city elementary schools.

“All of that was being done to try and bring about what that court thought would be a better student racial balance,” says Greg Davis, a longtime advocate for Black education.

Students from Vermilion and St. Antoine were moved to better resourced campuses. A new J. Wallace James would be built as a magnet school. Six Black school principals were sent to racially identifiable white schools, and six white school principals to Black schools. 

That plan also included the birth of Lafayette’s schools of choice academy system, another tool intended to integrate schools.

Paul Breaux, by then the site of a magnet gifted program for decades, was promoted as an example of what would come — a blending of backgrounds drawn from all four corners of Lafayette Parish.

Even then, skeptics wondered whether the plan would represent a meaningful integration. Those criticisms resonate today.

As of 2023, more than half of LPSS campuses remain racially identifiable, according to a report from school officials. Seventy-one percent of students in its core gifted and immersion courses are white, while 83% of students in its core regular classes are Black, according to Straight News Online’s analysis of data from the Louisiana Department of Education.

You don’t get students like me, you don’t get members of the Lafayette community that look like me and my peers and my colleagues without the intersections of the programs and also the cultures that exist at Paul Breaux.

Drake LeBlanc

LPSS achieved unitary status in 2005, a designation that it had satisfied the integration order and was no longer operating dual, segregated school systems.

This was the version of Paul Breaux that educated Drake LeBlanc and thousands of others.

LeBlanc made a name for himself for his advancement of Francophone culture in Acadiana through founding Télé-Louisiane, a French multimedia company based in Lafayette.

In March he led a rally protesting the school board’s consideration of closing Paul Breaux. He sat for the duration of the school board meeting as members voted to strip the school of the gifted and French Immersion programs.

The school board did not close Paul Breaux. But the departure of those programs marked the end of an era without much clarity about what awaits the storied school.

“You don’t get students like me, you don’t get members of the Lafayette community that look like me and my peers and my colleagues without the intersections of the programs and also the cultures that exist at Paul Breaux,” says LeBlanc. “It’s what made us.”