What’s next for Paul Breaux Middle? 

People gathered in a hallway, one holding a protest sign
The school board's decision to move magnet programs from Paul Breaux Middle school came over loud resistance. Photo by Robin May

Decided last month over loud resistance, the departure of French immersion and gifted programs from Paul Breaux Middle School has left unresolved Lafayette Parish School System's plan for the students zoned for the school.

Paul Breaux is currently without a permanent principal, and the school board has not clearly outlined a plan for dealing with what board members say is likely a failing school once the higher performing students leave this fall.

“The community still has lots of questions, and it's not just the community at large,” says LPSB member Amy Trahan, whose district includes Paul Breaux Middle. “We really need to be having conversations with the school community, the students [and the] parents that will remain there.”

District 4 School Board member Amy Trahan
“We’re going to totally dismantle and cripple enrollment at Paul Breaux, and we’re going to increase it at another school,” District 4 School Board member Amy Trahan said at a community meeting in early March.

Meanwhile, the board has begun its long-range planning process, which school leadership has indicated is likely to include more closures and consolidations in the face of en masse student departures to charter schools and the likelihood that public education dollars flow to private schools once education savings accounts are created by the Legislature, as is widely expected.

In light of those pressures, proponents of the decision say the Lafayette Parish School Board’s 5-4 vote to move those programs was a necessary step for the system as a whole, and one that forced open a confrontation with underlying problems at the school.

LPSB member Hannah Smith Mason, who backed the programs’ relocation, says the change will allow the leadership at Paul Breaux Middle to focus solely on the needs of the school’s zoned students, who have endured five principals over the span of 12 years. She also argues that the change has reinvigorated engagement in the school’s problems, which could be a silver lining for its students.

School Board member Hannah Smith Mason
School board member Hannah Smith Mason says the opportunity to confront problems at Paul Breaux is a silver lining. Photo by Robin May

“One beautiful thing that's come out of this — I'm choosing to call it a beautiful thing — is that people are paying attention to what's happening at Paul Breaux, finally, because we have a school that 600 kids are supposed to be going there, from the home zone, but only 300 are choosing to go,” says Mason, a Paul Breaux Middle School graduate. “So this, I feel like, will allow us to maybe get to the bottom of like, ‘Why are they not choosing Paul Breaux? What are the factors?’”

But critics counter that those problems have been evident all along. Those complaints harried the LPSS schools of choice program since its inception in response to a court order to integrate the system in the early 2000s.

“Those [gifted] students were performing well before they got there,” former school board member David Thibodaux told the Daily Advertiser in 2002, as the district submitted its plan to federal court for approval. Paul Breaux, which had been the site of a magnet gifted program since the 1980s, was held out as a model of what was to come. “Those students’ scores artificially raise the scores at [Paul Breaux]. But have we improved the quality of education for the lowest-performing students there?” asked Thibodaux, a two-time school board president for whom David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy was named. Thibodaux died in 2007.

Disparities between zoned and magnet students have long been known and neglected, not just at Paul Breaux, but at majority-Black schools across the district, says Greg Davis, a long-time advocate for Lafayette’s majority-Black schools.

LPSS magnet programs draw students from around the district, but their students are disproportionately white. In practice, critics say, schools integrate on paper, but remain segregated by performance and daily school activities.

A young man speaks at a microphone in a room crowded with people in chairs
Former and current students rallied to defend Paul Breaux in March, after word swirled that LPSS might shutter the school altogether. Photo by Robin May

“If you go to every school in the parish and you disaggregate by race, you will find that there is a major performance gap by race at every single school in the parish,” says Davis. “So what that means is, you have a system-wide problem involving Black students in the Lafayette Parish School System. It is not a school-specific problem. It is a system problem.”

Paul Breaux Middle is a particularly extreme example. 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.

The result is a major performance gap at the school, as its white students received an A in last year’s scores while Black students got a D.

LPSS Associate Superintendent Mark Rabalais says the system is open to the possibility of intervening at Paul Breaux Middle with an Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) program similar to the ones being implemented at J.W. Faulk and Dr. Raphael Baranco elementary schools this fall, both of which feed into Paul Breaux Middle, though it’s not in the cards for the immediate future.

“Right now, our focus is making sure that we put as much effort and gusto into the current initiative that we have around J.W. Faulk and Baranco,” says Rabalais. “I mean, this is new to all of us. It's a learning curve for a lot of us. So, before we commit to one way or another, anything else, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got our sights focused on the right things and improving these schools as they are right now.”

Standing up a program like that would require significantly more funding than the district has available, and it would take at least a year to get off the ground, leaving students at Paul Breaux without significant intervention in the meantime.

That’s a situation that can’t afford to be ignored, says Trahan, who insists that the school system administration needs to engage with the community now to address fears that the school’s performance could slip further and reignite efforts to close it.

“You have to have some plan in place for the students that remain and not just a ‘We'll see next year’ kind of attitude [on] where the school will stand,” she says. “No, we should be having those conversations now, and I would encourage all of the families of the gen ed kids to be very vocal about their school, [about] what is being done in terms of dismantling the school.” — Additional reporting by Leslie Turk