An old day care center and polling station in St. Martin Parish is set to become a bastion for Cajun French culture.

The Jacques Arnaud French Studies Collective is preparing to begin classes there for visiting university students thanks to a lease agreement with the St. Martin Parish School Board.

“This is a stepping stone for us,” said Mavis Frugé, director of the French Studies Collective. “It will require a lot of work, but with our volunteers, anything is possible.”

The building is the former Savoy Nursery School, and visiting college students won’t speak or hear anything but French.

Classes for the French immersion program had been held in the lobby of NUNU Arts and Culture Collective, a cultural center and art gallery in Arnaudville.

“An art gallery is not a place for a classroom,” Frugé said. “When you’re supposed to do French immersion, you can’t have customers coming to shop and they only speak English. We want these students to hear only French.”

The School Board is looking forward to the partnership, said St. Martin Parish Schools Superintendent Lottie Beebe.

“It will reinforce the emphasis that we have on the French immersion program in our schools,”said Beebe, the former principal of Cecilia Primary, where a French immersion program is in place.

Beebe, whose ability to speak French is limited, said she supports such immersion programs “because I know the success of the program and the effect it has on student achievement.”

The School Board voted unanimously to allow the French Studies Collective to use the old day care center for $1 a year for the next 10 years.

Christian Goudeau, honorary French consul for Acadiana, floated the first year’s rent.

“He gave me a dollar and said, ‘the French government wants to pay your first year’s rent,’ ” Frugé recalled with a laugh.

So far, the French Studies Collective has entertained and educated guests from French programs at LSU, Tulane and even a group from Wisconsin.

Each school pays for its stay out of pocket, which infuses cash into the local economy.

“You can see where it helps a small-town economy,” Frugé said.

Coupling classes with hands-on cultural activities — like learning how to cook crawfish étouffée, sweet dough pies and coush-coush — gives the students a chance to see what makes Louisiana’s French culture so distinctive.

Students also have tried their hands catching crawfish or playing bourré with seasoned veterans of the Cajun card game.

All of it is done “en franç ais.”

“For kids from all over the states, this is such an experience that they would not have gotten to do in a normal classroom,” Frugé said.

Frugé said she hopes to expand the project to be year-round with many more colleges coming to the small town to soak up its unique, somewhat anachronistic culture.

In order to make the program year-round, she said, the collective will need a place to house the students.

They’re in talks with local officials to transform the abandoned St. Luke’s Hospital in Arnaudville into a dormitory.

“We don’t have a place in Arnaudville yet where the students can all stay together and ensure the evenings are still where all they hear is French,” she said.

Frugé said a major inspiration for Arnaudville’s French immersion program is the popular immersion programs at Saint Anne’s University in Nova Scotia, where Frugé spent a semester.

“I fell in love with the place,” she said.