VILLE PLATTE — Evangeline Parish, an area rich in Cajun and Creole history, will be home to the state's two newest French immersion education programs.

State and local officials on Wednesday announced the expansion of French immersion into the parish with programs starting this fall at Ville Platte Elementary and Mamou Elementary.

"This is our culture, and we can't let it die," said State Rep. Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, at a Wednesday morning ceremony attended by Gov. John Bel Edwards, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and state Superintendent of Education John White.

Evangeline Parish will become the 11th parish in the state to offer French immersion education in an effort spearheaded by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

Students in French immersion programs spend most of their day being instructed in French.

Immersion programs began in Louisiana in the 1980s and have grown from a few hundred students to more than 4,500 statewide, according to figures from CODOFIL.

The expansion into Evangeline Parish marks an increase in interest in the program from rural school districts and follows the launch of a new immersion program last year in Pointe Coupee Parish.

"We see a trend right now of going into some of the more rural parishes, which is great," said CODOFIL Executive Director Charles Larroque.

The recent growth also comes as CODOFIL is regaining its footing after sometimes struggling to maintain funding in the state budget under the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"It was a program that we thought was going to come to a screeching halt," said state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, a French speaker and ardent supporter of French immersion.

Edwards said Wednesday that French language and culture is crucial in setting Louisiana apart from the rest of the nation.

"Cajun and Creole culture is alive and well in Louisiana, from our food to your last names," he told a crowd of students and community members packed into an auditorium at Ville Platte High School.

The expansion of the immersion programs into Evangeline Parish came together quickly.

School Superintendent Darwan Lazard said he was approached only three months ago about bringing immersion programs to the parish and enthusiastically embraced the concept.

"I just saw this as a great opportunity for the community," he said. "It is part of the cultural fabric of this parish."

Lazard said the immersion programs will begin with kindergarten and first grade and expand through eighth grade as the first classes of students progress.

"This is the first step in a long journey," he said.

Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.​