When Lindsay Smythe wanted to grow her career, she moved to Canada — not to work, but to learn.
Smythe was a certified English teacher in Acadiana when she looked into getting her doctorate. To do so, she'd need to learn a foreign language, something she'd never done.
A south Louisiana native, she opted to study French — but not just from books. She took a year off teaching, moved to Nova Scotia and was immersed in the language at the university.
"I definitely know the feeling of 'sink or swim' with immersion," Smythe said.
But she loved it, so much so that she decided to change her entire career path. She got certified in French and went on to teach the language for years at Lafayette High and teach summers at the francophone Université Sainte-Anne in Canada where she learned.
"It has changed my entire life," Smythe said. "Being from Louisiana, learning French was like going through the wardrobe to Narnia. There was a whole world at my fingertips I couldn't understand before."
Now she takes her immersion experience and passion for French with her to work every day as principal of École Saint-Landry. The French immersion charter school in Sunset opened in August inside the former First Baptist Church of Sunset on Napoleon Avenue.
The school has about 55 students in kindergarten and first grade, with plans to expand by a grade every year until the it reaches K-5. Once the facility is ready the school is to be moved into the historic Sunset High School building, which Smythe expects could take place in year four.
The church closed during the pandemic, and the building was provided as the new school's "starter site," Smythe said.
The sanctuary now serves as the library, office and space for music class area on the stage. The former fellowship hall was remodeled with brightly colored carpet, classrooms and a space for the milk cooler and food warmers.
On a Monday in January about 15 kindergarten students sit in desks arranged in pairs as Monsieur Anthony Donze stands at the front of the classroom, talking in French about different bird habitats.
A slide projected behind him shows pictures of a penguin and a toucan, and Donze illustrates what he's saying by rubbing his arms like he's cold and flapping them like wings.
While the classroom walls feature signs only in French — nos regles de vie en classe — the bird slide features a written description in English. It doesn't seem to impact the 5-year-olds.
"We don't have much French curriculum, so nearly everything has to be translated," Smythe explained. "Since kindergarteners can't read yet they can use some in English."
More about École Saint-Landry: Registration open for French immersion charter school in St. Landry Parish
Students spend 90% of their day fully immersed in the language, learning all but one subject (90 minutes a day of English language arts) in French. They learn to read and write in both languages.
When first-grader Karly Cormier started the school year she knew one word in French — bonjour. A semester in she can sing entire songs in French and she can use it sometimes with her mom and sister, who also have studied the language.
Her classmate Jaxon Robin uses his French to talk with his parrain, who knows Cajun French.
"When we see each other we say bonjour," 6-year-old Jaxon said.
When he first started at the school he was nervous, thinking everybody else already would know French, but on the first day he could see that wasn't true. They were all in it together and starting at the same place.
"Now I don't even think about it," he said.
The school currently has three teachers from France and one from Sunset, with plans to add more teachers as enrollment grows. Registration is open for next year, with 60 spots for kindergarten students as well as a limited number of first- and second-grade slots open to children across the parish.
Smythe hopes to welcome teachers from different countries each year to expose students to more dialects and parts of the world.
Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: French immersion charter school growing in St. Landry Parish