In recent years, districts across North Carolina have made a big push to offer dual language programs, making the state a national leader in giving students the opportunity to learn a second language from an early age.
Yet most of that dual language push has been in elementary schools, leveraging how years of research shows that students pick up the new language faster by starting in kindergarten or first grade. The growing challenge on the road to bilingualism is now middle school, as districts work to bridge the gap between the rigorous learning through dual language in elementary school and the advanced courses offered in high school.
To address this challenge, Participate Learning created Conexiones, which is designed to ensure continued growth in Spanish language proficiency while preparing students for more challenging work in high school.
More and more North Carolina districts have selected Conexiones as the best continuation of dual language programs in elementary school, the majority of which are staffed by international educators selected and supported by Participate Learning. Today there are 33 Conexiones schools in North Carolina and Virginia, with more districts adding Conexiones each month. Recently, both Person and Dare counties added Conexiones for the 2023-24 school year.
“Conexiones empowers middle school students to grow in their bilingualism while also learning about and taking action on problems that will prepare them for their future careers,” said Jason Straus, Conexiones product manager at Participate Learning.
Conexiones accomplishes these goals through project-based learning led by teachers who are native Spanish speakers. In addition to learning life-long problem-solving skills, Conexiones focuses on providing students with a deeper understanding of the world through cultural exchanges. This can include international exchange teachers identified through Participate Learning teaching the classes, which gives students a chance to connect with the teacher’s home countries.
The highlight each school year is the Model United Nations (UN), where students from Conexiones schools across the state gather to discuss—entirely in Spanish—a critical issue facing both communities worldwide and requiring solutions at the national and global levels. Students study the issue and propose solutions from the perspective of the nation they represent.
This year’s Model UN will be held at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) on March 28. Students from more than twenty schools—including one attending virtually from Colombia—will gather to discuss the challenges brought on by water scarcity and potential solutions different countries can promote.
Conexiones also provides schools and teachers with significant educational resources. Schools and teachers in Conexiones have access to an online Community of Practice that provides twelve units of classroom lessons per grade level that draws on social studies and science standards. Teachers even get a pacing guide to know how fast students should comprehend the materials.
Having a curriculum that is both aligned with state guidelines and in Spanish is a significant resource, particularly in middle school, where finding authentic materials in Spanish to meet the specific state guidelines can be very challenging. Translation of existing materials from English to Spanish is simply too time-consuming for most teachers.
The International School at Gregory, a K-8 school in Wilmington, has been a Conexiones school since 2016. Paola Weimann, an exchange teacher from Argentina, plans to bring 32 students to the Model UN, students who have been preparing for months. They even visited their local water treatment facility to have a better idea of how they get clean tap water.
Weimann thinks that the combination of continuing to strengthen their Spanish skills along with projects focused on finding solutions to challenging problems makes Conexiones an excellent program for middle school students.
“The best thing about Conexiones is that students have impactful learning experiences, and they learn a second language at the same time,” Weimann said. “Students learn about the world, and they work locally to make global changes.”