News + People

Opportunity for All in Union County

School District a National Leader in Dual Language Education

Taylor Pollino vividly remembers her first day of kindergarten beginning with her teacher welcoming students with “ni hao,” or “hello” in Mandarin. And for the rest of that first day, and the weeks and months that followed, her teacher spoke almost entirely in Mandarin.

“I was really excited that first day and a little overwhelmed, but in truth, I was so young that everything was new, so it was very natural to just listen and learn,” Pollino said.

Pollino and her classmates were pioneers in Union County, North Carolina, the first students to enroll in the district’s new Mandarin immersion program. At the same time, other kindergarteners were trailblazing a parallel path in the district’s new Spanish immersion programs at two other elementary schools.

Now as she finishes 10th grade at Marvin Ridge High School, Pollino recently took her Chinese Advanced Placement exam, the culmination of 11 years of studying Mandarin that all started with that hello in kindergarten. 

There were many steps in between that first day and taking the AP exam. For one, she said her dad has heard her talking in her sleep in Mandarin. And she traveled to China with her family during the summer after sixth grade, a trip that started with her understanding the announcements on the plane intercom in both English and Mandarin, much to her family’s delight.

“I was fully immersed when I was in China,” she said. “I found myself eavesdropping on conversations to see if I could understand, and I usually could.”

Pollino’s journey to becoming bilingual is an educational success that is becoming increasingly commonplace in Union County, a fast growing district east of Charlotte that is now a national leader in providing and implementing dual language education. 

From those three elementary schools 11 years ago, Union County now has thousands of students from kindergarten through high school immersing themselves in either Spanish or Mandarin through dual language programs run in partnership with Participate Learning, a Chapel Hill organization focused on global education. 

What distinguishes Union County’s approach is the focus on having dual language available in every part of the county, and ensuring that it doesn’t end in elementary school. That means implementing programs in all nine of the district’s access zones that extend to middle and high schools, said Superintendent Andrew Houlihan.

“We try to do two things: work to have dual language immersion elementary schools in every vertical feeder pattern and to keep a commitment to our parents that dual language is not just for elementary schools, but there are pathways for middle and high school students, which I believe really separates us,” Houlihan said. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done to ensure that no matter where you live, there is access to dual language.”

How it All Began

Scott Spencer still remembers the telephone call he got in 2012. Spencer was principal at Shiloh Elementary School in Union County, and two assistant superintendents had a question.

“They said they were looking to bring dual language to Union County and wondered if I was interested in hosting it at my school,” said Spencer, now the principal at Marvin Elementary School. “I think I said yes before the call finished.”

To learn more about dual language programs, Spencer and other school leaders visited Cumberland County. After seeing the dual language programs at several schools, Spencer said the car ride back was full of excitement and talk about replicating that success in Union County.

That visit to Cumberland County also was the start of Spencer’s relationship with Participate Learning, which helps districts develop and implement dual language programs with a wide range of support services. Those services include district- and school-level planning and goal setting, curricular resources, and frequent site visits to ensure program goals are being met. Participate Learning also helps the district identify and place experienced international exchange instructors who are native speakers. Union County hosts more than 100 Ambassador Teachers through Participate Learning.

In the fall of 2012, the district started its dual language push with kindergarteners in three elementary schools: Shiloh and Sun Valley (now called Shiloh Valley), which offered Spanish immersion, and Marvin Elementary School, which offered Mandarin immersion.

At first, initial interest from parents was somewhat limited, as joining a brand new program required a leap of faith, Spencer said.

“As we got going, though, those parents and students got really close, organized a lot of events, and became our biggest supporters,” Spencer said. “When we had recruitment nights over the years, the existing parents would come speak about how much they liked it. That word-of-mouth got other principals and parents interested, and they wanted it at their school.”

Jennifer Pollino, Taylor’s mother, was one of those first parents. Though her work with a global company convinced her that learning Mandarin would be invaluable for her daughter, she had plenty of questions and concerns at the start, and at points along the way.

“At first, we were both thrilled and intimidated,” she said. “Then, when my husband and I went to the first parent program—it was a holiday program—we saw the teachers ask questions in Mandarin, and the kids answered. We were just amazed at how much the kids had learned in such a short time.”

Expanding Opportunities for Kids

For parents who have seen their children complete elementary school immersion, continue in middle school, and now reach high school fluent in a second language, the benefits of dual language are clear, and not just about becoming bilingual.

Stephanie Tomalis enrolled her daughter Anabeth in Spanish immersion the first year it was offered. As Anabeth now finishes her sophomore year in high school, the wide range of benefits has become clear.

“It’s not just the academic piece, but all the other opportunities that this opens,” Stephanie Tomalis said. “Being bilingual is amazing, but there’s also the cultural competency. Children learn to be curious about what is different, and that’s a huge benefit that opens doors well into college and into life.”

The resource the district leverages to provide that combination of instructional excellence and cultural curiosity is the native speaking exchange teachers vetted and placed through Participate Learning. Founded in 1987, Participate Learning helps Union County hire experienced, trained instructors who are native speakers—and known as Ambassador Teachers—while also providing expert help in integrating dual language instruction into the schools.

“I cannot say enough good things about the teachers we have had,” Tomalis said. “The teachers have been phenomenal, and by sharing their cultures as they teach, the kids look at what is different with real curiosity and a desire to learn more.”

Jeny Murillo has spent four years as an Ambassador Teacher at Porter Ridge Elementary School, during which she has spoken with many nervous parents whose kids are starting dual language classes. The Participate Learning Ambassador Teacher from Colombia has a simple message: trust the process; your kids are going to fly.

“At the Christmas program, all the parents attend, see their kids doing Colombian dances and singing in Spanish, and all the parents are crying to see all their kids have learned,” Murillo said. “As they learn, their brain is working in two languages, which helps them adapt quickly to learning new information. They want more, and are anxious to learn, which is super for the program and for me. I feel I did something great!”

The results have been great. Jessica Garner, Director of College Readiness for the Union County Public Schools, said the district has three clear goals for the dual language program, which are that students become bilingual/biliterate, that they develop strong cultural competency, and that they perform at or above their peers.

“Our students are accomplishing all of these goals,” Garner said. “That’s measured by district-wide performance on End of Grade tests, and we track the AAPPL assessment (the leading assessment of foreign language proficiency), which shows that 78.6% of our students have already achieved proficiency in a second language in Spanish or Mandarin by the end of eighth grade.”

Those impressive results come from the combined commitment of students, parents, teachers, and the school district. Just as parents and students rave about the quality and commitment of their Ambassador Teachers, the teachers point to the support they receive from the district and families.

Dayaine Camarillo from Colombia said that the support from the district and community started on the day she arrived and continued through all five of her years with the district.

“The support starts at the top, from the superintendent advocating for the program to parents supporting new teachers when they move here,” Camarillo said. “My [Participate Learning] local advisor was so amazing and helped me so much when I arrived, which is what made me want to be a local advisor.”

The district—along with Participate Learning—also provides many professional development opportunities. These include Participate Learning resources such as workshops, online courses, and the chance to earn a U.S. Master’s degree. The district also provides opportunities such as attending and presenting at conferences, or to fellow teachers in Union County.  Orosia Cortez, an Ambassador Teacher from Peru, said that being given the chance to lead makes a big difference.

“We have regular meetings, and everyone has the opportunity to make a presentation, and that makes a big difference,” Cortez said. “When you are given an opportunity, as a teacher, it makes you really want to give all you have. And I’ve learned so much from my fellow teachers.”

As a principal, Spencer said that the opportunity to learn extends both to the exchange teachers and their U.S. colleagues.

“As much as they learn from us, we learn from them,” Spencer said. “Every place does it a bit differently, which makes it an amazing opportunity for both us and them.”

Expanding Dual Language

The dual language program continues to expand in Union County, with two more schools planned in partnership with Participate Learning for the 2023-24 school year, as interest continues to grow in the community.

For Houlihan, the focus in the years ahead is sustainability and awareness to keep families engaged and informed of the opportunities the district provides students.

“A big goal is to continue to build enrollment,” Houlihan said. “We’re seeing a push for school choice, and we’re promoting choice and the innovative offerings and programs we have, of which dual language immersion is an important option.”

Adrienne Rorie has one child in Spanish immersion at Wingate Elementary School and hopes for a second child to start next year. For parents considering dual language for their children, she recommends starting with an open mind.

“Reach out to other families who have gone through the program and hear about their experiences,” Rorie said. “It can help with more than just learning a new language. I think the focus on understanding and being curious about other cultures is important for all aspects of life.”

For Anabeth Tomalis, getting ready for her junior year of high school after starting kindergarten in Spanish immersion, learning Spanish has opened up many new opportunities beyond being asked to translate from time to time.

For starters, her family joined several others in the immersion program on a trip to Costa Rica in the summer after fifth grade, where any doubts about being able to communicate in Spanish disappeared.

“We went on an excursion, and some of the guides on the ziplines didn’t know English, so I was able to translate between them and the parents,” she said. “It was a really good experience, especially since I was able to understand everything.”

Since then, she’s been to Mexico, but the country she’s really interested in is Colombia, mainly because so many of her Participate Learning Ambassador Teachers have been from Colombia.

“I really do want to go to Colombia because I’ve basically grown up with it,” she said. “My final presentation in AP Human Geography was about Colombia. My teachers have been so caring and dedicated, so I definitely want to go visit.”

Andy Barron

Andy Barron is the former Director of Public Relations at Participate Learning. He focuses on telling Participate Learning's story of success in providing cultural exchange and enhancing K-12 education.

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