MINNETONKA, Minn. -- The words are flying in Erik Thompson's class at North Hopkins Junior High.

Students are discussing a novel that brings up themes of loyalty, heartbreak and incarceration, but if you don't speak Spanish, you will miss all of it.

"All Spanish, all the time," said Thompson of his Juntos 2 class. "It means together," he explained.

The Juntos program is a teacher-driven initiative for immersion students and heritage Spanish speakers who want to continue their language education beyond the 6th grade.

"This is the next level of immersion programming, because it's not just about the language," said principal Becky Melville. "It's about intercultural awareness, global competency, being able to know the world is bigger than Hopkins."

Cultural awareness is a big theme in Juntos, which is divided into three levels. Junior High and Senior High students must test into the first level.

Thompson says part of the work of that first year is not just the language, but also learning how to work with a diverse group. Diverse in age, as Juntos covers students in the 7th through 12th grade.

Classes are also comprised of students who learned Spanish in immersion programs, as well as students who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes. For them, Juntos fills a need a regular language class does not.

"Because in Spanish, they just teach you little words, like little sentences," said tenth grader victor Alvarado. "Here we have to write essays."

"My biggest hope is that this puts them into more honors classes," said Thompson, who hopes his students will also be better equipped to compete in a global marketplace once they get out of school.

Students who already speak Spanish fluently say the structure of the course has lifted them academically. "I've been getting better grader ever since I got into this class," said Alvarado.

Students who complete the Juntos program also have the opportunity to earn college credit.

Next year, Juntos will add classes in science, which Melville says will give students an opportunity to expand their language skills into a more technical area.

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