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The nation’s oldest public Mandarin immersion program

June 6, 2013

Potomac school

Mandarin in Montgomery County, Maryland

By Elizabeth Weise

The oldest public Mandarin immersion program in the country was founded in 1996 at Potomac Elementary, in the town of Potomac, Maryland. It’s one of seven immersion schools in the Montgomery County Public Schools.

The district has a very long history of immersion. Its French Immersion Magnet Program began in 1974, Spanish in 1977 and Mandarin in 1996. Immersion is popular in the district and it is now home to seven immersion elementary schools out of a total of 133. Two are offered in French, three in Spanish and two in Mandarin. In 2012-2013 a total of 647 students applied for one of 286 available Kindergarten immersion seats, said Michael Herlihy, the lead teacher for Chinese immersion and English for Speakers of Other Languages.

The school district’s programs are a blend of several different immersion models. Some schools offer full immersion, where 100% of the class day is taught in either French or Spanish. Others offer what the district terms ‘partial immersion’ though all are at least 50% of the day in the target language. In most other school districts that 50/50 model is considered full immersion.


It all started with Française. French immersion in the district originally began at Four Corners Elementary School in 1974. The program moved twice and ended up at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville in 1992. That school served students living in the northern part of the county and was so popular that in the 1999-2000 school year a second French immersion program was launched at Sligo Creek Elementary in Silver Spring to serves students in the southern part of the county.

Students receive all their subject matter instruction in French. In Kindergarten through third grade French is the only language used in the classrooms. In fourth grade  students are given instruction in English twice a week for 45 minutes during the second half of the school year. In fifth grade students are given instruction in English for approximately four hours each week. Special subjects, i.e., art, music, and physical education, are also conducted in English in all grades.

This works out to approximately 80% of the school time spent in French in the early grades, approximately 60% in fifth grade and 30% in grades 6 though 8. In middle school students get two French-language blocks taught totally in French, one French Language Arts and one World Studies, at either Silver Spring International Middle School or Gaithersburg Middle School. Successful completion of the sequence allows the student to enter French 4 or French 5 honors classes in 9th grade.


The Spanish program at Rock Creek Forest Elementary was founded in 1977 with one class of first, second and third graders. It has grown from that one multi-age class to two classes at each grade level for a total of twelve classes of Spanish immersion from kindergarten through fifth grade. Two other schools were later added.

Rock Creek Forest Elementary offers what the school district terms “full immersion.” In kindergarten through third grade, Spanish is the only language used in the classrooms. It isn’t until fourth grade that students begin to receive English instruction and at that point it’s only twice a week for forty-five minutes during the second semester of the school year. In fifth grade they get English four times a week English for 45 minutes.

Because art, music, physical education and media center/library classes are also taught in English in all grades, students don’t spend 100% of their day in Spanish, however. In Kindergarten through third grade it’s approximately 72%, in fourth grade it’s 67% and in fifth grade 62%. In middle school they get two classes, Spanish Language Arts and World Studies, for a total of 29% of their school time in Spanish.

Upon successful completion of the middle school program, students are usually placed in level 4 Spanish in high school.

The district’s other two Spanish immersion schools offer what the district calls ‘partial immersion’ thought again, it would be considered full immersion in most other schools. At Burnt Mills Elementary and Rolling Terrace Elementary schools, students get all their instruction in Spanish in Kindergarten and first grade. In second through fifth grades math and science are taught in Spanish, about 50% of the day. Reading, English language arts and social studies are taught in Spanish. In fourth and fifth grades students get math and science.


Seventeen years ago there were just two other Mandarin immersion programs in the nation, both private and both in the San Francisco Bay area. That year, 1996, saw the opening of Potomac’s Mandarin program and two other private Mandarin programs. They were the International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, Calif. and the International School in Portland, Ore., which began offering Mandarin in 1996 after starting with Spanish in 1990 and Japanese in 1995.

The next public schools Mandarin immersion program didn’t come until two years later, in 1998 with the opening of Shuang Wen School (Public School 184) in New York City and Portland, Oregon’s public Woodstock Elementary.

Potomac Elementary School’s Mandarin immersion program was founded at the start of the 1996-1997 school year. College Gardens Elementary began a second Mandarin program in 2005-2006. In the Montgomery county program students spend half their day being taught in Chinese and the other half in English. Math and science curricula are taught in Chinese. English reading, language arts and social studies are taught in English.

All Montgomery County immersion program use the same curriculum for all students, only the language it is offered in varies. “We’re just teaching it in Chinese, but it is the MCPS curriculum,” said Herlihy. “Our teachers teach a split day.  For instance, one teacher will teach Kindergarten Mandarin in the morning and then first grade Mandarin in the afternoon,” said Herlihy.

In addition students receive one hour of direct language instruction in Chinese each week. The program continues at Hoover Middle School with two classes per day, one in Mandarin language arts and one in World Studies. When students get to high school at Winston Churchill High they can enter the regular Chinese language track, including Advanced Placement, Herlihy said.

Potomac and College Gardens both offer just one Mandarin immersion class per grade level, for a total of six classes per school. At Potomac Elementary there are 520 students, with 180 of them in the Mandarin program, which makes up one-third of the student body, Herlihy said.

The demographics at the schools are primarily white and Asian. At Potomac fewer than 5% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch. At College Gardens the figure is 19.2%.

The program uses simplified characters and is meant for students who are not native speakers of Chinese. However because of its proximity to Washington D.C. with its diplomatic corps and various other international agencies, there are many students who arrive having spent time in China. “We usually have some students who came from Beijing because their families were stationed there. We also have a number of heritage speakers in our classes,” said Herlihy.

The program is extremely popular. “It’s usually over-enrolled, there’s a waiting list,” said Herlihy.

Overall students in the Chinese program do “as well if not better than the general education students. “There’s a little lag at the beginning but they catch up and often outstrip them by fourth and fifth grade on standardized tests,” Herlihy said. The students achieve proficiency in Chinese and have near-native accents, visiting Chinese speakers have told teachers.

“The skill set here is really focused on listening and speaking because it’s immersion. When they get to secondary school there is more emphasis on reading and writing,” he said. Students get actual Chinese language arts training one hour a week. While “from Kindergarten on up they do reading and writing in Chinese, that’s not the emphasis” in elementary, he said.

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