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Mandarin immersion schools in the United States in 2014

November 20, 2013

White boardBy Elizabeth Weise

Excerpted from the forthcoming A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion

As foreign language teachers from around the nation gather in Orlando for the annual American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages convention, I wanted to post an analysis of the statistics I have gathered for Mandarin immersion programs in the United States going into 2014. 

U.S. schools that are home to Mandarin immersion programs come in all shapes and sizes and are scattered across the nation. There’s Alice Boucher World Language Academy in Lafayette, La., Dutchtown Elementary in Hampton, Ga., and Monte Vista Elementary in South Jordan, Utah. You can spend nothing but your energy at Doss Elementary in Austin, Texas or over $40,000 a year at Avenues: The World School in New York City. Your child can learn Mandarin at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco’s José Ortega Elementary, or Cherokee Elementary in Lake Forest, Ill.

These programs’ numbers keep growing. As of November 2013 there were 147 schools[i] in the United States that offered Mandarin immersion programs to K – 12 students. The vast majority of them are elementary schools and over half of the programs were begun in the 2009-2010 school year or later.

While enrollment figures for each program are impossible to come by, even a conservative back-of-the envelope calculation results in a large national enrollment. A low-ball figure of 120 students per program, six classes ( K – 5) times 20 students per class, results in 17,640 students sitting in a Mandarin immersion classroom on any given school day. A more reasonable number of 150 students per school (some are higher, some will be lower so this is a guesstimate average) results in 22,050 students nationwide.

Year-by-year

The first Mandarin immersion school in the nation, San Francisco’s Chinese American International School, opened in 1981. It wasn’t until 1991 with the opening of Pacific Rim International School in Emeryville, Calif., that a second appeared. The next didn’t come along until 1996 when the first two were joined by two more, Potomac Elementary in Potomac, Md., the nation’s first public Mandarin immersion program, and the private International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, Calif.

Things stayed somewhat steady, with a few programs opening every year or so. Then things took off in the fall of 2007, with 15 new programs that year and 12 the next. For the nation, it looks like this:

Programs by year chart

Fall of   new programs         total programs

1981                1                                              1

1991                1                                              2

1996                2                                              4

1997                1                                              5

1998                3                                              8

1999                1                                              9

2000                1                                              10

2002                2                                              12

2003                1                                              13

2004                2                                              15

2005                3                                              18

2006                5                                              23

2007                15                                            38

2008                12                                            50

2009                17                                            67

2010                17                                            84

2011                20                                            104

2012                25                                            129

2013                18                                            147

These numbers illustrate some interesting trends nationally. Three of the first four Mandarin immersion schools were all in the San Francisco Bay area. That’s not surprising given that, according to the U.S. Census, the area’s population was 23% Asian in 2010.[ii] In the case of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco (1981), the immersion program came from the desire of a non-Chinese speaking mother who had adopted a son from Taiwan to give her child the language. San Francisco’s 30% Chinese-American population was a major factor in its early success, though now the school is popular among non-Chinese parents as well.

Originally opened in Berkeley, the Pacific Rim International School (1991) is also a Montessori school, emphasizing “joyful, meaningful and integrated learning.” That combo, the rigor of learning to read, write and speak Chinese, with the more free-form Montessori method, is perhaps a unique American version of the perfect school.

The third of the trio, the International School of the Peninsula (1996) originally began as a French language school in 1979. It added a Mandarin immersion track in 1996. That’s not uncommon among private immersion schools; they began with another language and then added Chinese when interest began to rise.

Also in 1996 the first public Mandarin immersion program was launched at Potomac Elementary School in Maryland. It was very much aimed at high achieving, non-Chinese speaking parents who wanted a ‘value add’ to their children’s education. Add the 1998 opening of public Woodstock Elementary School in Portland, Ore., and you’ve got the full range of school motivations. Woodstock’s program was definitely aimed at getting better-resourced families to look at a school that had low test scores and falling enrollment.

During the Mandarin immersion “boom” that began in 2007, California launched five programs in five different school districts. In Minnesota the same thing happened, with four schools opening in four different school districts. In 2008 California started another five programs, and in 2009 another four.

Utah emerges as an immersion giant

Also notable in 2009 was the launch of Utah’s Dual Language Immersion program. That year saw 25 immersion schools open in the state, eight of which featured Mandarin. Since then the state has launched 20 more Mandarin programs, bringing bringing the total number of Mandarin immersion schools in Utah to 28. Because its immersion program is coordinated state-wide by the Utah State Office of Education, Utah is the single largest curriculum and policy builder in the field of Mandarin immersion.

Utah’s reach is felt far beyond the state because it was one of the creators of the Flagship-Chinese Acquisition Pipeline in 2012. F-CAP’s goal is to create a model K – 16 Chinese education program, implement the program in Utah, and then disseminate it throughout participating states.[iii] As of the winter of 2013, six state departments of education as well as school districts in 14 states are members, and a total of 57 schools nationwide use the Utah template for their Mandarin immersion programs.

The double digit expansion of new Mandarin immersion programs isn’t slowing much. As of November 2013 I have gotten word of programs in seven states that expect to open for the 2014-2015 school year. The numbers could be as low as 12 or as high was 15.  They include multiple programs in Arizona, Delaware and Utah and single programs in Kentucky, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Where they are

There are Mandarin immersion programs in 26 states and the District of Columbia. California has the most with 37. It is followed by Utah with 26. Oregon has eight; Minnesota, Maryland and Colorado seven. From there the numbers fall, with 16 states having four or fewer programs.

California’s programs cluster in the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas, with only a few in the eastern parts of the state. They consist of 51% public schools, 40% private and 8% charters. Utah’s programs are all in public schools and scattered statewide, as their program is also statewide.

Of Colorado’s seven programs, four are at one of the Global Village Academy’s campuses, all charter schools. All of Delaware’s six programs are public, part of the state’s master plan for world language immersion programs, which also includes Spanish programs. Minnesota’s eight programs are all public, while New Jersey’s three are all private.

In cities, Portland, Ore., has the most programs, with six. That include three elementary schools, one public and two private, two middle school programs, one public and one private, and a public high school. San Francisco has five programs, offering parents a choice of four different elementary schools, two public and two private, and a public middle school. The private programs are both K – 8 while the public schools feed into a public middle school Mandarin program. Six cities have three schools: Atlanta, Ga., Denver, Colo., New York City, and Berkley, San Jose and Santa Clara in California.

Public, Private or Charter?

The majority of Mandarin immersion schools are public. Charter schools make up the smallest group and private schools the next largest.

Mandarin immersion programs in the United States

Type               #          %

Public              113      76% (of those, 18 are charter schools, or 15%)

Private             34        23%

An analysis of the types of Mandarin immersion schools being launched over time yields interesting results. Half of the first 10 programs (1981-1997) were private schools, when there was little knowledge or interest in Mandarin immersion nationally. The next 20 (1998 – 2007) included 25% charter schools. Most appear to be cases of parents wanting a Mandarin immersion programs for their children but not being able to convince their local school district to create one, so they did it themselves. The final 117 schools (2007 – 2013) have percentages pretty similar to the entire nation: 68% public, 11% charter and 20% private.

There are three religious schools offering Mandarin immersion in the United States. The Zeeland Christian School in Zeeland, Mich., will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2015. It offers both Spanish and Mandarin immersion, as well as English. All Souls Catholic school was founded in 1924 and closed its doors in 2010 due to low enrollment. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in Alhambra, Calif., decided to re-open it as the nation’s first Catholic dual-language immersion school, with both a Spanish and a Mandarin track. Reid Temple Christian Academy in Glenn Dale, Md., launched a Mandarin immersion program for the 2011-2012 school year. The school itself was founded in 2005.

Elementary, Middle and High schools

In general, charter and private schools tend to be K – 8 (kindergarten through 8th grade), while public schools tend to be K – 5. In Utah, where kindergarten is not mandatory, many programs are 1 – 5.

Most programs nationally were so new in 2013 that there were few public middle school programs for Mandarin immersion students, as the programs hadn’t yet produced a crop of sixth graders. The ones that do exist are in Potomac, Md., Portland, Ore., San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Chapel Hill, N.C.

High schools with Mandarin immersion programs that are linked to K – 8 programs, so that the language progression is continuous, are still rare. Portland, Ore. had Cleveland High School and there are likely a few others but what schools offer advanced Chinese appropriate for immersion students isn’t always clear on school district web sites.

There appear to be three K – 12 schools. They are the two Pacific Rim International school campuses in Emeryville and San Mateo, Calif. and Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley, Mass.

Simplified or traditional

The vast majority of Mandarin immersion programs use simplified characters, the less complex form adopted by China in 1964. They are used in China and Singapore. Traditional characters, the original more complex forms, are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and by many in the Chinese diaspora.

Eighty percent of programs (119) used simplified in 2013, while 20% (28) used traditional. Private schools were the most likely to teach traditional characters, followed by charter schools and then public schools.

Public schools:            86% simplified, 13% traditional

Charter schools:          72% simplified, 27% traditional

Private schools:           67% simplified, 32% traditional

Strand versus whole-school

Most Mandarin immersion schools are strands within a larger school. That means the school has multiple classes per grade level, some of which are in the immersion program and some of which are part of the school’s regular English-language program. For example, at Jose Ortega elementary in San Francisco each grade has three classes. One of them is a Mandarin immersion classroom and two are “General Education” as the district terms plain-vanilla English language instruction. Some schools feature more than one language taught as immersion, which I’ll outline below.

About a quarter of the immersion programs are in whole-school environments, meaning the entire school is devoted to Mandarin instruction.

In breaking down strand versus whole school, I removed middle and high schools as none of them are whole school environments. I looked instead at the K – 5 and K – 8 schools. Out of the 141 schools that begin Mandarin immersion in kindergarten or first grade, 82% (116) are strands within a larger school while 18% (25) are whole school environments.

One-way and two-way immersion

Immersion programs come in two types, one-way and two-way. One-way means the program is set up to teach English speakers the “target language” (in our case Mandarin.) Two-way means the program is meant to go both ways, students who enter speaking only Mandarin will also learn English, while students who come in only speaking English will also learn Mandarin.

Schools adopt two-way immersion when they have a large cohort of English Language Learners (ELL’s in education-speak). Most Spanish immersion programs are two-way, because most U.S. communities have Spanish-speaking students who need to learn English. Most Mandarin immersion programs are one-way because few communities have enough Mandarin speakers to make up half the students.

Of Mandarin immersion schools, 83% are one-way programs (123) and 16% (24) are two-way. All of the two-way schools are public except one, Pacific Rim International School in San Mateo, Calif. is in a community with a very high number of recent immigrants, many of them in high-paying jobs in the tech industry in Silicon Valley. The one two-way charter school is Washington YuYing in Washington D.C., which is in a community with a high number of immigrants.

Not surprisingly, given that according to the 2010 U.S. Census 36.2% of Chinese immigrants lived in California, the majority of two-way schools are in that state. California is home to 58% of two-way programs.[iv]

Multi-language schools

There are 28 schools that offer Mandarin and another language through immersion. Spanish is the most popular, with 18 schools offering both. French is next with 10 schools offering both, followed by Japanese with 5, German with 3 and Russian with 1.

Almost all have names that use the words as “international” or “language,” rather than Chinese. Fourteen of these are private, 9 are charter schools and 5 are public. At least two teach, or plan to teach, their students three languages through immersion, in both cases English, Mandarin and Spanish. That’s the case at the Atlanta Trilingual Academy and the proposed Racine, Wis. Trilingual Immersion Montessori school, slated to open for the 2014-2015 school year.

The future

It’s difficult to know if Mandarin will continue as a strong part of the U.S. educational world, as Spanish and French have, or if they’ll fall by the wayside as Japanese and German have done. Given that U.S. parents are beginning to realize the worth of having children who speak a second language, as well as the tremendous immigration from China the United States has seen and China’s ever-growing place on the world stage, it seems unlikely there will be anything but growth in the foreseeable future. Only a lack of teachers, because there are few teacher training programs that feature Chinese immersion as an area of specialization, seems likely to slow the introduction of new programs.


[i] There is no master, “official” list of immersion schools in the United States, or internationally, for that matter. I have been keeping a list of these schools since 2007 and have attempted to include them all. It is available on my website, the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council. However information is often not readily available.  If I have missed a school, my apologies. Feel free to contact me to update and correct the current listings. Email me at beth@elizabethweise.com

A huge thanks to Joan Fang, whose son began in the Mandarin immersion program at Bergeson Elementary in the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County in 2012-2013. She volunteered to input the schools the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council had collected into a spreadsheet. Her work made it possible to analyze information about the programs. Thanks also to the database of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C., which contributed to the list

[ii] Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Bay Area Census. San Francisco Bay area. http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/bayarea.htm Accessed Nov. 9, 2013.

[iii] F-CAP. Chinese Flagship Center, Brigham Young University. “K-12 Outreach.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2013. http://chineseflagship.byu.edu/chineseflagship/k12.html

[iv] The Asian Population: 2010, 2010 Census Briefs. March 2012, Nov. 18, 2012. http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-11.pdfp 18

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2013 9:42 am

    Reblogged this on Utah Mandarin Immersion Parent Council and commented:
    From sister-organization in San Francisco -and Elizabeth Weise – who is writing a guidebook for parents of Mandarin learners…an interesting analysis of the rise of immersion programs.

  2. January 22, 2015 7:51 pm

    Abraham Lincoln High School at San Francisco Unified School District has been offering Cantonese immersion since 2011. Next school year, the school will start offering Mandarin immersion.

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