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Staffing troubles means most San Francisco dual language immersion programs won’t have content classes past 5th grade

June 1, 2019
Starr King students

Starr King students at a Spring Festival event, 2007.

By Elizabeth Weise

Due to an inability to hire teachers to fill the necessary spots in middle and high school, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has reduced the number of classes it offers to dual language immersion program students past K – 5 grade schools. Nine middle and K – 8 schools will continue to offer advanced world language classes for students rising from K – 5 bilingual and dual-language immersion programs but almost no content classes taught in its immersion pathway languages will be offered.

The change, which was instituted this school year, comes because the district has had difficulty finding qualified candidates to teach middle school content classes in Mandarin and Spanish beyond 5thgrade. To do so in California requires teachers to have both a Single Subject Credential in the specific subject being taught and a Bilingual, Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development authorization (known as a BCLAD).

The change means, for example, that students in the district’s Mandarin dual-language immersion program will have a Mandarin language arts class during their middle school years but will no longer be taught social studies in Mandarin in 7th and 8th grades. A 6thgrade social studies class will continue to be taught while the district finishes its middle school curriculum redesign. Whether it will continue once that process is complete has not been decided.

San Francisco Unified offered four dual language immersion programs, in Cantonese (two elementary schools and one K – 8 school), Spanish (eight elementary schools and one K – 8 school), Korean (one K-8 school), and Mandarin (two elementary schools.) The district also has 11 Cantonese biliteracy programs and 13 Spanish biliteracy programs, all K – 5 and all designed for students learning English who speak either Cantonese or Spanish at home. These biliteracy programs work to develop high levels of proficiency and literacy in both English and the students’ home languages.

Aptos Middle School

Previously, the SFUSD model for dual language immersion in middle grades had been to offer one period of a content course taught in Spanish, Cantonese or Mandarin and one period of the language itself (as in Spanish Language Arts or Mandarin Language Arts.) Due to staffing challenges, different schools have offered different content courses at different times. For example, Roosevelt Middle School taught math in Cantonese, and Everett Middle School taught a Non-Fiction Studies course in Spanish.

In high school, the district has ended its Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish dual language pathways, with no high school now designated as a feeder for students who have been in middle school dual language immersion programs. Instead, students coming from these programs will apply in the general high school lottery like all other district 8th graders.

For Mandarin, that means applying for a seat at one of the district’s eight high schools that offer four years of Mandarin 1, 2, 3, 4 (also known as AP Mandarin.) Students are not guaranteed a place in a high school that offers four years of Mandarin.

More importantly, students coming from the Mandarin dual language immersion program up until now typically test into Mandarin 2 or 3. Students are not allowed to take Mandarin 4 (also known as AP Mandarin) in 9thgrade because the University of California university system does not allow high schools students to get an extra grade point for AP classes taken before 10th grade.

This means that even if their high school offers Mandarin through Mandarin 4, they could test in to Mandarin 3 and then max out on the Mandarin classes they can take in high school after sophomore year. It is also unclear what level Mandarin dual language immersion students will test into in high school when they have not been taking two classes each year in Mandarin during middle school.

Lincoln High School

Lincoln High School

At the high school level, SFUSD has never had a well-articulated Mandarin dual language immersion program. (In the education world, “articulation” means with efficient and effective progression from grade to grade). In the early years of the program, it was promised that students who persevered through high school would have access to higher-level Mandarin language classes as well as subject matter classes taught in Mandarin.

This did not come to pass. Mandarin dual language students arriving at Lincoln High School were instead given the district’s normal Chinese placement test and placed in the school’s regular Chinese 1, 2 or 3 class.

The students also took the district’s regular 9th grade high school biology course, taught in Mandarin. This was because Lincoln had a teacher on staff who spoke Mandarin and who had the necessary credentials to teach biology at the high school level. Past freshman year, no classes were available that were taught in Mandarin. The biology class will not be offered beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

SFUSD high school students can also enroll in City College of San Francisco’s dual-enrollment program with SFUSD and take Chinese 30 for one year and Chinese 31 the next year. The classes are offered Thursdays from 4:00 – 7:15 pm. This option works well for high who can get to the community college campus by 4:00 but can be difficult or impossible for students engaged in after-school activities that required daily participation, such as sports or arts programs. Depending on what high school a student is in, it can also require bus rides or car pools.

“The district touts City College as a great solution to continuing upper level Chinese, but the truth is that it’s extremely difficult both logistically and academically for a high school student, so it doesn’t really work for most,” said Mary Hannah, a parent with a child going into 10th grade in the district.

Aptos tile

Tile detail from Aptos Middle School

Putting SFUSD’s program change in context

Dual language immersion education in elementary school is different than regular language classes in that students are taught in a language rather than taught the language. Thus, dual language immersion students are not taught Mandarin, they are taught language arts, math, science, or social studies in Mandarin. This Mandarin immersion class time must happen for at least half of the day.

“By the definition accepted in the field, an immersion program has to offer 50% of instruction in the immersion language,” said Chan Lü, a professor of Chinese at the University of Washington in Seattle whose book, Chinese Literacy Learning in an Immersion Program, was published this year.

In SFUSD, the elementary school program begins with even more Mandarin — approximately 80% Mandarin instruction time and 20% English in Kindergarten. The amount of Mandarin instruction time slowly decreases, until by 4thgrade, 50% of the instruction time is in Mandarin and 50% in English. This is a normal dual language immersion program progression. About 75% of Mandarin immersion schools in the United States begin at 50/50 in Kindergarten, while 25% begin with higher percentages of Mandarin, as SFUSD does.

All dual language immersion programs shift when students reach middle and high school. In what is emerging as a consensus nationally on best practices in dual language immersion programs, middle school students typically take two classes per day in Mandarin, a Mandarin language arts class and a subject matter course taught in Mandarin. Some schools combine the two and teach a Chinese language arts course that incorporates Chinese history, culture, current events, and modern culture — all taught in Mandarin.

In high school, strong programs offer an advanced Chinese language course designed for dual language immersion students for each grade level and sometimes a second subject matter course that tends to incorporate things like film, business, politics, etc. Many are not offering college-level classes as well. Some examples of district- and state-wide programs are given below.

“Many schools refer to themselves as ‘dual language immersion continuation’ or ‘international schools’, and typically offer one or two periods of time in Chinese,” said Lü.

To be fair, SFUSD’s new plan of not offering content courses in the upper grades is not unprecedented. There are districts that only offer world language classes for dual language immersion students in middle and high school. That said, it is diminished from what was previously offered and does not put the district in the forefront of programs offering robust, strongly-articulated K – 12 dual language immersion programs.

cst 9987 Jie Ming Mandarin school

Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion School in St. Paul, on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. The K-5 school has moved into the former RiverEast school building in Highland Park. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

What other districts are doing

Mandarin immersion education is relatively new in the U.S. education system. The first such program was founded in 1981 and large numbers only launched in 2007. However, dozens of school districts now have programs that have grown to encompass middle school and at least 20 have students in high school. Best practices for middle and high school Mandarin dual language immersion are now emerging. For example, this year’s National Chinese Language Conference (NCLC), sponsored by the College Board and the Asia Society, features several workshops on teaching and developing curriculum in middle and high school.

That said, many state and district leaders acknowledge that it can be problematic to staff these programs, for the same reasons that San Francisco says it is reducing its language immersion program past grade school. Those reasons include the difficulty hiring properly credentialed teachers and the complexity of scheduling. Even so, multiple robust programs exist, and they are making it work. Some examples include:

Woodstock Elementary

Woodstock Elementary, home of Portland, Oregon’s first Mandarin immersion program.

Portland, Oregon

Portland is home to the nation’s second-oldest public school Mandarin dual language immersion program. The district has a strong immersion focus, with 15 schools offering immersion in Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, Vietnamese, and a proposed Arabic program. Currently, over 20% of the district’s Kindergarteners are enrolled in immersion programs, and over 11% of all students in grades K – 12 are in an immersion program.

In a paper published this year by the Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network, Portland Public School’s Michael Bacon outlined what Portland offers its Mandarin immersion students.

  • The K – 12 program today has approximately 740 students.
  • The program is fully integrated in grades K – 16, meaning it connects directly with college programs at the University of Oregon.
    • Over 40 students so far have entered the University of Oregon’s Language Flagship program.
  • Three elementary schools offer Mandarin immersion.
  • A Mandarin “capstone” program begins in 7thgrade, when students begin designing a China Research Residency for the end of 8th It culminates in a two-week academic experience in China that integrates language, culture, and content learning.
  • High-level Mandarin language arts classes are offered for all four years of high school.
  • The high school program also offers students the chance to study in China (in Yunan).
Woodstock interior

A bulletin board inside Woodstock Elementary with information about the parent group ShuRen which supports the Mandarin immersion program.

Minnetonka, Minnesota

This small, wealthy suburb of Minneapolis has a very strong immersion programin both Spanish and Mandarin. Both programs were launched to attract families to the town, which as its population aged was losing students and facing school closures. The gamble worked well, and today it is a highly sought-after district. Minnetonka’s middle school program incorporates a students’ advisory period so they are able to take a longer Mandarin language arts and social studies course taught in Mandarin without missing out on electives.

In high school, students take advanced Mandarin and also have access to several programs, which include:

  • Chinese Film and Culture (1 semester)
  • Introduction to Chinese Politics (1 semester)
  • Chinese Conversation and Composition (1 semester)
  • Minnetonka High School Immersion Program Abroad – China (½ credit, 2nd semester-June travel)
  • Business in a Global Economy (taught in Mandarin)
  • Marketing (taught in Mandarin)


    The website of the Utah Mandarin Immersion Parent Council, which provides information for families with students in the Mandarin immersion program state wide.


The state of Utah has the nation’s only state-wide language immersion program, which is run by the Utah Department of Education. It includes Spanish, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, and Russian. Immersion is currently offered in 223 schools in the state.

In part because the program is designed and organized at the state level, it has strong support and infrastructure. Each school district doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, as too often happens in district programs. The first eight grade schools in Utah to launch Mandarin immersion programs only did so in the 2009-2010 school year, so thus far the state as a whole offers high school Mandarin immersion only up to 9thgrade.

Despite that, Utah has a well planned pathway for students which will result in them graduating from high school with nine university-level credits, almost enough to have a minor in Chinese even before they begin college. Students take two classes in Mandarin each year of middle school and then a year-long, high-level Mandarin course each year of high school. They have the option of taking AP Chinese in either 9th or 10th grade. The program is robustly connected to University of Utah Flagship language program, offering immersion students a seamless transition into university with all their credits flowing directly into degree programs. The progression looks like this:

  • 6th grade         Mandarin Language Arts, Social Studies
  • 7th grade         Mandarin Language Arts, Chinese Culture, History & Media
  • 8th grade         Mandarin Language Arts, Chinese Culture, History & Media
  • 9th grade         Mandarin 5, AP test at the end of the year
  • 10th grade       3000 level Mandarin bridge course (3 university credits)
  • 11th grade       3000 level Mandarin bridge course (3 university credits)
  • 12th grade       3000 level Mandarin bridge course (3 university credits)


Saint Paul Public Schools, Saint Paul, Minnesota

The district’s Chinese Language and Culture program in high school is part of the Highland High School International Baccalaureate program. Freshman and sophomore students take Chinese immersion 9 and 10, both of which are honors courses and both of which are taught entirely in Chinese. They read short stories, poetry, novels, study current events and use authentic materials from China to cover a range of topics such as history, geography and the cultures of China. In 10thand 11thgrade students take the International Baccalaureate Chinese course and can take advantage of the state’s “College in the Schools” program and earn up to eight third-year college level University of Minnesota credits.

Los Angeles Unified School District

LAUSD has ten schools with Mandarin dual language immersion programs. There are six elementary schools, three middle schools and thus far one high school. The most built-out of the programs begins at Broadway Elementary School, continues to Mark Twain Middle School and continues at Venice High School.

At Mark Twain, students in the Mandarin dual language program have two classes, Mandarin Language Arts and social studies taught in Mandarin. The first class of 8thgraders graduated from Twain’s Mandarin dual language program this year. The Broadway elementary program has been so popular that it has had up to four incoming Kindergarten classes in some years.

The incoming 6thgrade class at Twain Middle School will be large enough to fill two middle school classes, even though they are larger than grade school classes. In the high school program, students will take a Mandarin language arts class and one additional class taught in Mandarin, possibly math or history.

Starr King teacher

A teacher in Starr King’s inaugural Mandarin immersion class.

Some background

San Francisco Unified has long been a leader in dual language immersion programs, especially in Asian languages. Its West Portal Cantonese immersion program, launched in 1984, was a historic first, the first public Chinese immersion program in the nation. The next Mandarin immersion school in the United States did not launch until 1991. San Francisco’s Mandarin dual language immersion program launched in 2006, at a time when there were only 19 Mandarin immersion programs nationwide. In addition, SFUSD offered a K – 5 Korean immersion program and a Japanese program that, while not immersion, offered Japanese lessons beginning in Kindergarten.

The programs served multiple purposes. They gave students whose native language was not English a bilingual program that allowed them to both learn English and maintain their home language, which decades of research shows results in better academic outcomes. They allowed students who only spoke English to become fluent in a second language at a near-native level. And used as magnet programs, they brought families who likely would have gone to different schools or even left the district into schools that they otherwise might not have considered.

For Mandarin, that certainly was the case. Starr King Elementary, where the program began in 2006, had been on the district closure list for three years because of low enrollment and poor test scores. It is now fully enrolled and has a waiting list. The same is true of Jose Ortega Elementary, which was also on the school closure list and where a second Mandarin immersion program was launched in 2007. Both schools are now thriving.

School administrators emphasized to families that they were making a 13-year commitment to the immersion program. For Mandarin immersion to produce fully bilingual and biliterate students, parents were told, they must stick with the program through grade school, middle school, and high school. This was not a program you could hop into and then hop out of and still get serious benefit from, principals frequently told touring families. “We’re in this for the long haul, and you’ve got to be too!” the program’s first principal, Chris Rosenberg, would admonish families considering applying in the school lottery for a spot.

However, a program that fulfilled the district’s needs at two grade schools proved challenging at the middle school level and beyond. By high school, the district has said, the program was broken. It couldn’t hire the necessary teachers and also has found that students’ Mandarin was not always good enough to take subject matter classes in the language. As Dr. D. Brent Stephens, the District’s Chief of Academic Officer at the time, wrote in a memo about the District’s language programs on October 16, 2018:

“Not all incoming 9th graders who have been in a language pathway in middle school are proficient enough to successfully learn other subjects taught in the pathway language at the 9th grade level. This can harm their ability to learn core subjects. For example, 9th grade students might have trouble learning Biology in Mandarin without the necessary language proficiency. Students have also said they prefer to learn additional subjects in English.”

The difficulties of immersion

The San Francisco experience illustrates some fundamental challenges faced by dual language immersion programs in general, and Mandarin programs in particular.

The first is finding properly credentialed teachers who can teach in the higher grades. Many program administrators admit privately that they are concerned how their programs will be built out through middle and high school. Finding bilingual elementary school teachers is difficult but not impossible. Finding higher grade teachers can require large amounts of time and energy on the part of middle and high school administrators.

The other is the issue of using these programs as magnet schools to bring families to a school or district they might otherwise have avoided. It is especially true of Mandarin immersion, because in some urban school districts the programs tend to have a higher proportion of white and Asian students and are typically more middle class. This allows districts to fill classrooms and create schools with diverse student populations but also creates a population of families in the dual language immersion tracks that typically has fewer underrepresented minorities than in the overall school or district student population. This can create tensions.

In Portland, for example, this is playing out in a struggle between the district and the parents in the Mandarin immersion program over the program’s popular and educationally important “capstone” visit to China in 8th grade. The trips, which cost $3,500 per student, are funded by outside sources, most as a result of parent fundraising. All students in the dual language immersion program who want to go are able to go. However, some district leaders believe that the travel program is inequitable, because it is not available to all students but only to those in the Mandarin Immersion program. (Portland’s Japanese immersion program also sends students to Japan.)

According to the Willamette Week, the school board “has committed itself to judging every dollar that Portland Public Schools spends by whether it helps narrow the opportunity and achievement gaps that separate the district’s middle-class white students from lower-performing poor and minority students.” Because Portland’s Mandarin immersion program has a higher proportion of white and Asian students than its general population, it is seen as providing extra resources for already privileged students.

Even in Utah, where schools tend to be more homogeneous, there are issues between immersion and non-immersion programs, including perceptions of student segregation, non-immersion students being seen as less important and not having the opportunities that immersion students have, non-immersion classes having too many students with learning disabilities and weighing down teachers, and immersion programs having access to extra grant money.

This is all by way of saying that districts need to be honest both with themselves and with parents about the benefits and challenges that dual language immersion programs, especially Mandarin, bring with them and deal with them openly and in good faith. Too many parents report feeling they are labeled as elitist and entitled simply for taking part in a program that their school district itself created.

Other districts doubling down on immersion

It is sad that staffing and scheduling difficulties make it impossible for San Francisco to continue its dual language immersion programs at the level of class time and rigor they were originally designed for. This comes as other large urban school districts are doubling down on immersion as a way to strengthen their schools, provide support for English language learners, and keep and attract families who might otherwise leave their districts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has almost quadrupled its immersion offerings over the past three years and, as of last year, had a total of 137 programs offered in Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Armenian, French, and Arabic.

In addition, California has approved a statewide Seal of Biliteracy and last year launched a Global California 2030 initiative that calls for half of the state’s students to participate in programs leading to proficiency in two or more languages. By 2040, the state wants three out of four students to be proficient in two or more languages. The State Department of Education clearly states that dual language immersion programs are a vital part of that effort.

“Requests by parents for these programs are already on the rise, especially since the passage of Proposition 58 removed barriers to setting up these programs. As part of Global California 2030, we are striving for even more dramatic growth, with the goal of quadrupling the number of programs from 407 in 2017 to 1,600 in 2030.”

Is immersion still worth it?

This, of course, all raises a hard question for San Francisco parents — is it still worth putting your child in Mandarin immersion if it is reduced after 6th grade?

There are several answers. Will students have the same outcomes that they would if they had two classes in Mandarin through middle school and appropriately rigorous Chinese classes in high school? No, they won’t. But it’s still possible to craft a strong Chinese program if you work at it, taking Mandarin in middle school, Chinese 3 and 4 in high school and then the two years of classes offered at San Francisco City College. This results in student graduating high school with a much higher level of Mandarin (and a near native accent, if they come from a non-Chinese speaking home) than they would have had had they only taken Mandarin in high school.

There are also multiple intangibles that come from being in a Mandarin immersion program. First, both Starr King and Jose Ortega are strong schools overall with well-articulated programs. Teachers in middle and high school report that students who have studied Mandarin for six years in grade school are “highly imaginative,” “do higher level thinking,” “have endurance to work hard,” are “focused and dedicated,” and “have good organization.” One teacher at Aptos said, “I feel like when I have MI students in my class, I’m reaping the fruit of the six years of Mandarin immersion education they’ve gotten.”

Given this, the best thing families can do is provide as much support as they can to their children in grade school and then get them in as many Mandarin classes as they can in middle and high school. This should position them well to continue on with Chinese studies at a relatively high level after high school.



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