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The State of Mandarin Immersion in the United States: June 2019

June 16, 2019

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By Elizabeth Weise

Mandarin immersion schools in the United States are both growing as a steady pace and maturing. As of the fall of the 2019-2020 school year, there will be Mandarin immersion programs in 306 schools. Of those, 15 will be new. This is part of an overall strong growth in Mandarin immersion nationwide, with a steep increase in schools beginning in 1999 that has continued ever since. Recent years have seen large gains — 28 new schools launched in the 2017—2018 school year and a stunning 31 in  the 2018—2019 school year.

In the past several years, about half of new schools are entirely new programs, while the other half are middle and high schools that Mandarin immersion elementary school programs launched over the past decade are now maturing into.

In the 2018-2019 school year, of the 31 schools that launched Mandarin immersion programs, 17 were either elementary or K – 8 schools, 7 were middle schools, and 6 were high schools. The remaining school was a private K – 12 program.

Public schools continue to predominate in Mandarin immersion, making up 72% of all Mandarin immersion schools in the nation, compared with 15% of private schools and 11% of charters schools.

The programs are also growing across the country. California is home to the most, with 77 schools offering Mandarin immersion. Utah, with its strong state-wide immersion program, is next, with 66. The next largest is Minnesota, which has a long history of Mandarin immersion and has 13 schools. New York, Oregon, and North Carolina are tied, with 11. Nine states have just one Mandarin immersion school so far.

There are 17 states that have no Mandarin immersion programs: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Building out, cutting back

Some districts are building out their programs while others are cutting them back.

In Cumberland, Maryland, the Mandarin immersion program was launched in West Side Elementary School in the Allegheny County Public School District in the fall of 2012. This year, in the fall of 2018, the Kindergartners that began in that program started into sixth grade, and their school district launched its middle school program at Braddock Middle School. In 2021, that first cohort of Mandarin immersion students will reach ninth grade, and the Allegheny County Public School District will continue the program into high school. Thus, it will have one Mandarin immersion program in three schools.

Many districts plan far ahead and do an excellent job of informing parents what is to come. For example, in Eugene, Oregon, the Eugene School District launched the Chinese Immersion School in the 2017-2018 school year with both a Kindergarten and 1stgrade class. The district has already announced that the program will continue into Kennedy Middle School in the fall of 2022 and at Churchill High School in 2025.

Other school districts are backing away from their immersion programs. For example, the San Francisco Unified School District, as of the 2019—2020 school year, will no longer offer a subject matter class in Mandarin past seventh grade. Beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, it will cease offering an immersion program (at least 50/50 instruction in Mandarin and English) past fifth grade. The program will remain in the city’s two public K – 5 schools, but in middle school,  Mandarin immersion students will only have access to a Mandarin Language Arts class. In high school, they will only have access to the regular Mandarin 1, 2, 3, 4 progression of classes.

The reason the district has given is that it was too difficult to hire teachers, and also that it believes it is inequitable to offer world language classes only to some students in middle school. It is worth noting that San Francisco’s public school system was an early adopter of Mandarin immersion, launching at Starr King Elementary School in 2006, when there were only 24 such schools in the nation. But without support and buy-in from district officials, programs can quickly be dismantled, especially in the upper grades.


In fact, that’s been an issue in the Allegheny County School District, where some on the school board are opposed to the immersion program and have tried to shut it down. Thus far they have not succeeded.


A note on these numbers

While Mandarin immersion programs (MIPs) in the United States have experienced rapid growth since the first one was founded in 1981, there exists no official list of Mandarin immersion programs nationwide. I include here only schools that fit the definition of immersion set forth by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis: Instruction takes place in the target language (i.e. Mandarin) for at least 50% of the school day during the elementary school years. In middle school, there should be at least one subject matter course taught in Mandarin. In high school, there should be at least some type of continuation course that offers Mandarin at the appropriate level for students who have been immersed in the language for ten years.

When a program appears to be in flux, I try to give it the benefit of the doubt and keep it on the list even if it’s not clear that true immersion is being offered. However some schools have shifted to a FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) model rather than teaching subject in Mandarin, and those I remove from the list when that change occurs.


History of Mandarin Immersion Programs in the United States

The first Mandarin immersion program (MIP) in the United States was founded in 1981 in San Francisco. The Chinese American International School (CAIS) taught 50% of the school day in Mandarin Chinese. It was designed for students coming from both Mandarin- and English-speaking families, though all entering students were expected to be able to speak English, and English-speaking families have always been the larger student population.

The second such program came 10 years later, with the opening of the private Pacific Rim International School in Emeryville, California. Another 5 years passed before two more opened in 1996—Potomac Elementary School in Potomac, Maryland, the nation’s first public MIP; and the private International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, California. International High School, an off-shoot of the French American International School in San Francisco, also began offering a Mandarin continuation program for CAIS graduates in that year, though in the early years its population depended on whether any CAIS graduates enrolled at the school.

By 2000, there were only 11 Mandarin immersion programs in the nation. However, the numbers began to grow rapidly in the 2000s, due in part to the increasing economic status of China. This trend took off after 2006, when the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) was created. Its aim was to expand U.S. foreign language education beginning in early childhood, and it focused specifically on “critical foreign languages—specifically Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian and languages in the Indic, Iranian and Turkic families.”

Grants funded by NSLI in 2006 and 2007 were focused on programs that taught one of those languages, with the majority proposed for Chinese. This perhaps explains the large increase in MI schools in 2007 and beyond. Many school districts won Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grants to create or build out programs. Examples included Portland, Oregon, which expanded its program from one classroom to two classrooms per year, and San Francisco, which launched its first MIP and Southeast Elementary School in Tulsa. Unfortunately, the FLAP grant program was eliminated by Congress in 2011 as a budget-cutting measure.

Language immersion has increasingly become popular with school districts seeking to provide dual-language programs for English language learners while also offering a program for English-speaking families who wish to give their children access to a second language. Mandarin immersion offers both of these attributes, as well as being perceived by many parents as providing a more academically rigorous program that will be challenging to children. The confluence of motivation on the part of school districts and parents has been responsible for the rapid rise in the number of programs over the past decade.


Sources of Information about Mandarin Immersion Programs

The Mandarin Immersion Program List was initially compiled based on the Directory of Foreign Language Immersion Programs in U.S. Schools, which was collected by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 2011. That list was input into an Excel spreadsheet by a parent with a child in a Mandarin immersion program in June 2012.

I then began to add schools that were not listed in the Center for Applied Linguistics Directory. The main source of information about new and unknown MIP was hits returned from an automated, daily Google Search for the terms “Mandarin immersion” and “Chinese immersion.” As new programs launched, the Google search picked up local news reports about the program and sometimes their PTA announcements. Another way to find information about a new MIP was monitoring education-related email lists, websites, and the Mandarin Immersion Parent Support Group on Facebook, as parents in newly-created programs frequently post messages asking for information and assistance.

In addition, I look at educational conference proceedings for reports of new programs and follow the websites of districts and states with robust MIPs to see when new programs are added. Finally, I keep the spreadsheet on the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council blog, and ask that programs check their listed information for accuracy or send information if they were not listed. A surprising number do so each year.

I also sometimes receive emails from parents or administrators of new programs, or those who have found programs not listed on the spreadsheet. If information has been left out, I try to call the program to ask questions and get the missing information from them.

I have tried to make my list as comprehensive as possible, though it is sadly not exhaustive. It represents a minimum, but not a maximum, of the programs currently in existence. Every effort has been made to keep it as up to date and complete as possible


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