Chinese American International School (CAIS), San Francisco, California

Chinese American International School (CAIS), San Francisco, California
Jeff Bissell, Head of School
Kevin Chang, Chinese Program Director
Jonas Crimm, International Programs Coordinator
Nell Wollner, Middle School Assistant

Founded in 1981, CAIS is an independent pre-Kindergarten through Grade 8 co-educational Chinese-English dual language immersion school. The CAIS program is oriented around the school mission: “Embrace Chinese; become your best self; create your place in the world.” To these ends, CAIS offers a Chinese-English dual language immersion curriculum with up to 50% of each school day in Chinese. CAIS’ curriculum is supplemented by a robust offering of international travel programs for current students, high school-aged alumni, and faculty and staff.

CAIS students in pre-Kindergarten through Grade 5 spend one-half of each school day learning the core subjects of language arts, social studies, and math in a Chinese immersion setting with native Chinese speaking teachers and one-half day learning these subjects in English with native English speaking teachers. In middle school, the key subjects of math and science are taught only in English, as students are prepared for high school.

CAIS offers international travel programs for students in grades 5, 7, 8, middle school, and high school as well as a faculty institute.

Study Abroad Programs at CAIS
5th Grade Exchange
Students in 5th grade participate in a two-way exchange with the program’s partner school in Taipei, Taiwan, usually in the spring (late March-early May). Activities include in-class study, experiential activities/classes, and field trips. Students stay in host families with a 5th grade “buddy” for the duration. Several weeks later, the Taiwanese "buddies" come to CAIS to live in their American friends' homes and attend a similar two-week program focused on English language learning and American culture. All students can participate, and most of the 5th grade class chooses to go. (In 2013–2014, 36 of 40 students participated.)

Grade 5 Assignments
The students have no structured production following the program, although they complete assignments in their English and Chinese classes, which include a formal presentation in Chinese class. Assignments will be more structured in the future.

7th Grade Beijing Academy
The CAIS Beijing Academy is a three-week immersive Chinese program for all 7th

grade students in Beijing, China, typically in May–June. Operated in conjunction with CAIS’ partner school in Beijing, the Academy is structured to improve students' Chinese fluency and cultural knowledge. Students have intensive Chinese classes three to four hours each morning; in the afternoons, students engage in experiential activities, field trips, classes, tutoring/reflections/check-ins, and other enrichment activities, which allow students to utilize language learned during classroom sessions in authentic cultural contexts. Students live in homestays for the duration of the program. Student participation is expected except in the case of health concerns (i.e. allergies), and most students participate. Program staff are considering further development of the program, with a larger travel component in a more remote area. A group of students from the partner school (typically including most of the homestay "buddies") comes to CAIS for a two-week intensive English program during the summer, and CAIS program participants are encouraged but not required to host them. Hosting is open to the entire CAIS community.

Grade 7 Assignments
Students have daily oral presentations and written tests throughout the three-week program. At the end of the program, students give a structured final presentation and take comprehensive oral and written tests. Since the program ends after the last day of school, students are not required to produce any immediate output for the CAIS community, though this will change. In the future there will be increased follow-up in the 8th grade curriculum, and arts, English/Chinese journaling, and other assignments will provide connections with the CAIS curriculum.

8th Grade China Adventure
The 8th Grade China Adventure is a two-week experiential learning program in a remote region of western China, usually in April. Organized in partnership with an on-the-ground travel agency, the program is focused primarily on developing students' cultural knowledge and broadening perspectives on China and its diversity through engagement with local communities. While language development is still a goal, the program focuses more on developing students' understanding of life in rural or minority areas of China, and of the cultural, geographical, and social environments in which diverse groups live. Site locations have included Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces. The program includes rough travel, site visits, school partnerships, experiential learning (working in fields, teaching, etc.), cultural activities, independent/group experiential learning activities, connections with the CAIS curriculum, time and space for reflection and response, short village homestays, and outdoor activities. The program also has an extensive pre-departure component, with ties to the social studies curriculum, assigned readings and presentations, and several orientations to the political and ethnic/cultural sensitivities of western China. Student participation is optional (students with severe allergies are generally encouraged not to participate), and typically 1/2 to 2/3 of the class participates. The physically and mentally challenging nature of the trip requires students to engage fully and grapple with what they are seeing and doing on a daily basis. Students are required to complete a short application form to participate.

Grade 8 Assignments
Students complete assignments throughout the course of the trip as well as a daily trip journal and an art project and give presentations in Chinese class upon return. Students have said that the journals are extremely helpful for processing and understanding their experience and that they would be interested in sharing or compiling some of their writing. Program staff are developing ideas for capstone projects linked to the trip, which might include a science-fair-like event.

Kunming Immersion Program
This new program for all Middle School students will be implemented in collaboration with CAIS’ partner school in Kunming, Yunnan. The program will be structured similarly to the 7th Grade Beijing Academy, with morning classroom learning supplemented by experiential activities, field trips, and cultural classes in the afternoons. Students will also travel to a rural area outside of Kunming for several days to experience rural life and engage in experiential service projects.

High School Summer China Academy
The new six-week Summer China Academy program in Kunming, Yunnan, will be open to CAIS graduates and other high school students from the San Francisco Bay Area with advanced levels of Chinese. While the program will focus on language acquisition, there will also be a two-week travel component and an independent learning project.

Faculty China Institute
The CAIS China Faculty Institute (CFI) is a two- to three-week summer program aimed at enabling CAIS faculty and staff to “embrace Chinese” through meaningful engagement and immersion in China. The overarching goal of CFI is to empower participants to experience and understand the diverse, dynamic nature of modern China through authentic group professional development, and to apply the knowledge gained to enrich curriculum and classroom teaching at CAIS. Through participation in CFI, CAIS faculty and staff will: experience and understand China’s diversity and the dynamic nature of modern China; develop strong personal connections to people, places, and communities in China through authentic interactions with a diversity of Chinese people; apply knowledge, experience, and personal connections developed in China to enrich curriculum and teaching in CAIS classrooms; strengthen the CAIS community through shared experiences and collaboration with colleagues; build loci of curricular integration between languages and subject areas that can be developed into classroom units and lessons; and engage in impactful experiences in China that will inspire professional growth. The first CFI program will bring a group of approximately 15 faculty and staff to China in the summer 2015. A series of pre-departure orientations (including language classes for non-Chinese speakers) will be held in advance of the trip, while participants will engage in a program reflection and wrap-up upon return.

Teachers in the school serve as chaperones. Teacher chaperones are selected through a process of internal application and review.

Program Funding
The program is funded primarily by participants' parents and in part through the school’s operating budget (which includes school tuition and fees). Students on financial aid receive assistance for the trip in the same proportion as their standard award for tuition.

Benefits of Participation
There are many benefits of participating in the programs. Students’ language ability improves (especially speaking and listening about practical, everyday topics). Students develop independence, patience, a sense of responsibility, increased tolerance of and respect for differences among people, improved cultural knowledge, and a spirit of camaraderie with each other. In the 8th grade program, through living and traveling in remote, rural areas, students gain:

  • Greater awareness of their relative socioeconomic, cultural, and political place in the world, and of the complex and often conflicting relations between individuals, communities, cultures, and governments
  • Improved knowledge and understanding of China's complexity and the range of modern issues faced by a diverse Chinese population (especially rural residents and minorities)
  • Development (often quite rapid) of independence, patience, sense of responsibility, tolerance, and especially "grit"
  • Improved language ability (especially with different accents and dialects and tasks related to everyday life)
  • A great spirit of togetherness among the group, especially fostered by the unanticipated adventures during the trip

Program Challenges
There are also a number of challenges:

  • 5th grade students are quite young, and it is often their first trip away from home alone, so extra care and planning are required.
  • Some 7th grade students see the trip as an early summer vacation from school, and some view the difference and “foreignness” of the systems in China as an excuse to act in ways that would be considered out of line in the U.S, so these issues need to be discussed.
  • Students with allergies often struggle, and information needs to be shared with their host families.
  • Communication with parents of the students and with the partner programs and host families can be challenging, as complex schedules are worked out and changes are sometimes made.

For 8th grade students:

  • The physical roughness of the trip can be a challenge, and there are frequent check-ins and times for reflection.
  • Student illness: There is need for a beefed-up first-aid kit and emergency response plans and extensive briefing of parents and participants prior to applying for the trip and prior to departure.
  • Political sensitivities: There are frequent and extensive pre-departure briefings and reminders.
  • Student behaviors with host families: At this age, challenges are often due to issues and sensitivities that the students aren’t aware of and need to learn about ahead of time. 

Programs Wanting to Run a Study Abroad Program Will Want to Know

  • Program organizers should be clear about the goals of the program first, before implementing it.
  • Then create a solid program structure, with purposeful and clearly stated ways to reach those goals and also with some flexibility and room for movement.
  • Be explicit about program structure and expectations with everyone involved: parents, participants, partners, and chaperones. Create a framework to guide their expectations of what will happen in the program, when and how, and what is fixed and what is flexible.
  • Flexibility and patience are important: While programs for younger students must be extensively structured, it is also important to allow for chance and randomness within the boundaries of the overall goals; it is often the unanticipated experiences that are the most memorable and meaningful.


  • Experts in the field of Chinese language education answer questions that practitioners working in the field ask about.