Portland Public Schools Mandarin Immersion Program, Oregon

Portland Public Schools Mandarin Immersion Program
David Kojo Hakam, Curriculum Specialist/Mandarin Teacher

Portland Public Schools is recognized nationally as a pioneer for public schools in bilingual education, with immersion programs in Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese. The district’s second Mandarin immersion program started in the summer of 2014, and negotiations are under way to begin a Somali immersion program. The Mandarin program started in 1999, and is one of the longest running public school immersion programs in the country.

Grade 8 Program
The China Research Residency (CRR) is an integral part of the 8th grade immersion curriculum, in which students spend two weeks in the historical surroundings of Suzhou, China, in the spring for an intensive language and culture experience. By focusing on academic, linguistic, and personal development, the CRR offers students the opportunity to carry out field research, live with a Chinese family, and practice Mandarin every day in various authentic cultural environments. Click here to watch a brief video of grade 8 students from the Portland Public Schools Chinese immersion program in Suzhou, China, the sister city of Portland Public Schools.

Grade 8 Assignments
Students play an active role in planning and preparing for the trip. In the fall, students are placed in one of eight different government “ministries” (部门), each with specific roles and responsibilities carry out prior to departure. Below is a brief description of each ministry:

  • Communications: Send regular updates and important information to families.
  • Legal Affairs: Collect and manage trip-related forms and documents. Provide visa information.
  • Gifts and Purchasing: Decide on and purchase gifts. Purchase binders, pens, etc.
  • Chaperon: Create chaperone application; interview and select parent chaperones.
  • Fundraising: Decide on and facilitate fundraising opportunities.
  • Technology: Design and manage trip-related blog.
  • Translation: Write an introductory letter to the sister school; interpret for the principal’s speeches.
  • Scheduling and Planning: Help the trip leader schedule and plan all mandatory meetings; plan the Capstone Evening.

Each student conducts field research for an individual inquiry project and produces a mini-documentary film in Mandarin, culminating in a capstone presentation in late May upon return from China. Much of the work on the inquiry project is conducted in class prior to departure, which includes focusing on a relevant question about contemporary Chinese culture and comparing and contrasting U.S. and Chinese society.

Students also engage in student-led, small-group (four to five students) field studies that include leading a chaperone on several different excursions and exposing them to the incredible contrasts and contradictions of a fast-changing China, including ancient towns, modern metropolises, and historical attractions in or near Suzhou. Students are expected to buy their own tickets, ask directions, navigate transportation, and interact with locals in order to learn about the history and culture of each field study site and complete the documents associated with the field study. The home stay with a Chinese family is also a vital component of the program. Typically, students spend a full week with their hosts, learning first-hand about the cultural nuances and day-to-day rituals of a modern Chinese family. Students are compelled to negotiate Chinese culture and society independently using learned language and culture skills, and possibly develop lifelong friendships in the process.

In addition to the on-site field study assignments and daily journal writing, students develop two products for their capstone:

  1. An inquiry project: Students select a topic (eating habits, shopping habits, recycling, cell phone use, etc.), conduct surveys of students in the U.S. and Suzhou, do data analysis, and write a thesis paper in Chinese. On the capstone evening, students present their findings using poster boards with graphs and charts and summarize their findings in English for an English-speaking audience.
  2. A 5-minute video documentary: Students select a topic (street food, architecture, Chinese family, etc.). Prior to departure, they conduct research on the topic selected. While in Suzhou, they collect video images. Upon return, they begin the editing process, which includes selecting video clips, voice over (narration) in Chinese, English subtitling, and selecting background music. Each student is required to say a minimum of three connected paragraphs in Chinese.

Students play an active role in planning the trip. They are placed in different “ministries” (部门)—communications, technology, chaperone, translation, etc.), and each ministry has specific roles and responsibilities to fulfill as a required part of student participation in the program. The Chaperone ministry is responsible for interviewing and selecting parent and teacher chaperones, although the trip leader has the final say. The trip leader consults with the School Principal but is ultimately the lead decision maker for the program.

High School Program
The Summer Institute in Yunnan (SIY) is a four-week program for immersion high school students in grades 9–11 that focuses on community service, intensive language classes, field studies, and village home stays to move students toward advanced language proficiency and advanced cultural competency. Highlights of the experience include:

  • exploring historical landmarks in and around Beijing on engaging field studies
  • an epic 28-hour train-ride across China to Yunnan (sleeper class)
  • community service with autistic children or at a school for migrant children
  • small language classes
  • a horseback ride to a 700-year-old village
  • village homestays and service projects in ethnic Bai and Yi villages and towns

The trip leader designs and decides on the program curriculum and itinerary.

High School Assignments
Assignments for the SIY have five major components: journal writing, field studies, intensive classes, community service, and the Capstone Video Documentary:

  • Journal Writing: two to three paragraphs of daily reflection in Chinese
  • Field Studies: Experiential task-based assignments designed for specific locations
  • Intensive Classes: 15 hours of instruction to support community service tasks
  • Community Service: Students are required to interview NGO employees, engage in a real-world working environment in China
  • Capstone Video Documentary: Students produce a 5-minute mini documentary in Chinese highlighting at least one major experience on the trip: village life, community service, home stays, etc.

Criteria for Student Participation
Students need to be at least at Intermediate Low for the middle school program and Intermediate Mid for the high school summer program. Students must abide by specific behavior requirements during the school year. 8th grade students participating in the Research Residency in Suzhou and their parents must sign a notarized Behavior Contract.

For the 8th grade CRR, the student-led Chaperone Ministry is responsible for selecting the Chaperones (six to eight parents and one staff member), although the trip leader has final approval. The selection process includes: deciding selection criteria, design and distribution of Chaperone applications, formal interviews, and final voting.

Program Funding
Parents and students are responsible for fundraising. Shuren is the immersion parent organization that helps organize and facilitate fundraising events throughout the year.

Benefits of Participation
The key to the program’s success is having clear objectives and goals, along with tasks and outcomes tied to the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. The majority of students have consistently demonstrated remarkable improvements in language skills, particularly in speaking and listening (using valid pre-and post-assessments), even with the 2-week program. Other tangible benefits include:

  • greater appreciation of Chinese culture
  • increased intrinsic motivation to learn Chinese
  • increased independence
  • increased ownership by students of their own language learning

Program Challenges

  • Funding is always a challenge, particularly in a public school context.
  • Organizing parent involvement at the high school level can be more challenging than at the elementary school level.
  • “Helicopter parents” want to get closely involved in program planning and implementation.
  • Getting administrative support.
  • Managing logistics with the sister school in Suzhou.

Programs Running a Study Abroad Program Will Want to Know

  • It is important to have in place a strong administrative support system and careful management of logistics with the partner programs in China.
  • Find a sister school and avoid using a 3rd party as much as possible.
  • Try to involve parents in fundraising.


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