Sides assess impact of nay vote on Chinese charter school expansion

  • Amherst Regional Middle School Building

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 09, 2017

HADLEY — Even though an expansion of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School was rejected Feb. 27 by the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, school officials aren’t necessarily giving up on increasing the student body.

But Richard Alcorn, the executive director of the school, said in an email Tuesday that officials haven’t yet decided how to proceed following the decision.

“I will be meeting with the PVCICS board of trustees later this week to discuss how to move forward,” Alcorn said. “I remain optimistic we will be able to make more seats available for students who wish to come to PVCICS.”

The state board, at its meeting in Malden, voted 7-2 to reject a recommendation from Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester to increase the school’s enrollment by 452 students. The board approved three new charter schools, as well as expansions at four existing charter schools.

Though the Chinese language immersion school is currently 113 students below its 584-student cap, Alcorn said adding more students is not practical at its Russell Street site in Hadley. Having the ability to nearly double the current enrollment would give the school the financial stability to add another site that would provide additional classrooms, needed so the school can offer more electives, as well as offer better facilities for extracurricular activities, such as sports.

Alcorn said the school made progress in securing support since making the request last year, including the endorsement by Chester, who had previously not recommended the substantial increase.

Jacqueline Reis, spokeswoman for the the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the earliest the school could make another expansion request is summer, around Aug. 1.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association, said he anticipates PVCICS will be back with the request and will satisfy any outstanding questions.

“We see it as a delay,” Kenen said.

Kenen added that the board is independent and shouldn’t act as a rubber stamp for the commissioner, and that the Chinese immersion school remains an amazing place for children to learn.

Demographic concerns

Michael Morris, acting superintendent for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, said he was pleased with the board’s vote and appreciated that its members saw the demographic concerns about the charter school educating fewer disabled children and children from racially diverse backgrounds. In fact, Morris made the case that expanding the school would increase segregation by pulling out students from already high-performing districts.

Morris added that he appreciated the mobilization of parents, teachers and administrators throughout the region.

“I know many school committees and superintendents shared their perspectives with the board,” Morris said.

In addition to Morris, Peter Demling, a candidate for Amherst School Committee, Peter Gunn, an Easthampton School Committee member and Cara Castenson, chairwoman of the Pelham School Committee, spoke to the board.

Castenson said Pelham Elementary School is in danger of being forced to close if it continues to lose children. With only one class and one teacher for each grade, any money lost from school choice students cuts into educational programming.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy said she was in the audience for the meeting.

“I attended the board meeting and was very happy about the vote, especially by the decisive margin.,” Appy said. “I believe that an expansion to PVCICS would have led to more public funds being drained out of our schools by an unfair funding formula that pits charter schools against our districts’ public schools.”

Meanwhile, Amherst parents interested in seeing whether Mandarin Chinese classes could be incorporated into the curriculum at Amherst Regional High School were scheduled to meet with Principal Mark Jackson and interim Assistant Principal Ericka Alschuler Wednesday evening.

Jackson said the meeting was set up as a way to be responsive to concerns from the community and was not initiated by school officials.

Maintain the cap

Northampton School Committee sent a letter which, like one from Amherst, indicates students with disabilities are underrepresented at the Chinese charter school and that the board should hold off on the expansion until the state finds a better way to pay for charter schools.

“While it is not within the board’s purview to find a solution to the chronic underfunding of public education, it is within its power to provide some relief to our district by maintaining the current cap on student enrollment at PVCICS,” the committee wrote.

In a letter to the board, Alcorn characterized concerns as “eleventh-hour objections of a well-organized and vocal minority that objects to our expansion” and disputed that it would have a drastic impact, pointing to the Education Reform law that mandates charter schools take no more than 9 percent of any district’s net school spending.

Alcorn termed the board’s nay vote as “opposition (that) came as a surprise.”

Reis said it is unusual for the board to go against a recommendation. It has been six years since it last happened.

“The last time they did so on a proposed charter school or charter school expansion request was in 2011, when the majority of the board rejected a proposed charter school in Lynn that the commissioner had recommended,” Reis said.

Morris observes that the case made was compelling enough that the chairman of the state board, Paul Sagan, who made a $100,000 contribution to the campaign last year to lift the cap on charter schools, voted against the expansion.

Appy said a report the board received that contained exit surveys from some parents of special education students leaving PVCICS seemed to resonate with board members. That report also prompted Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to request an investigation into the matter and to hold off expansion until the matter was sorted out.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.