Hadley charter school appeals expansion setback

  • Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, in front of the school in Hadley. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/SARAH CROSBY

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

HADLEY — The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School has decided to appeal a decision from the state’s education commissioner not to recommend the school’s expansion.

The charter school announced Tuesday that it will request that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education take up the expansion request despite acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson’s denial of a recommendation to the board last week. Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director, asked that the board take up the request at its February meeting.

“PVCICS has worked hard to create a world-class school that serves students of all abilities and backgrounds and we are determined to be able to serve more students who deserve this option,” Alcorn said in a statement.

The expansion request is the school’s second in the past two years, and would increase enrollment to 1,036 students. The school’s enrollment as of October was 493 students, with a maximum allowed enrollment of 584.

Last year, then-Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended the school’s expansion request to the board, but board members took the rare step of voting against that recommendation, rejecting the expansion application in a 7-2 vote in February.

Central to that denial, according to correspondence from the education department, were four concerns raised by the board: that the school had not reached its maximum enrollment, had not “demonstrated sufficient enrollment demand,” was not enrolling a student population comparable to sending districts, and had experienced high attrition rates for students with disabilities.

The expansion has also faced some stiff local opposition. Education officials in nearby school districts that send students to the school — including Amherst, Easthampton and Northampton — have spoken out against the school’s expansion, saying it does not adequately reflect the demographic and educational makeup of the region, and that it would devastate their schools’ finances.

In denying the school a recommendation last week, Wulfson wrote that school officials “did not provide sufficient evidence to address the Board’s concerns.”

In a letter to Wulfson on Sunday, however, Alcorn said he believed all of those issues had been addressed.

“PVCICS has addressed the specific concerns identified by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s … staff on every occasion and has provided most recent data to support our request,” he said.

Alcorn cited the school’s academic success, including exceptionally high scores on the state’s new standardized exam for grades 3 through 8. He also said the school has increased enrollment of African-American students and pupils from Springfield.

“Declining our request for expansion will deny under-served students access to the academic excellence that PVCICS provides,” he wrote.

As to criticism that the school has comparably higher rates of attrition for students with disabilities, Alcorn said the school has more special education teachers per student than the average Massachusetts school, and a longer school day.

“The additional time and teaching resources devoted in our general education classrooms has resulted in fewer referrals to special education,” he wrote to Wulfson. “Our low numbers of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners reflect our success supporting high needs students.”

A large component of the Chinese Immersion Charter School’s expansion request was to secure financing to address overcrowding in the school’s current facilities. The school is near capacity in its Route 9 building, and doesn’t have space to offer additional electives, extracurricular activities and sports.

Without permission to expand, Alcorn wrote, “we will not be able to implement our long-term plan of growing our high school to give our students access to the additional services that make for a full high school experience.”

Matt Wilder, a spokesman for the school, told the Gazette that it is too early to tell how the board’s decision might affect plans to expand the school’s physical space.

In order to begin the first phase of their expansion in the fall, the school is asking the board to take up their application in February. The board must consider the appeal no later than its June 2018 meeting.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.