State again rejects Hadley charter school’s expansion request

  • Community members of Hadley's Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School including Jasper Ekwere, 7, of Amherst, prepare to enter the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's headquarters in Malden on June 28, 2016, to ask for an increase in maximum enrollment for the school. Acting Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson decided Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, not to recommend the charter school’s most recent expansion request to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. SARAH CROSBY

Thursday, January 18, 2018

HADLEY — The state’s chief executive for public schools has dealt a significant blow to the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School’s desire to expand.

Acting Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson decided Friday not to recommend the charter school’s expansion request to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. This means the board will not take up the request — the second the school has submitted in the past two years — in the near future, though the school can appeal Wulfson’s decision for the board to review in June.

“Our school is unique and a sought-after option for families in the Pioneer Valley,” the school’s executive director, Richard Alcorn, said in a statement. “We will make a decision in the coming days on our next steps in our pursuit to best serve more families who wish to join our nationally recognized learning environment.”

The charter school submitted an expansion request in 2016 that was recommended to the board by then-Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who died in June. The board, however, took the rare step of going against the commissioner’s recommendation, voting 7-2 to deny the request last February.

In a March letter explaining that decision, Alison Bagg, director of the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign, suggested that the charter school delay resubmitting an expansion request until it had addressed the board’s four concerns.

These were that the school:

—had not reached its maximum enrollment of 584 students;

—had not “demonstrated sufficient enrollment demand” on its waitlist;

—was not enrolling a student population comparable to sending districts; and

—experienced “higher rates of attrition of students with disabilities than other schools within its charter region.”

Despite those concerns, the charter school did reapply for expansion in early August. Soon after, in correspondence that the Gazette obtained through a public records request, Bagg cited problems with the charter school’s application.

On Aug. 10, she wrote that the recently submitted request was nearly identical to the school’s earlier request “and did not provide additional, affirmative evidence of the school’s efforts to fully address the concerns of Board members.”

Wulfson on Friday likewise informed school officials that the school “did not provide sufficient evidence to address the Board’s concerns.”

“I strongly encourage the school to implement targeted strategies over the next two to three years in order to demonstrate evidence that it has addressed or made effective progress to address the concerns expressed by the Board prior to any future expansion request,” he wrote.

Attempts to reach Bagg, Wulfson and a spokeswoman for the education department were unsuccessful on Monday, which was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

Local opposition

In his statement, Alcorn highlighted the school’s scores on the brand new statewide exam for grades 3 through 8 this spring. The school’s percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the test was the highest in Hampshire County, and among the highest in western Massachusetts.

The school’s enrollment as of October was 493 students. It is looking to expand to 1,036.

Alcorn has previously said that school officials want to expand to serve more of the region’s students, as well as to secure financing to address overcrowding in the school’s current facilities. The school building is near capacity on its Route 9 campus, and doesn’t have the classrooms to offer additional electives or playing fields for students wanting to take part in extracurricular activities and sports.

The school’s desires for expansion have faced some stiff local opposition. Education officials in nearby school districts that send students to the school — like 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.

“Thanks to everyone who sent their input to DESE, and advocated on this important issue: this is a huge victory for public support of education, and your actions helped make this possible!” Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling wrote on his Facebook page on Friday, using an acronym for the education department.

Charter school officials now have until April 13 to decide if they will appeal Wulfson’s decision.

 Responding to concerns

In a letter to Bagg dated Oct. 20, Alcorn attempted to address the board’s four concerns.

To the point about the school’s high attrition rate of students with disabilities, he cited the school’s other interventions that he said reduce the percentage of students referred to special education.

Alcorn also wrote that the recent attrition rate may have been impacted by some former parents’ “vocal criticism” of the school’s special education program.

In May, the Gazette spoke with six former parents at the school who said their children’s special needs were inadequately met at the school, alleging that they were denied needed services, inappropriately disciplined for behaviors related to their disabilities or forced out altogether.

School officials, however, said at the time that they closely adhere to all relevant requirements, and categorically denied that any child has been deprived of services, punished for behaviors related to a disability, “counseled” or otherwise pushed out of the school.

To the board’s concern about the school not yet having reached its current maximum enrollment of 584 students, Alcorn wrote that recruitment and retention in middle and high school was adversely affected by “negative press” and “false narratives about the school promoted by our opponents.” The school had also seen progress recruiting and retaining students despite the limits of its current building, he added.

Addressing questions about the diversity of the school’s student population, Alcorn pointed to the school’s high proportion of Asian students, and to the higher proportion of African-American students at the school compared to the median of comparison schools.

“Hispanic participation is below the ‘median’ of all our comparison schools, which probably reflects greater interest in programs that support their home language, like the Spanish immersion programs being developed in Holyoke,” Alcorn wrote.

The school, he added in the letter, hoped to see continued growth in the number of Hispanic and African-American students because of increasing awareness of the school and its plans to expand bus service in underserved communities.

To address concerns about the school’s waitlist not showing sufficient demand to attend the school, Alcorn wrote that the school has had a waitlist for kindergarten since 2009. After the expansion request was denied in 2017, he said, the school began focusing recruitment efforts on older grades.

In that response, Alcorn asked whether, if the education department had any concerns about the waitlist, it could wait until after the school’s Feb. 15 lottery to make any recommendation, so the decision could be based on more recent waitlist data. That suggestion, however, was not heeded.

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