State board of education denies latest Chinese charter school expansion request

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

Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 02, 2019

HADLEY — The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School will not be expanding its enrollment anytime soon. At a meeting on last Tuesday, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to deny the school’s request to expand after the school appealed a similar denial five months ago.

Last summer, the school asked to increase its maximum enrollment from 584 students to 952 students. In January, the state denied the request, saying the plan “does not adequately address concerns around the proposed size of the school regarding both the size of a very substantial expansion and enrollment demand.”

The school then appealed and requested that the decision be reviewed. Jeffrey Riley, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education commissioner, wrote a memorandum on June 14 affirming his previous decision to not recommend the request. At a meeting last Tuesday, the board voted in line with Riley and denied the expansion request.

“As you may be aware, this is the school’s fourth request for a board review since 2011,” Riley said at the meeting. “The school has repeatedly proposed a school size that exists in the densely populated areas of the commonwealth. The school, however, is located in an area of the state which showed decreasing school-aged populations and a decreasing number of charter seats.”

At the meeting, Howard Cooper, an attorney representing PVCICS, told the board the June memo was flawed. “It nowhere focuses or acknowledges or mentions the unique aspect of the Chinese immersion program,” he said. Others from the school, including executive director Richard Alcorn, sat with Cooper before the board.

“The facts are this: With regard to enrollment demand, Pioneer Valley has had a waitlist for years at the kindergarten level,” Cooper said, adding that this fall the school would be at its enrollment cap.

In total, the school has made eight expansion requests since it opened in 2007, according to Riley’s memo. The state has approved one request: a 2013 application to increase enrollment and offer high school.

Riley explained why he did not recommend the request in his June memo. “Over its 12-year history, PVCICS has consistently fallen short of its annual enrollment projections and its maximum enrollment, and it currently enrolls 55 students fewer than its maximum enrollment.” In the 2018-2019 school year, the school had 529 students, fewer than its 584 maximum cap, according to state data.

“Based on the lack of compelling evidence that the school can maintain sustained enrollment under the proposed growth plan it submitted as part of the 2018 request, I did not recommend the request,” he concluded.

Alcorn commented in an email to the Gazette Wednesday, saying, “PVCICS is deeply disappointed by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s decision to continue to deny a long waiting list of parents and students access to our innovative program. We believe the Board’s decision is contrary to the law ... we are assessing our options.”

In January, he told the Gazette in an email that the school had a 70-person waitlist for kindergarten for the 2018-2019 school year. The proposed change would expand enrollment over time by adding 44 seats to kindergarten classes each year, Alcorn said.

Before the vote, board member Michael Moriarty commented, saying, “I’m truly supportive of this innovative and valuable program … this is a dialogue happening in front of me, a conversation that I hope can take a better turn, that I hope can, from all parties concerned, at some point produce a recommendation that the department makes that we can support. We’re just not there yet.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.